Principles for better writing
Eight basic tips to improve your writing
An article’s first sentence has a specific purpose: to entice you into reading the second. And the second, to read the third, and so on until you are not only interested but committed.
It also hints at a promise. What will you get from reading this? And while the first sentence doesn’t — and maybe shouldn’t — explicitly lay it out, it should give a sense of what is coming. Then you need to deliver — no one enjoys being duped.
My promise is not to make you a great writer. I have not been writing long enough to be great — probably, I’m not even yet good — and I don’t know nearly enough to teach it. But I can promise to share the principles that have made me a better writer because after applying them, I improved.
Good writing follows good thinking
“Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”
— Bill Wheeler
Writing is about sharing ideas. It is the first and most important goal — the entrée. Tone, metaphor, imagery are spices that make it taste better and, possibly, easier to digest. But if your potatoes are rotten, no amount of mayonnaise will save your potato salad.
And words, language, grammar, and structure are utensils. You, as the writer, use them to prepare the meal as your readers use them to ingest your ideas.
Good writing comes from good thinking, just as good food comes from good cooking. If writing is cluttered you can reasonably assume the same of the writer’s mind.
But clear, concise writing emphasises effort. Taking messy things like ideas and polishing them into something smooth, and clear is hard work. All too often, the ease of brilliance is mistaken for ‘easy to do’.
Edit ideas first.
Brevity is good
“Vigorous writing is concise.”
— William Strunk, Jr.
Other media can give clues to better writing. Take talking, for example. Is a rambling story, that could have been told in two minutes, enjoyable? Or is there a satisfying beauty to a story where every word has a purpose?
Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about your ideas.
Knowing what ideas to share means knowing what to say. Clarify those ideas in your mind, not in your reader’s. Not that you can’t use writing to clarify them; writing is specifically good for it. That’s why drafts exist.
Write, rewrite, repeat
“The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
— Ernest Hemmingway
Drafts are the workshop in which to craft your ideas. Getting them down on paper is only the beginning. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that you can cut most drafts in half without losing the point, or the author’s voice.
I believe him.
Ideas come out of your head suspended in ore of words. You need to chip at them until you can clearly see what is within. That means writing, rewriting, and repeating until it’s right.
No one gets it right in their first draft, and many not even in their third. I try to interrogate every single sentence. Is it the best it can be? What I can remove? Then, check to see if it still makes sense in the broader context. And reading it out loud often highlights hidden flaws.
Cover the basics of the language
“The finger that points to the moon is not that moon.”
— Chinese Proverb
Language, grammar, and words may only be tools, but they are vital. Any mechanic will agree that a job is much easier to complete with the right tool. It is, therefore, imperative to become adept with them. Your job is to help the reader understand what you are thinking and English is your toolbox.
There exist books upon books detailing the specific tools that make up this toolbox, so I won’t pretend I have all the answers — following an embarrassing incident where I pronounced “recluse” as “reck-loose”, and used it to describe my youth: loose and reckless.
But I can share a few of my common missteps so you can avoid them:
Using adverbs unnecessarily;
The misuse of the passive voice; and
Repeating favourite words unnecessarily.
Adverbs can dilute good writing, they can clutter a sentence, hiding a great idea behind needless bloat.
The passive voice weakens writing. “John fought the bouncer” is always better than “the bouncer was fought by John”. In the latter, John goes to the hospital, and it’s your fault.
Respect your readers
“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”
— E. B. White
Give readers credit. Or at least the benefit of the doubt. There is no good reason to over-explain something. And the same goes for repetition. If something is important, say so let the readers decide whether to read it again.
Be clear about what you want to say, say it concisely, and then trust your readers to understand it.
“So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
— Neil Gaiman
Be honest. It’s probably the most magical thing about writing — you can say things that you would never say if you weren’t a writer. Writers and readers both love authenticity.
Think about it like this: we all have a friend that is a bit of an asshole, but we can’t help but like them. Usually, it’s because they haven’t claimed to be anything else. They know they will not get along with everyone and it’s fine.
They are vulnerable in their self-assessment and secure in its manifestation.
Writing should be the same. Some people don’t like strawberries, but that doesn’t mean strawberries are bad.
“Writing is a skill, not a talent, and this difference is important because a skill can be improved by practice.”
— Robert Stacy McCain
And speaking of being honest: writing is hard. It’s one of the hardest things you can do. It takes diligence and practice. And commitment and grit. And time. And patience.
Just like sport. When someone is good enough, they make it look easy. But that ease results from hours and hours of practice.
Sufficient practice means writing every single day, even if it’s poorly. And if you’re worried about writer’s block:
No one ever gets talker’s block. No one wakes up in the morning, discovers he has nothing to say and sits quietly, for days or weeks, until the muse hits, until the moment is right until all the craziness in his life has died down.
— Seth Godin
“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
— Lewis Carroll
Then there is the end. The last line. It’s almost as important as the first. It’s the goodbye, the farewell, the ‘until we meet again’. And unless it’s great, you’re unlikely to.
Some like to summarise salient points or focus on an important one. Some like to keep a surprise for the end or end with a question. How you end it isn’t nearly as important as how the reader feels after you end it. Remember, it’s not about you.
A good writer lets the reader forget that they are reading, but never lets them forget what they have read.
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