In an attempt to add some much-needed structure to this blog and to provide a valuable resource to the community, I’ve decided to devote this and all future posts to helping people become better writers.
We’ll start with a few classic tips I’ve seen elsewhere and incorporated into my own writing.
1. Stick to a schedule.
Setting a schedule and sticking to it has helped me avoid procrastination. I work on my blog from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Saturdays, my epic steampunk dystopian romance literary suspense trilogy from 10:50 pm to 11:00 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my weekly shopping list from 7:52 pm to 7:54 pm on Wednesdays. I set a timer at the beginning of each session; when it rings, I finish the sentence or shopping list entry I’m working on, and then stop.
It’s important to come up with a schedule and set of procedures that work for you. You’re probably not going to get it right the first time. For example, when I started out, I’d stop writing the moment the timer went off. I found that leaving a thought unfinished sometimes led to confusion (like the time I needed toilet paper but bought a new toilet instead), so now I take the extra few seconds to finish the current thought.
2. Read like a writer.
I’ve seen this bit of advice a lot, and for a long time I had no idea what it meant. It finally “clicked” for me a couple weeks ago when I was reading Dave Barry’s Insane City. Instead of just laughing hysterically at the zany antics of the characters, I found myself looking past my initial impressions and focusing instead on the intense, burning envy I felt towards anyone capable of writing something that funny.
This has improved everything I’ve written since then. For example, here’s the shopping list I wrote the Wednesday before I read the Dave Barry book:
And here’s the one I wrote the following week:
Plane ticket to Florida
See the difference? Each list took two minutes to write, but the first was five words long, and the second was 17 words. Reading like a writer helped me get into the mind-set I needed to more than triple my productivity.
3. Show, Don’t Tell.
Here’s a sentence that uses an adjective to tell the reader something:
The clerk at the car rental agency in Miami was unhelpful.
The scene becomes more vivid if I instead show actions that support that description:
She handed me the keys and asked if I needed directions anywhere. I told her I needed to find the nearest 24-hour gun store. She said she didn’t think there was one. Fine, I said, I’ll improvise – just give me directions to Dave Barry’s house. She asked for the address, and I explained that I didn’t know it, which is why I needed directions. Then she just stared at me for a minute and said something about having to help the next person in line.
4. Avoid “weasel words” and the passive voice.
Consider this sentence:
In retrospect, the death threats may have been a bit of an overreaction.
Pretty wishy-washy, isn’t it? By saying the death threats may have been an overreaction, the author is implying that they may not. And if they were, who overreacted? And how much of an overreaction is “a bit”? The sentence is practically meaningless. If you take out all the extra words and use a more active structure, you get a sentence that conveys the author’s true feelings:
He had it coming.
Clear, concise, and to the point — I think you’ll agree this is a huge improvement.
These four simple tips did wonders for my writing, and I hope they’ll help yours as well. If you have a favorite tip of your own that you’d like to share, or if you have a tricky writing problem that you’d like some help with, please tell us about it in the comments.