I got a request from one of my readers to share a few tips about writing.
One of the most overused lines that writers say in response to this is: just write and write and write.
That it is overused is no reason to dismiss it though, because it is true. Writing is a skill honed by constant practice. However, one who constantly practices wrongly will soon become an expert at doing the wrong thing (and thinking it’s right). For example, I was at this restroom and I saw a sign that said, “No Smoking On Premises.”
Some poor deluded soul thought that was wrong and changed “On” to “In.” He thought he was making a correction but what he did was mess up a sign that was grammatically correct to begin with.
Anyway, the point is not just to write and write, but also to find some way of getting meaningful feedback. You may ask friends to read your writing and give their comments, but most friends will usually be too polite to point out your errors, or they may not have the proper skills to evaluate your work (i.e. you may already be a better writer than they are).
The better thing to do is to look for mentors who can evaluate your work and give you good advice on how to improve. They may be former teachers or other writers whose work you admire (and who will consent to reading some of your work).
If you like a certain writer’s style, you can try to emulate or imitate that style. Over the years, I’ve had numerous writers who have been great influences on how I write. At the beginning, I blatantly copied their style until I found my own rhythm and voice. Note that I am talking about style, not about copy-pasting what they wrote, like a certain senator we all know and love (to trash).
Write in white heat. Edit in cold blood. I learned that from my English teacher, mentor and fellow columnist, Rene Lizada. Writing is a two-step process, but do not mix the two processes. Do not edit in the heat of writing. You may miss out on some great ideas because you were too busy polishing this or that sentence. The first draft is called exactly that because your work doesn’t have to be immaculate the first time around — that is, unless you are trying to beat a deadline (like I’m doing right now).
But seriously, when you’re beginning to write, just write and let the ideas flow. Don’t worry too much about correctness or sentence structure and so on. You can come back later and give your work a more critical eye later. I wrote about this in a previous article called Free Writing.
Read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It’s a thin book published in 1959 that is still very relevant today. It is probably the best guide to writing well. A number of famous and bestselling authors swear by it. If you’re unconvinced, read Stephen King’s On Writing, which is another excellent piece of work. He will tell you exactly why you should go and read Strunk and White.
Two important lessons I got from that book are:
- Omit needless words.
- Write in the active voice.
If you do nothing else except apply those two to the next few pieces you write, your writing will improve by leaps and bounds (Of course, I am assuming that you don’t already do those consciously).
Lastly, seek to communicate, not to impress. Do not use three-syllable words when there is a one-syllable word that means the same thing. Do not use kilometric sentences when a couple of words will do. Being a good writer doesn’t mean that you can use words nobody else comprehends. Being a good writer means that people understand what you say, nothing more and nothing less.
“Don’t leave a mess. Leave a message.” — Michael Aun & Jeff Slutsky, The Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking