Do you sometimes wonder if your writing is good enough?
When you read through that first or second draft, you know something’s not quite right, but you’re not sure what.
Well, with a little bit of practice and a willingness to learn about writing, you can improve the quality of your prose.
In this post, you can find five powerful writing tips that will help you, whether you write fiction or non-fiction.
1. Run the Alien from Mars Test
Years ago, I wrote a news story for a local newspaper in Dublin about a delayed housing development project. My editor read what I sent in, rubbed his beard and said, “Could an alien from Mars understand this?”
He explained good writing is accessible to anyone, even people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter (in this case a boring story about a housing development project gone awry).
I’d presumed readers knew the facts of the story, and I’d failed to explain key facts.
When you finish writing a non-fiction piece of writing, take an honest look at it and ask could an alien from Mars understand what you just wrote?
- Have you presumed your reader understands key facts? If so, explain them.
- Do you use jargon or complicated language? If so, rewrite.
- Is it obvious what the piece is about to those who aren’t subject matter experts? If not, clarify.
- Did you provide a background or context to the subject of the piece? If not, include.
2. Eliminate 10%
It’s a rule of thumb that you reduce almost every piece of writing by 10% without compromising your work.
Why should you put this writing tip into practice?
Well, brevity is clarity. Setting yourself this challenge will also help you write more succinct sentences and improve your editing skills.
Print out your work double-spaced, Courier 12 (a good choice for proofs) and while reading it, cross out anything you don’t need with a red pen.
If you’re wondering what to eliminate, look for adverbs (words ending in ‘ly’), unnecessary adjectives and overuse of pronouns like ‘which’ and ‘that’.
You can also look for longer sentences and break them into shorter ones.
3. Look for Moments of Lazy Writing
We’re all guilty of it.
Lazy writing is when you reach for a cliché, an old idea or an easy word because you can’t think of anything better say.
For example, many new writers end their articles with the word ‘conclusion’ instead of coming up with a compelling sub-head that rounds their piece.
Here’s another type of lazy writing I learnt about from Copyblogger. Instead of writing make or made, use the proper verb.
For example, instead of writing:
- “Will you help me make my writing sing”
- “Who made this nonsense up?”
- “How did this typo make it into the final draft?”
- “Will you help me edit my writing so it sings?”
- “Who invented this nonsense?”
- “How did this typo get into the final draft?”
I didn’t know I relied on the word ‘make’ or ‘made’ a lot until I actively went out and checked a piece for these words using ‘Find & Replace’.
4. Use the Active Voice
The active voice is the best way to invigorate your writing. The active voice demonstrates continued action on behalf of the subject.
For example, “I threw my first draft in the bin” contains an active verb. In this case, “I” is the subject and “threw” is the active verb.
Well, many new writers use the passive voice without realising it.
- “The blog post about grammar was written by me.”
- “The novel was read by him in one night.”
- “The marathon was run by her in under four hours.”
These sentences are boring, clunky and unclear, so let’s fix them.
- “I wrote a blog post about grammar.”
- “He read a novel in one night.”
- “She ran a marathon in under four hours.
Again, you can find instances of the passive voice faster by reading a print-out of your work and looking for verbs ending in ‘ed’.
5. Just Say Said
He gasped. He panted. He screamed. He whispered. He shouted. He stammered. He giggled. He gestured. He exclaimed. He made out. He elaborated.
There are dozens of different ways to attribute a piece of dialogue, particularly if you write fiction, but in almost every instance, use ‘he/she said’.
You may think it’s clever writing to reach for quirky ways of attributing great dialogue, but you’re better off letting your character’s actions and words do the work.
So instead of:
“This first draft makes no sense Bryan,” the editor shouted loudly.
The editor banged the table. “Bryan, your first draft is terrible.”
But don’t take my word for it, here’s what Stephen King has to say in On Writing: about the times he used clever dialogue attribution techniques:
“When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I’m afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.”
“To write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”
Get To Work
Perhaps you’re called to write. Perhaps you’ve got what it takes to write every day. Or perhaps you’re just starting off on your journey to becoming a great writer.
Wherever you are, there will always be a gap between what you want to say and what comes out on the blank page.
The best way to narrow that gap and improve the quality of your work is to write more often and put writing tips like these into practice.
Do you have any other writing tips to share? Please let me know in the comments section below.