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.
28 thoughts on “These Writing Tips Will Change Your Life”
I would have liked to add a witty comment, but this is not the day of the week scheduled for that activity.
I laughed out loud when I read this. The folks in the coffee shop were not amused.
Oops, show not tell. I was driven from the coffee shop by flying java drinks. Good thing it was too warm a day for hot drinks.
Sorry about that. Please send me your dry cleaning bill.
Well said! :) Maybe you would consider taking over Write Intentions, seeing as I haven’t had time for it in months? P.S. What is the deal with Nutella???
Hi Hippie Cahier. I feel compelled to chime in here. Your question tells me you’ve never had Nutella on a warm baguette. Try that… Your question will be answered.
I’ve never tried that, but it sounds brilliant — a more convenient, less messy alternative to a chocolate croissant.
We’d have to rename it Bad Intentions, or Unintended Consequences, or something. (I liked WI, though, and hope you find time to pick it up again eventually).
Hahaha… I’ve never felt so relieved about my complete lack-o-writing skillz.
Now if only you can help me accept my lack of artistic talent, we’ll be even.
You don’t strike me as a quinoa person.
I can’t believe you went to Florida without me.
The quinoa wasn’t for me — I was going to make you homemade quinoa pop-tarts for your birthday.
Ah. Dave Barry. I’d give my life to be that funny only then I would be too dead to enjoy the laughs.
It’s like an O Henry story: “I sold my life for genius-level comedy talent” / “Oh, no! I sold your beautiful coffin for ” — actually, that doesn’t really work. Never mind.
Keep working on it. You’ll get it.
My best writing advise is that you should use letters, and arrange them neatly into words, preferably in a language that you speak, and then make them into sentences. Boom writing.
Huh. I’ll have to try that — it sounds like it might be more efficient than my “fling Scrabble tiles across the floor” method. Thank you.
Flying Scrabble tiles–things to watch out for when you live with a writer. Or a toddler…I’m thinking writers and toddlers might have other things in common, like attention spans.
The difference is that writers fling Scrabble tiles, while toddlers swallow them. Actually, giving Scrabble tiles to a toddler might not be the best idea.
Writing? Me no understand.
Personally, I just sit down and throw up a little on the computer. Whatever comes out is what I go with. (god, I hate ending sentences with ‘with’. I need serious help)
You really do. It’s important to vomit words in the correct order.
Laura, I would SWEAR I left a comment when I first read this. Something along the lines of “You so funny they be MILK comin out my nose!” Where did it go?
I am reading Dave Barry’s “lunatics” right now and I am alternating laughing and crying. Laughing because, you know, it’s practically the funniest thing ever written, and crying because I will never be able to write like that. Never. Better just give it all up now.
When I start to feel that way, I remind myself that while I’ll never be another Dave Barry or Douglas Adams, I’m pretty sure I’ll eventually be better than I am now. Oh, and also, writing stuff like this is fun.
I’m going to try your writing tips. My writing method is to just randomly type away for about half an hour or so, then go back and weed out the letters that don’t seem to fit – sort of like chipping away at a block of marble hoping to find a horse or an elephant in side of it.
Anyhow, your tips seem better than my chipping method.
I don’t know — with your method, you can save the chipped-away letters and use them in the next thing you write.
Dave Barry would be proud, I think. You’re plenty funny.
I only write when it all of a sudden dawns on me that I should try to leave behind something more than bad jokes and hurt feelings as my “legacy”. Or something.