Monday, April 7, 2008

10 Ways to Improve Your Writing

"How to improve your writing" lists have been done nearly to death but that's not going to stop me from shamelessly offering up another entry in what has long since become a blog-post genre of its own.

No doubt many of these suggestions have been provided before in various books and on different websites. However, I am certain that here they are expressed with new twists and added details. I hope that this list will be a valuable guide for those looking for advice and motivation to become better writers.

open book1. Read books about writing

At first glance, you may think any time taken away from actually getting words down on paper is self-defeating. However, at least some reading can help you improve your ability to write.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who self-identify as writers but claim never to have read any books on how to write. In what other profession or trade would people admit to never studying up on their craft or trying to learn from those with proven success? It's almost as if there's a stigma attached to admitting that you have indeed sought out information on how to improve your writing skills.

On the other hand, it's important not to immediately adopt all the recommendations made by writing gurus. You may pick up only one or two tidbits each time you read one of these books. Together with likely being energized about your own approach and desire to get back to the keyboard, those handful of ideas are worth the time invested.

guitar player clip art2. Don't only focus on the mechanics

I always like to use the guitar playing analogy when discussing this point. Many novice guitar players devote a disproportionate amount of time towards developing their fret board skills (usually the left hand) while neglecting their strumming or plucking hand. Rhythm comes from strumming or plucking and is hugely important in determining those who have a future playing the instrument.

Perhaps it's the initial struggle to train your left hand to mash down the correct strings and the incorrect assumption that the strumming is easy by comparison that leads to this unequal distribution of practice. Acquiring rhythm can be an evasive skill that requires as much or more attention than getting the individual notes or chords correct.

Similarly, many new writers focus too much on putting together crisp, flawless sentences while failing to address other issues like how to create suspense, flesh out characters and develop a theme. While all those concepts are usually associated with fiction writing, they can also be utilized in non-fiction as well. There are of course other organizational elements important when tackling non-fiction too.

Have you ever noticed that the most popular novelists are not necessarily the best when it comes to creating impressive sentences free of clich├ęs? It often doesn't matter because they have mastered the art of moving the narrative forward and creating characters that readers really care about.

So, how do you actually improve in these elusive areas? The first point in this list will help you (read books that address topics such as narrative, character etc.) As will simply being aware of them and recognizing patterns in what you read and write.

3. Don't self-censor

Self-censorship is one of the biggest killers when it comes to destroying desire and motivation. If you are your own worst critic and bash your own ideas to the ground before you've even played with them on paper and hammered out a few pages, then you will find the writing game a very tough one to play.

Eliminate that sneering little voice inside your head that pounces on story ideas and instead let everything flow with the knowledge that you have created something out of nothing before and you can do it again.

artist easel clip art4. Practice the art of extrapolation

This is closely related to number three. Making connections between wildly disparate things, concepts and people is important if you want to write original stories or articles. This skill will also ensure that you are never short on topics. If you constantly find yourself saying "I don't know what to write about!" bash your head against a brick wall a few times or direct your ambitions elsewhere.

Being able to successfully extrapolate comes from constantly writing. Have no fear that you will empty your trick bag too soon or run out of ideas. Quite simply, writing begets more and more writing. As you write more, ideas will multiply and topics will rise up in your mind and it will become easier.

fog5. Don't get lost in the fog

Despite the fact that I ranted earlier about rhythm and organization over mechanics, there are, of course, times when you should take a hard look at the sentences you are putting together.

One important thing to consider when writing is sentence length. This can be especially helpful for writers submitting feature stories to newspapers or magazines. Many of them will only publish articles that adhere to a fairly standard style of writing. One aspect of any publication standard that is easy to emulate is sentence length.

The Fog Index is a readability formula that helps you to determine, to a degree, what kind of audience a specific magazine targets based on the average sentence length and number of three syllable or more words that appear in their articles. You can submit a passage here to determine the fog index of any writing sample.

In turn, you can more easily shape your writing to suit the standards of the magazine or newspaper in which you hope to be published.

6. Don't be scared to sacrifice your baby

Or at least an occasional arm or leg. This may be somewhat hard to reconcile with the point about not self-censoring. However, this comes after you have the words on paper and are moving into the all important self-editing and rewriting stages.

You struggled for weeks or months on an article or book and you are quite satisfied with yourself because of all the time you've invested and the fact that your mother says it's a masterpiece. Most importantly, it's complete. Not a small achievement considering some of the angst you went through.

But now you have to have the guts to go back through what you have written with a critical eye and slash out the excess. You may come across your most treasured and loved sentence. It may be unique and well-crafted; poetry contained within a single line of masterful prose. But if it doesn't fit within the style of the piece or otherwise fails to contribute to what you are trying to accomplish, slice it out. File it away to use at another more appropriate time.

Go over your words and tighten things up. And then do it again. Make the sentences as lean and taut as possible. At some point, of course, you have to accept that no more changes can be made (except by the lunatic editor who is going to wreak havoc on what you have so carefully written.)

7. Defy supposed truisms

Learn all the long-standing rules and formulas for writing, and then when necessary, defy them. If you follow all the chestnuts about what is acceptable and what isn't and cram your words into the nice confines of all the tried and true conventions, you just may increase the likelihood that your writing is more readable, accessible and entertaining to the average person. And the odds of getting published may go up.

But if rules were never broken, no one would start sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions (see previous sentence.)

For every ten writers who follow the rule about "show, don't tell," there is one who telegraphed the thoughts and actions of his characters and somehow made it work. For every 30 fiction writers who eliminate as many adverbs as possible, there are some who don't and their work doesn't suffer for it.

The point is, everyone is unique to some degree and there simply may be aspects of your writing that make it work but go against a supposed "rule."

8. Coin new words

Remember, everything in life, and especially in writing, is made up! Take liberties. Create words out of thin air and casually insert them into your writing. Who knows, you may one day be credited with introducing a new word into the English language.

9. Analyze your own writing

In doing so, you will identify little tricks and patterns that may be all your own. Take pride in these techniques, use them to good effect and give them a name.

dynamite clip art10. Blow up absurd ideas like "I'll only write when I'm inspired."

No list such as this would be complete without some variation that drives home the importance of actually putting in the hours. There is no single other factor that destroys ambitions of wannabe writers more than lack of production.

There's nothing wrong with telling people that you are a writer. Just be prepared after you answer in the affirmative to the question "Are you serious about it?" for someone to come back with:

"If you were serious, you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me..."


The TEFL Tradesman said...

Thanks for this, Mr Spin. I'll be lampooning it mercilessly in my blog soon!


Anonymous said...

Good list. Here are some similar-type ideas:

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