It fell into my head the other day that it might be useful for me to post some friendly reminders for the new year about how to improve your writing.
Of course, you don’t need ME to give you writing tips; there are tons of books and lists by celebrated writers, both living and dead, with bons mots galore about how to write so that people will pay attention to your words.
Still, there are certain practical, straightforward pieces of advice that it can’t hurt to reiterate. Re-read any piece of writing you admire, do a bit of analysis, and I’ll bet you’ll find evidence of the advice below. (of course, great writers DO break the accepted rules, but I guarantee they’ve learned them well before they break them!)
Ten quick reminders, I thought, of the techniques good writers use most often. I’ll just rhyme those puppies off, and get on with my work.
You can’t imagine how I dithered over this list. Just ten? Which are the ten absolutely most important? How can I limit it to ten? Maybe the list should be longer?
Nah. Here it is…..for now, just ten actions to take and constructions to avoid!
- Show, don’t tell! When I started editing many years ago, I found myself writing this phrase in the margins of unpublished manuscripts over and over. It’s still my most valuable piece of advice to writers, cliché though it may be. Don’t narrate the action; demonstrate it! Put your reader or listener right into the middle of it. This is how you engage their attention and gain their empathy. Anton Chekhov famously said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Avoid qualifiers. We all pepper our everyday conversation with qualifiers or intensifiers such as very, really, too, quite and so. But unless you’re writing an academic article or presentation and truly want your audience to understand that what you’re claiming is open to doubt, using qualifiers suggests that you don’t really know what you’re talking about! And you’re weakening your writing as well. Watch out for these common descriptors and wherever possible, hit DELETE!
and my personal current pet peeve: literally
“I felt so cooped up I was literally climbing the walls.” Really? Unless you’re Spiderman, I don’t think so!
- Mimimize “ly” adverbs. Constructions that modify action words often indicate that the writer didn’t take the time to find the right, more powerful verb. Instead of moving cautiously, a heroine can creep. An old man can shamble rather than walking painfully down the street , and a window can slam shut instead of closing noisily. In general, take the time to find exactly the word you want. Mark Twain cautioned that “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
- Beware of grammar expletives. Constructions such as it is, it was, it won’t, it takes, here is, there is, and there will be notoriously reduce your writing’s power by deflecting attention from the main driver of your sentence. Then they drop you into more literary hot water because they require additional pronouns to complete your thought. Your sentence becomes littered with unnecessary verbiage before you can snap your fingers. Why say “there are many people who write…” when you can be clearer and more direct with “many people write’?
- Cut the redundancies. ( I originally wrote “cut OUT” the redundancies and then realized that the “out” was redundant!)About.com has a terrific list of 200 common redundancies. When you glance through it, you’ll be shocked at how many of the listed expressions form part of your everyday speech or writing. All-time record? Basic necessities? Fall down? General public? Try not to use two words when one will do!
- Replace the negative with the positive. It’s more straightforward to say what something is rather than what it isn’t. “She wasn’t really convinced he meant what he said” is more concisely stated as “She doubted his sincerity.” If it isn’t that good, it’s probably bad, terrible, awful, outrageous or even mediocre. If it isn’t that bad, it’s probably all right, okay, passable, tolerable or even….mediocre!
- Change passive to active wherever possible. Which is more convincing: “That guy wasn’t shot by me!” or “I didn’t shoot that guy!”? See what I’m sayin’?
- Read it aloud. Our eyes and brain can work in concert to sneakily show what we want to see or hear what we want to hear. Reading out loud disrupts our brain’s attempt to make everything look perfect. When you find yourself stumbling over a phrase, or mangling the pronunciation of a word, you will know what sections need improving. And you’ll be surprised by how many misspellings and typos your generous, over-compensating brain glossed right over.
- Be liberal with commas. I know I’m doling out advice that flies in the face of current punctuation trends here, (and I certainly recommend learning generally accepted comma usage) but as Lynne Truss has charmingly reminded us in Eats Shoots and Leaves, one of the original functions of the comma was “to point up—rather in the manner of musical notation—such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow.” When you do read your work aloud, as I’ve advised above, it will become instantly obvious where an additional comma will clarify your meaning and direct your reader to pause. If you’re writing a speech and will be delivering your words to an audience yourself, I’d counsel an unstinting application of commas wherever you need to remind yourself to breathe, emphasize, convey emotion, or allow your listener to catch up with your thought process. Okay, so shoot me. That’s my advice and I’m sticking to it!
- Step away from the work. It’s so important to give yourself distance from your creation. With the benefit of time and a different perspective, you can much more easily spot mistakes and areas for improvements. Writers who become adept at this can actually feel as if they are editing someone else’s work.
Then, of course, you need to fix it. Revise, revise, revise! Many authors tell me they enjoy this process much more than the actual writing.
I’ll return to Mark Twain, who said it better than I could. Besides, he has serious credibility!
“The time to begin an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time, you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”
(By the way, I have no idea if Mr. Twain originally placed a comma after the word “time”, but I added one, because I felt the rhythm of the sentence improved when one could breathe before the big reveal of the final clause!)
Do you have pieces of advice, either from yourself or writing experts you admire, to add to this list? Please share them! As you know, I thought the list was too short anyway!