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How to write good, like a good writer should

Every few months, someone asks me how to write better. Here’s my advice, which I sometimes even follow myself:

Write almost every day. The more you write, the easier it is to write. You will have feasts and famines — times when you can barely type fast enough to keep ahead of the flood of ideas, and times when you have to strain every muscle to get all the way from the subject to the object; but if writing is part of your routine for long enough, you will always be able to write, even when you’re not inspired to write.

Be a good reader. Read authors you admire every day, and think about why you admire their writing. Also figure out why you don’t like the writers you don’t like. Don’t just run your eyes over the page and then turn away with a happy sigh or an irritated huff. Instead, be like an obnoxious wine connoisseur: hold the words and ideas and phrasing in your mouth, swish them around, breathe across them, consider the origins, attend to the aftertaste. Good writers are active readers.

Always be listening. If you want something to write about, put your nets out all day long. Don’t wait until you’re sitting in front of they keyboard to hunt for an idea. Keep paper notes if you must; but it’s better to get in the habit of making mental notes, which can always be retrieved.

Do these things every day. What about when you have an actual assignment (self-imposed or otherwise) in front of you? How do you improve your style?

This post from 2011 covers most of what I still advise, so I won’t revise it much. Most of these tips apply to less formal pieces, like blog posts, short articles, or even comments—anything where you’re trying to make a point. If you’re working on a research project, though, you’re on your own.

APPROACHING THE TOPIC

1. Make sure you know what you mean, or at least what you’re wondering about. You don’t have to be an expert. Often, the things that need to be said are the things that people already know, but have forgotten—or things they don’t realize that other people are thinking. So it’s okay to be simple, as long as you know exactly what it is you want to say.

If you’re still hashing it out in your mind, be upfront about that, and ask questions of the reader. Don’t pretend to be more sure than you actually are.

2. Make it clear why your topic needs to be addressed. You’ll look silly if you get all worked up clarifying something that no one was confused about. If you are righting a wrong, introduce your piece by summing up the wrong, citing at least one example. One easy trick is to literally ask a question, and then answer it. Or start with a short anecdote which explains what started your train of thought.

3. Don’t resort to defensive writing. Nobody wants to read about what you’re not saying. Say what you do mean. Say it as clearly and firmly as you can —and then let it go. After a certain point, if people hear what you’re not saying, then it’s their problem, and not yours. You don’t owe them a second essay restating your point. Do your best, and move along.

4. Don’t be afraid of minor or simple ideas. Don’t hold out for the obviously profound. If you are an intelligent person, an image, idea, or phrase rings your bell for a reason. Go ahead and write about it—you may be onto something.

5. Be honest. If you’re afraid your idea isn’t holding up, your readers will notice, too, so don’t force it. On the other hand, “I used to think so-and-so, but I’ve changed my mind—here’s why” essays are always interesting.

6. Go ahead and circle back one more time. Have you noticed that you write about the same five themes over and over and over again? That’s okay. The best writing comes from insatiable fascination with a particular theme, not from fleeting infatuations with passing ideas.

EDITING

1. Editing should make you sweat. It’s okay to write down every last thing you can think of . . . on your first draft. Often “covering the page” is the only way to figure out what you’re actually trying to say, and sometimes your main point doesn’t emerge until you’ve written around it for several hundred words. But don’t leave it that way. Even if a passage is brilliant, funny, and flows sweet and clear like Grade A honey—it may not belong in this piece. Every word must work in service of your point, or else it’s gotta go.
Even if I’m delighted with what I wrote, I cut out about 10% just on principle.

2. Read it out loud. This is the best way to root out dumb phrases, snootiness, babbling, awkward transitions, repeated words, mixed metaphors, and pronoun trouble. If it’s an important piece, ask someone else to read it, and be ready to accept criticism.

3. Review the sequence of ideas. Often, an essay doesn’t sit well because the right elements are all there, but are out of order. Try putting your last paragraph at the beginning, and see how that settles. If I’m really muddled, I make an outline that describes what I’ve written. Reducing it to bare bones often shows the flaws hiding in the verbiage.

4. Titles are telling. Not sure if you have a unified idea? Try coming up with a descriptive title for the finished piece. If this is hard, then you may not have said anything, or tried to say too much.

5. Clarity before fanciness. It’s fun to write the occasional sentence that makes people go, “Whoa, let me read that again! It sounds cool, but I’m not quite sure what it means.” But that must be the rare exception. Most of what you say should be plain as plain can be. You’re supposed to be drawing attention to your ideas, not your fancy, fancy self.

6. But do give your readers a treat or two. We all spend enough time reading instruction manuals and tedious jargon. Find the two or three paragraphs that really need to land, and goose them like crazy. Search for the most pungent, evocative phrases you’ve been storing in the back shelves of your psyche, and fiddle with word order until any other order is unthinkable. Earn your readers!

7. Remember the Five B’s: Be Brief, Boy, Be Brief. I love to read, but I’m lazy, I’m tired, I’m distracted, and I rarely read a piece that’s longer than 1,000 words. Most of your readers are even lazier. Try breaking up perfectly good paragraphs into mini-paragraphs, just to make them easier to swallow. Cheap, but it works.

BONUS TIPS:

Try to make the sentence structure express emphasis, rather than resorting to italics.

Pretend exclamation points and ellipses cost you $65 per use.

If you find yourself using emoticons or gifs, chop your hands off.

Go ahead and manhandle the language. I believe in splitting infinitives, writing incomplete and run-on sentences, saying “they” when “he” is more correct, and generally causing a little downfall of western civilization from time to time, if it gives the writing more punch or better flow. So sue me.

Are you a writer? What would you add?

***
“Writer in the park” sculpture by David Annand, photo by David Nugent (Creative Commons)

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