Writing isn’t easy. If it were, we’d all have bestselling novels by now, or at the very least, would be able to get through our days without second-guessing every email we send, essay we hand in, or blog post we publish.
Everyday, I get paid to write, and I feel pretty fortunate about that. When I’m not writing, I'm reading as much as I can and spending a lot of time thinking about and analyzing the craft of writing. In short, I'm passionate about writing, therefore, I'm always trying to find ways I can get better at it.
I realize, however, that there are lots of people out there who, like me, are required to write for their jobs, yet who don't necessarily have an interest in studying writing in the same way that I do. There are also lots of folks out there who are eager to start their own blog, try their hand at a short story, or put together an article, and might be dealing with some deep-seated anxiety and fear around putting their work out into the world.
Well, my friends, I wrote and compiled this article for you.
By honing in on a few quick and dirty ways we can make our writing better, the writing process itself becomes less of an overwhelming task and something that’s a little more manageable -- no matter what you're trying to accomplish.
There are a lot of great books out there on how to write well. If you have an interest in reading them, please do. Many of them (like Stephen King’s, On Writing and Anne Lamott’s, Bird By Bird) changed my life. But for the purpose of this article, we're going to keep things simple and straightforward. If you asked me to boil down most of the books I've read on writing, I would distill everything into these three, basic commandments ... So, you're welcome.
The following are the rules I stick to when I’m on a deadline, when I’m drafting a blog post for my own website, or when I’m working on a creative side project (that novel I mentioned earlier). Follow them closely, be honest about your work, and with time, these rules for good writing will be second nature.
Here we go!
#1: Show, Don’t Tell
This is one you’ve likely heard before – maybe in your eighth grade English class, maybe in your creative writing elective in college, or maybe in this pessimistic article about adverbs. As cliché as the phrase might be in today's literary world, it doesn't make it any less true.
Words alone are usually not enough to convey a point, cause a stir, or set the scene. You have to make your reader feel something in order to captivate their attention, keep them interested, and ultimately, give a damn about what you're saying. So how do we do that? A few different ways ... follow the subheads!
Tapping into the senses – sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes (just in case you forgot) -- is a foolproof way to set the scene and drop your reader smack dab in the middle of the action.
Here’s an example of sensory imagery put to work, borrowed from the latest story in the Fiction section of The New Yorker:
The morning was bright, with a breeze that moved the light’s sharp points on the lanes, and the hedges were opulent with berries and the high grasses raced in the late-summer fields. She set out for the banks of the river along the lit points of the lanes. She had taken a book for cover, after a long think about which book exactly to take. She pulled her cardigan tight against the morning chill that marked the season’s changing. Even before the river’s sour waft was in her nose, she had decided on the tree that she would sit beneath.
-- Deer Season by Kevin Barry
Look at all that sensory description!
The morning was bright, with a breeze that moved the light's sharp points...
The hedges were opulent with berries.
... along the lit points of the lanes.
She pulled her cardigan tight against the morning chill that marked...
The river's sour waft...
In just a few lines, we can see the light moving through the grasses, feel the chilly morning air against our skin, and smell the river before the character even approaches it.
Another good thing about sensory imagery is that it often forces us to use verbs. Verbs are a writer's best friend – they bring images to life, keep things active, and move the story forward. The excerpt above does this well:
The breeze moved.
The high grasses raced.
She pulled her cardigan tight...
The morning chill marked the season's changing.
So, in a nutshell -- when you really want to set the scene for your reader, focus on using sensory description and active verbs to paint a picture that evokes a feeling, rather than simply stating the obvious.
Another important piece of Commandment #1 is specificity. This is my number one piece of feedback when I edit essays and articles for other writers. Lack of specific detail causes the reader to ask questions they can’t answer.
When the reader gets distracted and has to stop and ask a question they can’t find the answer to, they lose interest. When they lost interest, they stop reading, which is really bad news for you – the writer.
Using specific details isn't hard, it just requires you to really flesh out and know the details of your writing. Your character could be sipping on a soda can, or she could be taking long gulps of a Diet Coke ... See the difference?
Incomplete vs. Specific Details
Flower vs. Red Rose
School vs. Lawrence Central High School
City vs. Indianapolis
Park vs. Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, New York City
Blue Car vs. Blue 1969 Mustang Convertible
You get the point.
Without specific details, you withhold the parts of your story that your readers can relate to, ultimately making it more believable, more realistic, and more interesting.
For good measure, here's another example -- non-fiction this time -- of specific detail in action. This one comes from the latest issue of Indianapolis Monthly. Specific details are bolded:
At the Indianapolis Museum of Art's 133rd annual meeting this past May, CEO Charles Venable and his team had a lot to celebrate. The executives took turns at a podium in the Toby theater touting the institution's recent accomplishments. Since 2014, museum memberships had doubled from 8,000 to 16,000. Curator Scott Stulen continued to delight visitors with quirky installations like artist-designed mini golf. A pair of 17th-century Japanese silk screens on the stage represented the museum's many acquisitions from the past year. And a $17.7 million payment had been made on the principal of the IMA's unusually large $118 million debt.
-- "Drawing Conclusions" by Daniel S. Comiskey
This excerpt is full of specific numbers and details like the name of the theater and examples of curatorial objects that help bring the setting to life. It's a must when you're writing fiction, but this example proves it has the power to punch up your editorial writing, as well.
A good rule of thumb: when you think you’re being specific, kick it up one more notch. Kind of like reps at the gym when your trainer is yelling at you to do just one more and you really want to punch him in the face. It's like that, only with words.
Other Ways to Show, Not Tell…
Something we haven’t yet discussed is that showing, rather than telling, is how you convince or persuade your audience. It's how you build credibility, whether you're trying to convince your readers that the fantastical world you’re creating in your novel is believable, or you're trying to pull together a financial report that will win your business more funding. In order to persuade your audience to keep reading and trust your voice, you have to show them you know what’s up.
You can do this, especially in more business-driven writing, by using specific examples, statistics, case studies, and anecdotes to back up – and prove – your argument. On the other hand, dialogue and comparisons are more creative ways you can add color to your writing and make it more engaging for your readers.
#2: Eliminate Wordiness
You know those people who talk to much at parties? Those people exist in written form, too. Don't be one of those people. Allow our friends Strunk & White to tell it how it is:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences.... This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
-- Elements of Style by Strunk & White
In high school and college, you probably had to write papers with a required word count. This is a foolish practice that does more harm than good, and I struggled with it when I was a teacher.
“How long does it have to be!?” the students would ask about their memoir assignment, in frenzied, panic-stricken voices.
“As long as it needs to be,” I'd say back, with raised eyebrows and a smile.
I didn’t want my students to pack their pages with excess words – unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and punctuation marks – just to fulfill an arbitrary word count.
Sure, there is always somewhat of a “common sense” threshold you can use for what constitutes the "proper" length of an article, an essay, a book report, whatever. But that’s really besides the point. The point here, is that I didn’t allow my students to fluff up their work with wordiness, and I won’t let you do it either.
How can you be sure you’re not adding unnecessary words to your writing?
1. Use the active voice.
Remember what I said about verbs? They're your friends! Use them often and the active voice will start to become your natural mode.
Passive: The entrance exam was failed by over one-third of the applicants to the school.
Active: Over one-third of all applicants to the school failed the entrance exam.
2. Get rid of redundancies.
Sometimes we think we're being descriptive when really, we're being redundant. Prune your work for redundancies to reveal stronger, punchier prose.
Here are a few common redundancies to avoid:
at the present time
my personal opinion
by means of
3. Get rid of wimpy words and phrases.
The wimpiest word in the English language is that. It's rarely necessary and it's wildly overused.
Wimpy: I think that I'll go home early today.
Strong: I think I'll go home early today.
4. Edit, edit, and then edit some more.
Don’t be afraid to slash words, phrases, paragraphs, and even whole pages that aren't relevant to your point and don't have a specific function within your piece. This is difficult, especially for beginning writers, but it's important to not get so attached to your words that you can't get rid of them when necessary. In first drafts, especially, you should be willing to edit and whittle away your piece to a point where you might no longer recognize your original words ... but more on that later.
There’s a certainly a time for colorful language and detailed explanation, but as a general rule -- be concise and to the point with your language. Don’t water down your main idea with wordiness and your readers will thank you.
#3: Be Natural, Be You
The beautiful people reading your work aren't looking for impressive words, fancy language or unique sentence structure. They just want it, whatever it is, to be good...
"Hey, how was that novel you just read? What was it called? The Girl on the Train?”
“Oh my goodness, yes. It was good! Really good, actually. I couldn’t put it down.”
“You really need to check out this article I just read. It’s really good.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.”
“What have you been reading, lately? Anything good?”
“Yeah, I actually just finished a really good collection of essays by Joan Didion.”
… see what I mean?
The average human isn't analyzing the symbolism, character development or syntax of your writing, (although that could definitely be the case someday). Instead, most readers are just looking for good writing that they 1) can actually finish reading, 2) enjoy the process of reading, 3) find valuable, and 4) share with their friends.
So what does it mean for a piece of writing to be good?
Most likely, it means the writing feels natural. It doesn't feel forced. It doesn't seem fake. It doesn't try too hard or use language that feels overly fancy or academic or slang. Or, if it does, the language doesn't feel out of place.
Writing that feels natural has a nice flow, a steady pace, and typically, a conversational tone. It reads easily and captivates the reader by using all the elements we discussed in Commandment #1 and #2, and then some.
David Sedaris is a master of this practice. Here's an excerpt from Me Talk Pretty One Day to prove it:
As a rule, I'm no great fan of eating out in New York restaurants. It's hard to love a place that's outlawed smoking but finds it perfectly acceptable to serve raw fish in a bath of chocolate. There are no normal restaurants left, at least in our neighborhood. The diners have all been taken over by precious little bistros boasting a menu of indigenous American cuisine. They call these meals "traditional," yet they're rarely the American dishes I remember. The patty melt has been pushed aside in favor of herb-crusted medallions of baby artichoke hearts, which never leave me thinking, Oh, right, those! I wonder if they're as good as the ones my mom used to make
-- Today's Special by David Sedaris
I could read David Sedaris all day, but that's besides the point.
Now if you’re sitting here thinking Okay, that's great, Ally. But I can barely write an email without having a nervous breakdown, let alone write a David Sedaris-inspired paragraph.
How am I supposed to write naturally when I have to think about all these writing rules at once?
The secret is, of course, that there is no secret. Finding your voice and feeling more comfortable with your writing is a slow game, and it requires a lot of practice. But the one thing you can try, and that you should try often, is to write a shitty first draft.
Here’s what Anne Lamott (mentioned at the beginning of this article) has to say about shitty first drafts:
“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get any writing done at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
-- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Bottom line: you can’t be an editor and a writer at the same time. It just doesn’t work. You’ll end up sounding stifled, stuffy, and probably won’t be happy with the end result anyway. Allow yourself the time and freedom to write a shitty first draft, to get down all your thoughts on paper no matter how erratic or crazy they might be. Don't overthink it, just write.
Once you have a first draft, then it's time to start editing and playing detective. You might start to notice certain themes or threads that pop up within your writing, and it's up to you to figure out if they should be slashed or if they serve a different meaning.
Maybe you're working on an essay about growing up in Los Angeles, but when you look back through your piece to edit it, you realize the piece isn't really about that at all. And even though you intended to write about your childhood spent skateboarding in Venice Beach, the real story is about you and your brother and how you helped each other get through your parent's divorce.
Take your time, give yourself room to play, and allow yourself the freedom to write a really, really shitty first draft. If you do that, you'll end up with more authentic, more intentional piece of writing after editing, shaping, and shining it into a final product.
Boom! There you have it – the three commandments of good writing. Please leave your thoughts and comments below (I would love to nerd out on a discussion about all of this) and if you found this article helpful, please spread the love by sharing it with your friends on your social networks of choice!
And guess what? All this talk about writing doesn’t have to stop here (I know you're excited). I’m compiling all of my writing tips and tactics into an e-book, so sign up below to stay updated and get first dibs on that sucker when it’s released.
Thanks for reading!
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