There are many colleges and universities out there that will happily take your money to help you sharpen your writing skills. To be fair, many of these are fine institutions where you can forge priceless relationships with industry insiders who can offer advice you won’t find in the curriculum.
But most of the guidance a starting writer needs can be found online (or, for those who still prefer physical references, in a few books).
Here’s how to improve your writing today:
1. Omit needless words.
One of the most important lines from The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, nearly all other writing advice comes back to these three little words: “Omit needless words.” You’ve probably heard the old saying “Brevity is the essence of wit.” The logic behind “Omit needless words” is pretty similar: The more succinctly you say something, the easier it’ll be to digest (and the harder it’ll punch).
This rule forces you to tighten up your writing by getting specific. For example, compare the following sentences:
“The big black and brown dog quickly ran after the little red bird into the large group of evergreen trees.”
“The German Shepherd sprinted after the red hummingbird into the evergreen forest.”
Let’s note the differences. First, we chopped the original sentence from 20 words to 12. More importantly, we injected it with details. That ambiguous dog transformed into a much-more-specific German Shepherd. We also gained more details on the bird (turning it from a little bird into a hummingbird). Because of these and other slight alterations, the second sentence is easier to read and more informative.
After every sentence you write, ask yourself, “Did I get rid of the fluff?” An easy way to start cutting the fluff is to focus on your verbs. Note that the first example sentence uses “quickly ran” to explain the dog’s actions. Meanwhile, the second sentence uses “sprinted.” Not only is “sprinted” more efficient (requiring one word where two were previously used), it also creates a clearer visual in the reader’s mind.
2. Research, research, research.
When I was a business journalist, I’d sometimes hit a roadblock while working on a story. What I quickly learned: 99% of the time when I had trouble starting, it was because I didn’t understand my topic well enough. Whenever I had trouble finding an angle, I’d go back to my research notes, then start digging up new information.
Understanding your subject makes the writing process infinitely easier. That’s true whether you're writing an article on finance, a research paper on salt, or a short story about the airline industry. The more information you have, the more details you can include. The more details you can include, the more believable your final product will be.
Even if you don’t give all the information you have to the reader, the extra information will help inform your writing, which will inevitably improve your work in subtle ways.
3. Start in the middle.
Many of my students ask for help preparing for timed essays like the SAT, ACT, and TOEFL. Since time is of the essence, creativity is an incredibly valuable skills, but it's not something everyone has. Since many of them struggle so much with introductions, which should be as engaging as possible, I often suggest starting in the middle.
Introductions are hard, especially as an inexperienced writer, but most writers know what they want to say in the middle of their piece, regardless of whether it’s a research assignment or a short story. By starting in the middle, you give yourself a chance to pick up momentum. Since you already know what needs to happen, you can stretch out your writing muscles by getting the easy stuff out of the way. Once you’re all warmed up, head back to the beginning and come up with an intriguing intro.
Some writers have trouble taking this advice because they’re married to the idea that writing process has to be very linear. But there are plenty of great writers out there who jump around and write scenes out of order. If you’re afraid being nonlinear, try this: Develop a detailed outline for your piece. Once the outline is complete, you can start writing out of order.
4. Use deliberate practice.
We’ve all grown up hearing the phrase “Practice makes perfect.” But I’ll let you in on a little secret: It’s not true. If you practice poorly, you’ll perform poorly. Likewise, if you practice with an improper technique, you’ll perform with an improper technique.
Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson has performed tons of research on something he calls “deliberate practice”: practice with a specific goal in mind. So, instead of running three times a week to become faster, deliberate practice would say you should run three times a week while concentrating on your form. Once your form is perfected, you start running three times a week to focus on your breathing. And so on and so on.
Approach writing the same way. Set yourself a goal (like writing for SEO or crafting believable dialog), then practice until you’ve mastered it. For example: A great trick for writing better dialog is to force yourself to use it more. Write stories that are entirely dialog. To do this successfully, writing alone won't be good enough. You’ll also need to spend time listening to how people talk. Quentin Tarantino, for example, famously spent hours and hours at diners bordering different neighborhoods solely to understand how people speak. As a result, he’s able to write incredibly realistic dialog for his movies.
5. Expose yourself.
For many, writing is a lonely activity, often done behind closed doors. Perhaps because of this, showing off your writing can often make you feel vulnerable. Consequently, many avoid letting their writing fall into the hands of anyone other than the editors they submit to in the hopes of publication.
But without exposure to a critical eye you can trust, your writing won’t improve. Instead, you’re progress will dip. Find a group of writers you respect and ask for their honest opinions. While feedback can be painful, listening to the advice of other writers (and readers) can help you blossom.
That’s not to say you should take 100% of the advice you receive (an opinion is an opinion, after all). But if you start hearing the same advice over and over, it’s probably a sign something needs to change.
6. Ditch clichés.
While you might like to keep your favorite clichés ready for use like aces up your sleeve, they’re a pain in the neck to reach and should be avoided like the plague. Here’s why: They’re boring. It’s really that simple. Clichés have been heard so often, they no longer conjure up vivid images in the reader’s mind. And if you’re not creating imagery, your reader will quickly lose interest.
7. Allow imperfection.
I’ve come across many writers in my career, and it seems that the ones who dislike it the most are the ones who make it harder for themselves. Instead of letting the words flow, they’re obsessed with perfection in each and every line. Consequently, every word is agonized over before it even hits the page. These writers devotes minutes to a single sentence in a first draft. Their desire for perfection actually works against them.
I had a student with this same problem. She’d come to class with a prompt for a school essay, then struggle with writing. She was a brilliant student and knew what she wanted to say. But getting it out was often difficult because she was so intent on each sentence being flawlessly crafted.
Here’s how we fixed it. During our sessions, I’d give her a writing prompt she’d never seen before. Then I’d give her five minutes to write as much as possible in response to that prompt. The goal wasn’t for quality sentences. Instead, we were focusing on sheer wordcount. The more ideas she could get on the page, the better she did on the assignment.
While it was initially difficult, she eventually learned to relax enough to let the words spill out of her. Soon she was writing paragraphs in about as much time as it used to take her to write a single paragraph.
Want to pick up even more great ideas? Schedule a workshop with Poetica Marketing to go over your work, or get an editorial session. If you’d like to learn more, contact us at 412-522-0647 or email@example.com.