Spend even a short time reading through blogs and you’ll quickly realize that a lot of blog-space is spent discussing the art of writing. People who have the urge to express themselves want to do it well, and are willing to work hard to become the best writers they can be.
In a previous post (When You Can’t Get Started Writing) I went through the process of sitting down to write a specific piece. I discussed things I do when I write, and when I help others to write. Today I’d like to share some tips that are more general, and have to do with your overall development as a writer. Some of the tips go together. Numbers 4, 5, and 6, for example, deal with having a great variety of words at your disposal and using them correctly. Numbers 7 and 8 have to do with clarity and simplicity. Some of the tips belong in both posts because they relate to writing habits. Even if you’ve read them before, they are worth repeating.
1. Read: Reading the work of good authors helps you develop a sense of how effective writing is constructed, and gives you a glimpse of the skill and artistry that go into it. Fiction, non-fiction, newspapers (which are supposed to be non-fiction), biographies – anything that captures your imagination and keeps you interested – can provide a model for language used well. So read. And while you’re reading, take note of the author’s style and pay attention to how ideas and emotions are expressed. It’s a very enjoyable way to become a better writer.
2. Listen: If you are writing fiction, having an ear for the way people speak is essential. Listening to spoken language is a good way to get it, because spoken English and written English are not always the same. Dialog writing is a special skill. Authentic dialog makes characters real. When dialog is written well, the story comes to life. When done badly, it can derail the story, or have the reader laughing during the most serious passages. Listen for idioms, accents, and local expressions. When you read good contemporary fiction, be aware of how effectively you are transported into the scene by great dialog. It’s definitely an art worth working on.
3. Think: Writing isn’t a pen to paper activity. It’s a brain to pen to paper activity. Thinking is necessary preparation for writing. Before you pick up a pen or place your hands on the keyboard, get in the habit of giving thought to what you want to say. Know your purpose. Do your research. Organize your information. Choose your style (formal, casual, professional). All of these are decisions a writer must make. If you take the time to make them before you start, writing will be a much easier and smoother process.
4. Use your dictionary and thesaurus: One of the advantages of the English language is that we have so many words to choose from. There is an almost infinite variety of meanings and moods that we can impart by selecting the perfect word for every thought. Whenever you have a doubt, use your dictionary to check the definition, spelling, and even where to correctly hyphenate a word. Dictionaries also provide information on the origins and derivations of words (etymology), word roots and families, and relationships to other languages. All this will give you insights into how to best use a word and how your reader may perceive it. Dictionaries also include common expressions, abbreviations, and lots of other information. You may find, as I have, that reading a dictionary just to see what’s in it, is entertaining and enlightening. As an added benefit, you’ll become really good at finishing the crossword puzzle. I also make frequent use of my thesaurus. It’s an invaluable resource for finding synonyms. If you re-read a paragraph you’ve written and find that you’ve used the same word several times, you can vary it with alternatives found in your thesaurus. The right choice of words gives your writing sparkle, and lets you convey the precise shade of meaning you have in mind.
5. Enrich your vocabulary: All those words to choose from! The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be. You can enrich your vocabulary by reading and listening to proper English. Choose the work of respected writers in any genre that interests you. Whenever you look up a word in the dictionary, take another moment to read the synonyms. You’ll gain extra information each time you look something up. You can find vocabulary-building websites that contain lists and quizzes. You can also find vocabulary texts and exercises at educational bookstores. Take the trouble to do these things if you feel you do not have a large enough variety of words at your disposal. It’s going to make a big difference and make writing more fun.
6. Learn the differences between “sound-alikes” and commonly confused words, and use them correctly: You want your reader to focus on what you have to say, but mistakes are distractions that will grab a reader’s attention and interrupt the flow of your writing. One of my other posts discusses common mistakes your spell checker won’t find – words that people often mix up and use incorrectly. There are many “sound-alike” words in the English language (their/there/they’re, to/too/two, for example), and many commonly confused words (such as less/fewer, then/than), that can sabotage your writing. You can study about them by reading websites that are dedicated to clarifying the differences and giving examples of correct usage. There are also mistakes that come from the way we talk. One such example is “would of” instead of “would have.” When we speak, we tend to pronounce the words “would have” as a contraction (would’ve) which is perfectly legitimate. The spoken contraction sounds more like “would of” than “would have”, but only “would have” is correct when you’re writing the phrase as two separate words. It takes some work to learn to identify the potential pitfalls, but eliminating these mistakes will do a lot to improve your writing.
7. Don’t overdo the “million dollar words”: While you want to use a variety of words to convey more precise meaning, be careful that you don’t fill your writing with what I call “million dollar words.” These are longer, more obscure, or more scholarly- sounding words that people often insert into their writing purely for the purpose of seeming more intelligent. But it’s not the words themselves that indicate how smart you are, it’s the ideas. If you have something interesting or compelling to say, your intelligence is going to come through even if you use the simplest words.
- Example: By promulgating this theory, I can evince my erudition.
- Rough translation: By putting forth this idea, I can show how smart I am. (If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re already in trouble.)
Too many big words, where shorter or more common words would work as well, just come across as phony or as a cover for lack of confidence. Either way, the result is bad writing. You may find situations when those million dollar words are just right, but in my opinion, less is more. Use them sparingly.
8. Keep it simple: Simple writing is clean, clear, and accessible to a wide variety of readers. Simple writing conveys your meaning but doesn’t call attention to itself. (Think of watching a play with really bad actors.) Simple writing minimizes ambiguity. I always try to keep the following three things in mind:
a. Sentence length and structure: Generally, I like to express one idea per sentence. It may be a complex idea, but when I’m ready to move to the next idea, I start a new sentence. Short sentences are okay. It’s good to vary the length of sentences in your writing. Separate your clauses with commas so that the reader will take a mental breath in the right place. That helps make your meaning more clear.
b. Needless words: Take a look at these two ways to write a cooking class regulation:
- When the process of baking a pie results in drips and splatters in your oven, the student must clean the mess created by such activity before leaving the kitchen.
- If you get the oven dirty when you bake your pie, you must clean it before you leave.
In the second example I’ve cut a lot of extraneous words and chosen words that serve the purpose better. Nothing is lost but the clutter. You can check your writing for extraneous words by asking, “If I cut this word, does the meaning remain effectively the same?”
c. Active voice vs. passive voice: Compare these two sentences:
- The cake was cut into tiny pieces by Alice. (passive voice)
- Alice cut the cake into tiny pieces. (active voice)
Or these two:
- The book was read by many people. (passive voice)
- Many people read the book. (active voice)
By switching from the passive voice to the active voice, I’ve made the sentences cleaner and more direct.
9. Keep it honest: Writing is a risky activity. Your writing tells the reader many things about you, whether it’s a personal piece or not. Your writing shows what you think, how you think, and what you find important. It can indicate your level of education, political leanings, opinions – a whole world of information about you. Much is revealed by your written voice. What kind of a person do you seem to be? In blogging, opinion pieces, business writing, and personal writing, honesty shows. So does phoniness. If you want your audience to trust you (usually, you do), you have to be yourself. Very few people can successfully pull off writing in disguise. Of course, fiction writers need to do it in order to create characters that are unlike themselves. But if you are speaking in your own voice, let that voice be authentic.
10. Proofread your work: I harp on this in post after post because I know how careless mistakes can spoil an otherwise good piece of writing. Writing mistakes can cost you an opportunity with an employer or a customer, can reduce your grade on a paper or exam, or destroy your credibility. If you’re not sure about some- thing (a fact, a word, or the proper form of a sentence), look it up or ask someone you trust. If you have a tendency to make typing mistakes, find and correct them. Don’t merely rely on your spell checker. It won’t catch real words that are used inappropriately. Don’t rely too much on the grammar checker either. It doesn’t really know what you want to say. Here’s a crazy example. When I was checking this post, the spelling/grammar checker selected the following sentence from Number 5 above:
The more of them you have at your command, the more expressive your writing will be.
The checker wanted me to change the second your to you’re. I have no idea why! So don’t automatically do what this sometimes helpful device demands. You’re the human, and last time I looked, humans were still in charge.
Proofread slowly and more than once. Proofread paragraphs out of order, or backwards. Those tricks may help you find mistakes you’ll miss if you’ve read the material so many times that your brain fills in the gaps, and “sees” what you intended rather than what’s really on the page. Sometimes a mistake will slip through, but do make a good effort to turn out error-free writing.
I hope this provides some very basic ideas about good writing. It’s not meant to be a complete list. I invite other writers to share some of the tips that help them create good work.