I’ve written a few times about writing – The Act of Reading and The Act of Writing. I thought that it would be good to put together a grab bag of some of my favorite writing tips and tricks to make life just a little bit easier for people who want to get better at writing.
On the Act of Reading
In The Act of Reading I talk about how it’s important to actively read as part and parcel of getting better as an author. Reading is important because it spreads ideas. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all.
Read the People You Admire
Have a favorite author that you admire? Grab your favorite work and read it again. This time around, read it slowly. Savor every word. Keep a pen, note pad, dictionary and thesaurus nearby. When you hit a particularly powerful passage, make a note of the page.
Once you’ve finished a chapter, go back and take a look at the passages you highlighted. What makes them special to you? Is it the word choice? The flow? Does the author build up interleaving sentences that leave you gasping for air as the hero runs for cover?
Figure out what makes that writing work for you. It’s not going to make you hate your favorite authors. If anything, you’ll appreciate their writing even more.
Read the People You Hate
Once. Just read it through once. But figure out why you hate it.
I read most of Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker before I put it down. I stopped reading the book because I couldn’t stand it. I’m sure the book was enjoyable for someone, but it didn’t work for me. The instant I realized the book didn’t resonate with me, I started asking myself questions to figure out what I didn’t like. It was important to know why I didn’t like the book; by understanding what I didn’t like, I can avoid the same pitfalls in the future. It made me happy to understand why I didn’t like the book. Once I understood my opinion I wasn’t pissed off that I had spent time reading the book. I was relieved. I learned something about what I want out of myself as a reader and as a writer.
Writing is a complex thing – there are many different pieces that make writing good or bad. Understanding what makes one piece of writing bad is just as important as understanding what makes another piece of writing good. Understanding what you don’t like about other writers will help you strengthen your own voice as a writer. Looking at it another way, if you know why something annoys you then can avoid similar problems in the future.
Read the People who Sell
As much as we might had to admit it, writing is a business. While creating art for the sake of art is a lofty goal, we all need to eat. There are many starving artists, but a few of them manage to make a good living. Read the best sellers. While you probably aren’t planning to write the great American novel or a New York Times bestseller, it doesn’t hurt to figure out what makes something a hit. Even if you don’t like popular writing, there is a lot to be learned from it: it sells, figure out why.
The final suggestion I have is to read book reviews. This will be especially helpful if you’ve never tried to pull a book apart and see how it works. Book reviews can be daunting, or outright boring, if you’ve never read one before. Stick with it, you’ll learn a lot about how people read, write about, and deconstruct books. You’ll also get a glimpse at what critics like about authors – this can be a short cut to understanding what you love, hate, and what sells.
People I Read
Not that it matters, but these are some of the people I read:
- Frank Chimero
- Hunter S Thompson
- Iain Banks (both as Iain Banks and as Iain M Banks)
- Stephen King (On Writing is particularly good)
- John Steinbeck
- William Gibson
- William Zinsser
Every time I read something that one of these people write, I read it to enjoy it. Then I read it again at some later time to figure out how it works.
On the Act of Writing
Writing is a daunting task. From time to time I’ll joke that I got an English degree because I just wanted to talk about things. I’ll follow it up by saying I got a non-fiction writing degree because I wanted to write about things that were already sitting around. The truth is that I knew I could figure most things out, but my writing was something that I valued and wanted to improve.
Here’s two quick tips: don’t edit as you go and don’t format as you go.
Don’t Edit as you Write
Don’t edit yourself while you’re writing. Just don’t do it. Instead of trying to get one sentence perfect, try to get the ideas out of your head as fast as you can. Editing while you’re trying to write can be distracting; you may lose your train of thought and spend most of your time focusing on a few words. In short: don’t miss the forest because you’re trying to describe the moss on a tree.
When I’m working on a blog post, especially when a longer one, I’ll make notes as I write so I can go back. Instead of editing a sentence, I’ll add a comment like “[NOTE: Don't like the sound of this, revise later, wishy washy]“. Once I’ve finished writing my first draft, I go back and look through my notes. I use these as the basis for my revisions. Sometimes I know how I want to say something but I don’t know exactly how to say it. I’ll make a note telling me to revisit a particular sentence or paragraph.
When I write, I focus on writing. When I polish my writing, I polish my writing. Each one requires different skills and different ways of thinking. I like to keep the activities separate.
Don’t Format as you Write
When I write, I only want to write. I don’t want to fiddle around with different fonts, indentation, line spacing or anything else like that. When I’m writing formatting is just a distraction: it doesn’t help my writing.
In college, and even after college, I would spend time getting my document “right” before I started writing. Word processors are a great way to procrastinate writing. It’s so easy to spend hours figuring out the optimum line spacing, tab levels, bullet formatting, and font choice to make sure that your document displays perfectly.
Your perfect document template doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything to fill it. When I write I use a plain text editor to create content. Admittedly, I use a pretty powerful text editor called Emacs and I write everything using the Markdown format. Markdown is a simple format, it converts easily to HTML, and it gets out of the way when I write. Emacs isn’t for everyone, it’s grumpy and ugly and has a steep learning curve. There are plenty of other tools out there. On the Mac there’s TextMate as well as Ulysses (that one is more for novelists). There are hundreds of editors out there that do a great job of doing nothing more than editing text. Some of them even have lovely full screen modes where they block out every other application. This is particularly good if you know you’re easily distracted.
The most important thing is to choose a tool that doesn’t distract you. Turn off spell check and grammar check while you’re writing. You can always turn it on later and fix your work. You’ll be much happier without all of those squiggles reminding you that you don’t know how to spell or that you’re ending a sentence with a preposition.
Writing shouldn’t happen in a vacuum. Writing evolves in response to feedback and experience. As you get more feedback you get better at writing.
One of the easiest ways to get feedback is to ask your friends what they think of your newest work. This can be a mixed bag, unfortunately. Your friends may not be writers, they may not be interested, or they may know nothing about the rules of grammar. On the bright side, your friends will be happy to help with your new found interest in becoming a better writer.
Writers have banded together in groups to discuss their work. Historically, there have been groups like the Inklings. You can find groups like Hugo House in every city where people have an interest in writing. While writing classes are helpful, some of the best feedback I received in college came from my fellow students. We had to ceaselessly review our peers, sometimes reviewing a paper on Monday only to read it again, with our revisions, on Friday. Watching something evolve in response to your criticism while re-shaping your own work in response to criticism is an enlightening process. Over time you’ll come to recognize your own colloquialisms, hang ups, and other linguistic oddities. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t. Writing with other writers is one of the best ways to get better.
Proofreading is one of the nastiest jobs I’ve encountered while writing, especially when I’m proofreading my own writing. I’ve come up with a few tricks over the years to keep myself engaged in the task instead of rushing through it haphazardly.
Work in small chunks of time. Your brain can only focus for a short period of time on something you don’t enjoy. If you’re anything like me, proofreading is something that you definitely do not enjoy. Instead of toughing it out, break your work up. If you can only focus on proofreading for 30 minutes, make sure you break up your work so that you can work on proofreading for 30 minutes and then have another task lined up. It seems simple and obvious, but I’ve tried to drive through the wall of boredom while proofreading. The results were disastrous.
Read to Yourself
Read your own writing to yourself. Don’t silently read to yourself. Print out a copy of your writing, stand up, and read it out loud. You’re going to feel silly at first. Don’t stop. Don’t talk in a quiet voice. Read in a firm, strong voice.
While you’re reading, keep a pen in one hand. Circle any part of your writing where you falter or stumble while you’re reading it. Anything that sounds weird or awkward gets circled too. Your writing should sound like you. You don’t want your readers pausing awkwardly while they read. Anywhere you stumble, they’re likely to stumble.
One final tip about reading to yourself: once I’ve gone through a particular article reading it out loud, I’ll run through specific parts again but I’ll read it in a silly voice. I’ve frequently caught awkward and just plain bad writing using this method. You’ll feel weird doing it, but it really works.
Three Proofreading Tricks
Some people like to proofread in their word processor. While the word processor is great for catching some basic spelling and grammatical mistakes, it isn’t the best place to do proofreading. I use three tricks when I’m proofreading to help me spot my spelling, grammatical, and stylistic mistakes.
The first thing is to print out a copy of your writing. I prefer to proofread by marking up a physical copy of whatever I’m working on. I’ll print out a nicely double spaced copy of a blog post and go to town on it with a red pen. this makes it very easy to cross out words, add words, and amend my revisions without losing any of the original copy and without having to refer to the margins to see what’s changed since I started.
After a while, you’re going to get bored proofreading. It’s not that exciting. If you do like proofreading, skip ahead. For the rest of you, here’s two tricks to keep you going. When you’re proofreading, take that print out and turn it upside down. Shockingly, you will have no problems reading upside down but you’ll have to work at it: by turning the paper upside down you force your brain to focus on reading. Since you have to focus more to read you focus more on the words. As a result you’ll notice more mistakes and awkwardness. When you get sick of reading upside down you can head to the bathroom and read in the mirror instead of turning the paper upside down.
No matter what I say, no matter what anyone else says, the most important part of writing is to be yourself. Experiment with a voice, a style, and a tone that’s all your own. Play around with different writing techniques until you find something that works well for you. I listen to The Orb’s Adventures in the Underworld while I write. You may not want music on at all.
Above all else, have fun. Your writing should show your passion. Words aren’t some collection of dead sticks that you arrange to communicate basic facts; words communicate your passion and expertise.