Are there only 10 things you can do to improve your writing? Of course not. But these are a good place to start. I taught them to all of my writing students over 10 years of college and university teaching, and felt I made progress.
1. Shorten your sentences. “In order to write better, one must evaluate each sentence for excess words” ::: “To write better, shorten your sentences.
2. Use the active voice. “The material at the plant was picked up by George.” ::: “George picked up the material at the plant.” Note that writing actively also shortens sentences. TIP: subject-verb-object.
3. Be positive. “I can’t say I wouldn’t be interested.” ::: “I might be interested.”
4. Write as you speak. “One must always be on one’s toes.” ::: “I need to be on my toes.” It’s more understandable. Also, fewer words.
5. Kill your darlings. If you re-read a sentence and a word or phrase stands out as awkward, it probably is. Were you trying to be clever, or to communicate better? Replace it with a better word.
6. Vary sentence structure. Just as you wouldn’t want to begin every sentence with “I,” you don’t want every sentence to begin with a modifying clause or be exactly the same length.
7. Listen. Listen to what you’re writing. Does it read smoothly? Or is it sing-songy? Do the words make sense? Do not try to “write smart.” Write for the ear, for how people talk. It will be the most understandable communication. Oh, and it’s OK these days to end a sentence with a preposition.
8. Write to your audience. “You” has always been the most important word in advertising. “You” engages your audience immediately. Try it.
9. Rewrite. No, your first draft will not be OK. Re-read and re-write.
10. In a series, simple -> complex. “Jack and Jill walked up the hill, then down the hill, and finally to have lunch with Jacques.”
I wish someone had taught me to write in college. Really write.
All we were instructed to do was to write papers. Most of us thought if we wrote terribly long, convoluted sentences that we’d sound smarter than the actual words and meaning on the page. So, I learned to use semi-colons and em dashes and all kinds of devices to look brainier. I even used British spellings because colour was so much sexier than color.
Sure, we got comments back. But no one ever held us accountable. No one ever said, “Hey, try this if you want to write better.”
In fact, they shoved books in front of us with 100-page sentences, such as the one that kicks off Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. Or dazzled us with completely indecipherable Joyce.
What we were supposed to think?
And then they patted our little backsides and sent us out into the world.
My first job was as a newspaper writer. The long sentences and Brit spellings hit the skids immediately. But still — we were somewhat rewarded for quantity. Not in pay, but generally having a longer story meant that we could use less of the canned National Geographic copy that was written to fit any space (it could be cut at the end of virtually any sentence! It was amazing stuff).
Even so, my editor allowed me the occasional semi-colon and awkward sentence structure. He couldn’t possibly fix everything wrong with my writing.
Then I found television. Or, it found me. I took at job at age 24 researching and occasionally writing for a live television news show for PBS. Within five months, I had been bumped up to Head Writer for the show — but not because my writing was that great. Our head writer left the show and no other show writer knew anything about farming and agribusiness.
Writing for television is the best thing that ever happened to my writing. My words became few and well chosen. A :30 story had five, maybe six sentences, and they had to be understood by the ear. They had to work with sounds, such as music and sound effects.
Plus, I had to learn to rewrite. At first I rewrote to make the timing right. Then, I learned to choose simpler words. Then, I learned to choose words that complemented, not repeated, the video on screen. I rewrote even :30 stories a dozen times. On an IBM. An IBM selectric typewriter, that is.
Learning to write well has been a long and arduous process. And I’m still at it (the learning part, that is) every single day.
And the web has helped me. First, by letting me publish virtually anything instantaneously. What a relief after getting my master’s in design when most typesetting machines still used metal letters! Second, by allowing me to tweak to my heart’s content.
I taught writing for ten years at a variety of colleges and universities. That was the second great thing that happened to my writing. I came to understand the process even more by teaching others. And I forced every student in every class to rewrite.
At first, my students hated the insinuation that their first attempts weren’t any good. Then they felt pride that, after several rewrites, their stories, ads, and features were good enough to go on the air. And every single student left with a portfolio of their writing that many used to get their first jobs.
Now, wouldn’t that be nice if all students learned that valuable lesson of rewriting? It doesn’t happen in every English class. My effect on teaching rewriting? Ten years times 30 students per class times 2 classes per semester? A mere 600 students or so. Think how many could have benefited from rigorous attention to their writing. And still could.