As a journalist and opinion writer, my experience is with expository and persuasive writing. But most writing shares common issues and processes. Here are five tips that should save beginning writers some headaches and serve as reminders for those with more experience. I’ll explore some of these tips in more detail another time, but for now I hope you’ll find the ideas helpful. Please tell me what you think, and comment to share tips of your own.
- Everyone needs an editor.
- Sleep on it.
- Don’t be afraid to start over.
- Put down the thesaurus.
- Accept your flaws.
- Everyone needs an editor. This is one of the hardest lessons for many writers to learn and accept. You may be a professional writer with years of experience, great clips and a stack of awards, but you will never be able to see your writing the way an outside observer can. A good editor can spot patterns in your writing, from problems with a story arc to an over-reliance on one type of sentence construction. A good editor wants to help you improve what you’ve written, not stifle your style. The trick for the writer, of course, is finding an editor who is willing to tell you things you don’t want to hear, but whom you trust enough to listen to anyway.
- Sleep on it. Taking a break from your writing, and doing and thinking about something else, is the next best thing to having a good editor. Sometimes you won’t have the luxury of an overnight break, but even if you can spare 10 or 15 minutes away from the keyboard you’ll begin to notice results from practicing this advice. When I was editorial-page editor of an urban daily newspaper, I wrote one editorial a day, three or four days a week. In addition to writing and research, I had to take care of letters to the editor, political cartoons and opinion pieces from other writers, and I usually laid out my own pages, too. There was no time for second guesses. Even so, I always sought a few minutes to clear my head before reviewing what I had written. There were many times I was grateful that a fresh perspective prompted me to correct an awkward phrase, triple-check a pivotal fact or rework a logical argument.
- Don’t be afraid to start over. If you find yourself in a debate with an editor or colleague about the construction of a complex sentence, it’s probably time to cut your losses. Such debates — particularly if someone feels the need to cite chapter and verse from a style guide — often are a signal that you’ve written yourself into a corner by trying too hard, instead of writing naturally. Back up, take a deep breath and try again with a new sentence.
- Put down the thesaurus. We all know the old saw that tells us to write about what we know. What many writers forget is one of its corollaries: Use the words you know. Just as natural, comfortable sentence structures usually read better than overly complex ones, words that are familiar and instinctive parts of your vocabulary usually will produce better writing.
- Accept your flaws. I can’t spell the word “sheriff” and I use dashes too much. No matter how many times I look at it, “sheriff” always looks wrong to me and I seldom spell it correctly when I’m writing. I rely on dashes when I should choose a different sentence construction, and in some drafts I find myself using the dash in nearly every paragraph. I’ve accepted these flaws in my writing. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped trying to overcome them, but it does mean that I review my writing after I’ve finished a draft, keeping a sharp eye out for these problems. Double-checking my spelling every time I write “sheriff” is a small price to pay for minimizing the chance that a misspelled word will slip through. Chances are good that you have flaws in your writing, too. Ask an editor you trust (here we go back to tip No. 1) or a colleague whose writing you admire to assess several samples of your writing for recurring flaws. Once you know what to look out for, police your drafts carefully to minimize the impact of whatever shortcomings you may have.
The most important thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. It does take practice for most people to learn to write comfortably, but I hope these five tips will help you make the most of that time.