Today’s post is an edited excerpt from the introduction to 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, a book that aims to impart best practices in the craft of writing.
“When I’m writing, I know I’m doing the thing I was born to do.” — Anne Sexton
Words. They have the power to captivate the imagination, impart knowledge, express feelings, and share ideas. They are magical, and they are powerful.
A writer makes things out of words: sentences and paragraphs, essays and articles, books, poems, stories, and scripts. We use writing to create, communicate, share, and express ourselves. We use it to connect with people.
Writing is one of the most useful skills a person can possess. Think about how stories, speeches, films, and books have impacted society and culture, how they have shaped people’s thoughts and beliefs, and you’ll get an inkling of just how influential writing can be. Read more
There’s more to writing than pushing a pen across a piece of paper, and there’s more to being a writer than having written.
These days, everyone’s a writer. We write emails, text messages, and lists. A free blog is just a few clicks away. Self-publishing has drawn tens of thousands of dreamers who have scrawled stories and uploaded them to the web for all to read.
Everyone’s a writer, including you.
But how do you differentiate yourself? How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make your words and ideas resonate with a reading audience? Read more
This is quite possibly the best thing ever. Enjoy!
Thanks to “Weird Al” Yankovic, we writers now have our very own anthem. Read more
Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Ten: Community, Industry, and Audience,” which explains the benefits and importance of networking with the writing community as well as studying the industry and developing a reading audience. The chapter includes tips, too!
“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” — E.B. White
Writers are notorious for spending hours in solitude, bent over our keyboards, laboring over prose and poetry. And when we’re not absorbed in our own writing, Read more
Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Nine: Creativity,” which offers insights and tips to help you stay inspired and creative as a writer. The excerpt I’ve chosen to share presents ten myths about creativity. These are notions about creativity that people assume even though many of them are counterproductive to creativity.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou
As a creative writer and as someone who wants to become a proficient writer, understanding creativity will be a great advantage for you. While it will certainly help with your writing, it will also show you how to see the world and people in it from new perspectives, and it will strengthen your problem-solving skills. Read more
By now, you’ve probably heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything.
There’s some debate as to the truth of the 10,000-hour rule, but there is definitely truth to the notion that nobody’s born a master at the craft of writing. It takes time, energy, and practice to become a truly proficient and professional writer.
Personally, I think 10,000 hours sounds about right, although some people will become experts at 7500 hours (those lucky talents!) and others might need to put in 15,000 hours before they’ve mastered the art of writing. It doesn’t really matter how much time it takes–if you want to become a pro, you’ll invest the time necessary to constantly and consistently improve your skills and produce better writing.
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take toward producing better writing, and maybe these steps will help you become an expert just a little bit quicker. Read more
There’s only one way to become a better writer, and that is through lots of practice.
Some people are born with talent. Writing comes easily to them, but even the most talented writers have to work at the craft. After all, nobody’s born knowing how to write.
Fostering good writing habits accomplishes two things. First, good writing habits ensure that you write regularly, and as we all know, the only way to become a writer is to actually get the writing done. Second, by writing regularly, you get plenty of writing practice, and your work improves.
In other words, good writing habits are essential.
Adopt These Beneficial Writing Habits
Below you’ll find a list of beneficial writing habits that you can adopt. Try introducing one habit into your routine each month. By the end of the year, you’ll be well on your way to becoming an expert in all things writing.
- Establish a writing schedule and write daily if possible: Whether you write for three hours a day or fifteen minutes a day, daily writing is the most critical of writing habits. It’s better to write for fifteen or twenty minutes every day than to binge for five or six hours over the weekend, but if you can establish a daily writing schedule with longer sessions on weekends, then all the better!
- Don’t forget to read: I can’t stress how obvious it is when a writer is not well-read. Lack of reading will be apparent in every sentence. The importance of reading cannot be overstated: read as much and as often as you can.
- Finish what you start: One of the worst habits a writer can acquire is to never finish anything. Shiny new ideas are always tempting us away from our current projects. Don’t give in to temptation! Unless a project is absolutely going nowhere, wrap it up before you move on to the next one. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a vicious cycle and have nothing to show for all the writing you’ve done.
- Show your work: Speaking of finishing what you start–once it’s done, share it with others. Post a scene on your blog, send a poem around to a few friends, round up some beta readers and let them assess your project and help you improve it. And if you’d like to be a professional author, always keep your eye on the goal: publishing your work to the marketplace.
- Know your craft and industry: As a writer, it’s important to understand things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation as well as the importance of editing and polishing your work before you show it around. It’s just as important to familiarize yourself with the industry–from publishing to marketing. Make it your business to understand the craft and trade by working good habits into your schedule: edit everything you write, consult grammar and style guides when necessary, learn to properly format your documents, study the publishing industry, and make sure you understand the many ways that authors can market their work to a reading audience.
What Are Your Writing Habits?
Improving your writing is hard work. Maintaining a regular writing schedule is even harder, especially with so many distractions that are vying for our attention. Adopting these writing habits might mean making major changes to your routine. If you love to write, the work will be fun at times. Other times, you’re just going to have to grin and bear it, knowing full well that the ends make the means completely worthwhile.
If you want to be the best writer you can possibly be and produce great writing, then commit yourself to these writing habits.
How many of these writing habits do you practice regularly? Do you think your writing habits are good or bad? A mix? Share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences by leaving a comment.
When I first started writing, it was just me, a ninety-nine cent pen, and a cheap spiral-bound notebook. Using those tools, I wrote dozens of poems, stories, and journal entries.
These days, I’m surrounded by far more sophisticated writing tools: fancy pens and journals, a computer with writing software, a library of writing resources, and the Internet.
My writing has come a long way since I was a thirteen-year-old curled up on the floor with a pen, a notebook, and my imagination. Certainly, experience and studying did a lot to help me write better, but did these newfangled tools also improve my writing?
Yes and no.
I think a few tools do help us write better, but for the most part, tools make writing easier or more comfortable. They don’t improve our writing, but they do improve our writing process.
Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. These excerpts are from “Chapter 8: Tools and Resources.”
“It’s best to have your tools with you.” – Stephen King
Where would we writers be without our tools and resources? From cheap pens and notebooks to expensive word-processing software, from thick reference books to online databases packed with facts and information, our tools and resources are both bane and boon. Love them or hate them, one thing is certain: if you’re a writer, you need them.
When we are striving to improve our writing, the act of writing and all the skills that go into craftsmanship are just one piece of the puzzle. We need a place to write, tools to write with, writing references to consult, and research material to cite.
Every writer will develop personal preferences—a favorite writing spot, preferred writing instruments, and a host of trusty resources. These things might not directly improve your writing, but they will make your experience and your process more enjoyable and more efficient.
When you are fully equipped with the writing tools and resources you need to get your job done, you’ll do your job better.
Your Writing Tools
Writers’ tools may seem obvious: a pen, notebook, computer, and writing software like Microsoft Word are the basics.
But technology has opened up a wider range of tools that we can use, and not all of them are designed just for writing.
Lots of modern products cater to personal preferences. You might prefer a thick pen with a sturdy grip and steady ink flow, or maybe you’d rather work with disposable pens so you don’t have to worry about losing them. Maybe an expensive notebook with archival-quality paper forces you to put more thought into your writing, or perhaps you’re more comfortable with a cheap notebook so you don’t have to worry about making mistakes or messing up an expensive blank book.
Your preferences might be based on your budget or your personal taste. As with most things we do as writers, you have to find what works best for you.
Here are some basic tools that most writers use:
- Pens: Choices include ball-point pens, fountain pens, pencils, highlighters, and markers. I like to keep a few red pens around for editing.
- Notebooks: Blank books, journals, and notebooks come in various sizes and with a range of quality in the paper. You can also get hardcover or softcover, spiral or perfect bound, blank pages or lined pages.
- Office supplies: You might need supplies to help you organize your writing notes and materials: binders, file folders, labels, tab dividers, staplers or paper clips, and binder clips (for securing large manuscripts) are just a few examples of office supplies that might come in handy.
- Hardware: The typewriter gave way to the computer. Now we also use tablets, smart phones, and e-readers.
- Software: Microsoft Word is the industry standard, but Scrivener is the writing software preferred by most of today’s authors. Other popular software includes Pages (by Apple), text programs (like TextEdit or Notepad) and online, cloud-based software such as Google Drive (formerly Google Docs).
- Apps: There’s a huge range of apps for writers, including dictionaries, thesauri, encyclopedias, e-books, voice-to-text, and recording apps, plus apps for ideas and inspiration. One of my favorite apps is Scapple, a brainstorming app created by Literature and Latte, makers of Scrivener.
Whatever tools you use, if you’re writing electronically (and you probably are, otherwise you will eventually), make sure you have a backup system in place. An external hard drive is ideal for backups and there are online backup systems you can purchase as well. Ideally, you’ll store backups off-site (keep a backup at a friend’s house or store it online).
Be judicious when shopping for your tools. One great way to preview various writing tools is to shop online. You can read reviews by other customers and get a sense of the product’s features and flaws. It’s also easier to do price comparisons online.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself about collecting tools. Some people will use their lack of the proper tools as an excuse not to write (I can’t afford this expensive software right now, so I can’t start my novel). All you need to get started is a pen and notebook. You probably already have access to a computer. Remember that, ultimately, writing is about getting the words down. The tools we collect just make the process easier or more comfortable.
What are some of your favorite writing tools? Do the tools you use improve your writing or make your writing process easier? Do they help you write better?
Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Seven: Feedback,” which offers tips for giving and receiving critiques as well as coping with public criticism. The excerpt I’ve chosen to share today explains how to use critiques to make your writing better, and it also touches on dealing with difficult critiques.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill
There are two schools of thoughts about whether critiques of your work are beneficial.
One school of thought says that art is subjective; a critique is nothing more than someone’s opinion, and critiques might harm the artistic integrity of your work by interjecting someone else’s ideas and visions into it.
The other school of thought says that art may be subjective, but other people’s opinions matter and can actually be helpful. Writers may be too close to their own work to view it objectively, so a second opinion reveals strengths and weaknesses that the author simply can’t detect.
In my experience, when approached thoughtfully, critiques do far more good for your writing than harm. In fact, a critique can harm your work only if you let it, and let’s face it: ultimately, you’re the one who’s responsible for what you write.
It’s true that a critique is mostly someone else’s opinion about your work. But critiques also include ideas to improve your writing—ideas that may not have occurred to you. Additionally, a good critic will point out mechanical errors—grammar and spelling mistakes that slipped past you.
Critiques are designed to help writers, not to offend them or make them feel incapable. But the human ego is a fragile and funny thing. Some folks simply can’t handle the notion that despite all their hard work, the piece they’ve written is less than perfect.
As a writer, you have to decide whether you truly want to excel at your craft. If you do, then you need to put your ego aside and learn how to accept critiques graciously. If you can’t do that, there’s a good chance your writing will never improve and your work will always be mediocre.
Critiques are not tools of torture. They are meant to help you. If the critique is put together in a thoughtful and meaningful way, it should lift your spirits by pointing out strengths in the piece, but it should also raise some red flags by marking areas that need improvement.
Usually, critiques sting a little. That’s okay. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and your suspicions about what is weak in your writing will only be confirmed. Other times, you’ll be surprised that the critic found weaknesses in parts of the work that you thought were the strongest.
Whether a critique will be beneficial or harmful depends entirely on you. Obviously, nobody can make you change what you’ve written; it’s up to you to pick and choose what you revise.
Tips for Accepting Writing Critiques and then Writing Better
With practice and by following the tips below, you’ll learn how to overcome your own ego; how to obtain a beneficial critique, evaluate it objectively, and apply it to your writing thoughtfully; and for all that, you’ll be a better writer.
- Find someone who is well read, tactful, honest, and knowledgeable about writing. If you can find a critic who possesses all these traits, then you have overcome the first hurdle, because such persons are not easy to find.
- Polish your work as much as you can before handing it over. Do not send a rough draft to someone who will be critiquing your work, otherwise much of the feedback you receive may address problems you could have found and dealt with yourself. The point of a critique is to step beyond your own perspective and abilities. Note: Some writers get developmental edits or use alpha readers who read the rough draft and then give general feedback on the story or idea. This is not a critique in the traditional sense. It’s more for bouncing ideas around.
- Don’t harass the person who is critiquing your work by calling them every day, especially if they’re doing you a favor. If you are working under any kind of deadline, plan accordingly.
- If possible, do not review the critique in the presence of the person who prepared it. The best way to first review a critique is to set aside some time alone. In some cases, you’ll do critiques in workshops or writing groups where you have to be prepared to hear live feedback. In these situations, there is usually an instructor guiding the critiques to make sure they are presented and accepted graciously.
- You may have an emotional reaction. Some of the feedback may make you angry or despondent. Know that this is normal and it will pass.
- After you review the critique, let it sit for a day or two. In time, your emotions will subside and your intellect will take over. The reasonable part of your brain will step in and you’ll be able to absorb the feedback objectively.
- Revisit the critique with an open mind. Try to treat your own writing as if it were someone else’s. As you review it, ask yourself how the suggestions provided can be applied, and envision how they will make your work better.
- Figure out what is objective and what is personal in the critique. Critics are human. Some of their findings may be technical—mistakes that you should definitely fix. Other findings will be highly subjective (this character is unlikable, this dialogue is unclear, etc.). You may have to make judgment calls to determine where the critic is inserting his or her personal tastes.
- Decide what you’ll use and what you’ll discard. Remember, the critic is not in your head and may not see the big picture of your project.
- Thank your critics. After all, they took the time to help you, and even if you didn’t like what they had to say or how they said it—even if the critique itself was weak—just be gracious, say thanks, and move on. Don’t argue about the feedback.
- Now you can take the feedback you’ve received and apply it to your work. Edit and tweak the project based on the suggestions that you think will best benefit the piece.
- You can apply the feedback to future projects too. Take what you learned from this critique and use it when you’re working on your next project. In this way, your writing (not just a single project) will consistently improve.
In some cases, you may not have control over who critiques your work. If it’s published, anyone can assess it, and they can assess it publicly. If you’re taking a class or workshop, peer-to-peer critiques may be required. In cases like these, it’s essential that you keep a cool head. Even if someone is unnecessarily harsh or rude in their (uninvited) delivery, respond tactfully and diplomatically.
If you can obtain useful critiques and apply the feedback to your work, your writing will improve dramatically. Critiques are one of the most effective and fastest ways of making your writing better.
Good luck with your critiques, and keep writing. Pick up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing for more tips and ideas to continuously improve your writing.
Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
These excerpts are from “Chapter Six: Process,” which examines methods, strategies, and other approaches to developing and fine-tuning a writing process that works for you.
Understanding The Writing Process
“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
– Ernest Hemingway
A process is a system or series of steps that we take to complete something. When you write, you use a process, even if you’re not aware of it.
There may be a few writers who can sit down and write without any planning or preparation. They go through a different process for each project and don’t really think about it. They just dig in and do the work. While they may not be conscious of their process, these writers will be able to look back and explain the process they went through to finish the work.
But most of us do use a process and we become increasingly aware of it over time. It may vary from project to project, but we know what steps we have to take to get to the finish line.
For most writers, this process develops organically. We start a project, tackle it in whatever way makes sense at the time, and eventually complete it. As we successfully finish more and more projects, we eventually find ourselves using a consistent series of steps to complete our projects. We refine the process a little bit with each project until we have perfected it.
Think about a writing project you have completed. What steps did you take to complete it? Did you attack it without any foresight or did you work your way through a detailed plan? Did you take steps to complete the project that were unnecessary? Were there any steps you didn’t take that would have improved the project?
Tips for Developing a Writing Process
“You have to play a long time to play like yourself.” – Miles Davis
Your writing process can be as simple or as elaborate as you need it to be. I often make a list of everything I need to do for a project. I put the steps in order, but there’s a good chance they will overlap. I might be brainstorming and world building simultaneously. I might pause during a rough draft to go back and rework the character sketches I created during an earlier step.
Be flexible as you develop your writing process, and be willing to try new things, even things that seem counterintuitive. If you like to follow a strict series of steps, then just for one project, try diving in without a plan. If you tend to write freely and without a plan, then try outlining for one project.
- Start by identifying your current writing process. Make a list of steps you take to get a project done. If you use different processes for different projects, make several lists.
- Review your current process and determine whether you’re wasting time on unnecessary steps. Are there steps missing that would help improve your process? Look for opportunities to group similar activities together (like conducting research, interviews, etc.).
- If you’re not sure about your process, think of a project you have planned or recently started and map out a process that you think would work for that project.
- Consider building deadlines into your process. If you schedule your writing sessions, establish goals using timers or word counts.
- To determine the effectiveness of the process you’ve developed, try it. Start with shorter projects, like essays, blog posts, or short stories.
We tend to look at certain approaches and think they would never work for us. When I first heard about discovery writing (or pantsing), which is a method where you write without any plan whatsoever, I thought it was interesting but way outside of my personal working style. Then I tried it when I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2008 and was thrilled with the results. In fact, that was the first time I managed to complete a novel that I had started.
Don’t assume that a particular method or process would never work for you; you won’t know for sure until you give it a try.
We don’t have to rely on one writing process. We can have several, and we can adjust the process to accommodate each project’s specific needs so that we’re always going through a series of steps that are best suited to that particular project.
Writing processes are methods we can use to improve our writing. The reason so many writers develop these processes is to be more productive and produce better work. Writing processes and other techniques and strategies can be helpful, but it’s our responsibility to know what works for us personally as individuals and as creative writers.
Now tell us about your writing process. Do you have one? Have you ever thought about it? Do you think that a clear, coherent process would help you produce better writing? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.
Today’s post features excerpts from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. These excerpts are from “Chapter Five: Skills.” Enjoy!
When we talk about writing skills, we usually think of the basics: the ability to write sentences and paragraphs correctly with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But a lot more than that goes into writing well.
Ambitious writers strive to consistently produce better writing. We study the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation and we work at expanding our vocabularies. We memorize literary devices and storytelling techniques. We develop a distinct voice.
There’s a lot to learn, but over time, we learn to write prose and verse that captivates readers.
From learning how to comprehensively use tools, like writing software, to mastering concepts that are specific to form and genre, a professional writer needs to build skills that go far beyond the basics.
But the basics are where we begin.
Basic Writing Skills
Ideally, every high school graduate would possess basic writing skills. Unfortunately, a lot of people enter college or the workforce without knowing the difference between they’re, their, and there. An astonishing number of smart or educated people don’t know the difference between an adverb and an adjective and can’t identify a subject or an object in a sentence. Plenty of people go through life never mastering these basics and that’s okay—because they’re not writers.
It’s not that writers have to acquire knowledge of language and orthography that rivals that of lexicographers. But language is our primary tool and we should have a fundamental grasp of how it works and how to use it.
Yet that basic understanding of language—a comprehensive working knowledge of grammar, spelling, and punctuation—coupled with the ability to write decent sentences and paragraphs are only the first skills that a writer acquires. Those skills are sufficient for beginner writing. When we want to move past the ability to write sufficiently and strive to write professionally and with excellence, we must acquire a broader set of writing skills.
Nothing ruins a great story like weak words and poorly structured sentences that don’t make sense. Nothing derails a poem like poor word choices and clumsy rhymes. And nothing destroys a piece of creative nonfiction like a disorganized narrative.
There are some elements of writing that must be developed over time and with practice. It’s difficult to know why one grammatically correct sentence simply sounds better than another or why one word works better than another word that has the same meaning. The ability to write the better sentence or choose the better word does not come from a book, the way grammar can come from a book. It comes with experience.
With grammar, you can study the rules, memorize them, and then apply them to your writing almost immediately. The subtler aspects of writing can be learned, but they are usually learned over time through a combination of reading, studying the craft of writing, and practicing.
But we can still develop these skills by training ourselves to watch for opportunities to experiment with them. We can look for them in the works we read and the projects we’re writing.
Comprehensive Writing Skills
Below is a list of comprehensive writing skills and best practices that you should consider when assessing a piece of writing and in developing your own writing abilities. While this is not an exhaustive list (there are infinite ways to improve and strengthen your writing), it will give you a good start:
- Word choice: Choosing the right words to describe what’s happening in a piece of writing can be challenging. The best words accurately capture the sentiment that the author is trying to convey. If something doesn’t sound right, if a word isn’t accurate or precise enough, then it needs to be replaced with a better word. Why refer to a “loud noise” when you can call it a roar, din, or commotion? The more specific the words are, the more easily readers will understand what you’re trying to communicate. Choose words that are as concise, precise, and vivid as possible.
- Vocabulary: Nothing makes a sentence sing like words that are clear, specific, and concrete. Expand your arsenal by building your vocabulary. Read a lot and look up words you don’t know. Peruse the dictionary. Sign up for a word-of-the-day newsletter. Keep a log of vocabulary words and spend a minute or two each day adding to it and studying your new words.
- Sentence structure: Sentence structure is even more critical than word choice. A weak word is like a missed beat, but a weak sentence is total discord. It breaks the flow, confuses readers, and pulls them out of the narrative. Read sentences aloud to see how they flow.
- Rhythm: Make sure to vary sentence length; when all your sentences are the same length, the writing drones on.
- Paragraph structure: Each paragraph contains a single idea. In fiction, each paragraph contains one character’s action and dialogue. Extremely long paragraphs tend to bore readers. If you write long paragraphs, try to alternate them with shorter paragraphs to give balance and rhythm to your structure.
- Transition: Sentences and paragraphs should flow seamlessly. If you must jump from one topic to another, use headings or transitional phrases to separate them. Place transitional phrases and sentences within chapters to move smoothly between scenes.
- Word repetition: Nothing deflates a piece of writing like the same descriptive word unnecessarily used over and over. She had a pretty smile. She wore a pretty dress. She lived in a pretty house. This kind of repetition robs a story of its imagery, making it two-dimensional. There are many ways to say that something or someone is pretty.
- Thesaurus: A thesaurus helps you build your vocabulary and provides a workaround for repetition. Some writers avoid using the thesaurus, believing that reliance on it constitutes some writerly weakness. But your job is not to be a dictionary or word bank; it’s knowing how to find the perfect words for your sentences.
- Concept repetition: Repetitive words are one problem; repetitive information is another—or it can be a good thing. Repeat concepts when you’re teaching because it promotes retention. But don’t tell the reader what day of the week it is three times in a single scene.
- Simplification: Run-on sentences and short sentences strung together with commas and conjunctions create a lot of dust and noise in a piece of writing. In most cases, simple, straightforward language helps bring the action or ideas to center stage.
- Concise writing: Concise writing is a matter of style, but it is overwhelmingly preferable for contemporary readers who don’t appreciate long passages of description or long-winded sentences and paragraphs that drone on and on. With concise writing, we say what absolutely needs to be said and we say it in as few words as possible, using the simplest and most direct language available. That does not mean the writing can’t have flair or be colorful. It certainly can! Shave off any excess and focus on the juicy bits.
- Organization: A poorly organized manuscript is a nightmare to read. Thoughts, ideas, and action need to flow logically. Similar ideas should be grouped together. Outlines are ideal for planning and organizing a complex piece of writing.
- Consistency: If you use italics for thought dialogue, always use italics for thought dialogue; don’t alternate between italics and quotation marks. If you use a serial comma in one sentence, use it in all sentences that could take a serial comma. Make sure your headings and titles have the same formatting. Be consistent!
- Literary devices: Some literary devices are particular to form and genre, but most can be used across all forms and genres. Literary devices range from techniques for making word choices (like alliteration or assonance) to methods for infusing prose with vivid imagery. Studying these devices and using them in your work will be a huge asset to your writing skills.
- Filler words: Filler words are vague, meaningless, and unnecessary. Consider the following examples: very skinny, really tired, just going to the store. Words like very, really, and just usually do nothing more than emphasize the words they modify. Remove filler words or replace them and the words they modify with single words that are more vivid: bony, exhausted, going to the store.
- Passive vs. active voice: Passive voice comes off sounding formal and old-fashioned. When used in contemporary dialogue, it can sound unnatural. In passive voice, we say The car was driven by her. Active voice is more natural and direct: She drove the car. When in doubt, go with active voice and use passive voice only if you have a good reason to do so.
- Filter words: A common bad habit in narrative writing is framing one action within another: He started walking or I thought the car was too fast. Characters don’t start walking: they walk. In first-person narrative, everything represents the narrator’s thoughts, so it’s sufficient to say the car was too fast; readers understand that this is the narrator’s thought.
- Redundancy: Redundancy is unnecessary repetition or stating the obvious. I suspect it occurs when we’re writing and trying to sort through our own thoughts, so we say the same thing in various ways. Here’s an example: I am taking my car to the shop tomorrow, so I won’t be able to go anywhere because my car will be in the shop. The sentence is redundant. Here’s a replacement sentence: I won’t be able to go anywhere tomorrow because my car will be in the shop.
- Formatting: A writer should know how to format a piece of writing—not just properly, but well. For example, we don’t use italics or quotation marks to tell readers where to place emphasis on words in a sentence.
- Pronouns: Make sure every pronoun is clear, so the reader knows what it represents. Don’t refer to this or that if they are abstract concepts. Don’t use he, she, him, or her three times in a sentence if two or more people or characters are in play.
Better Writing Skills
This chapter of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing goes on to look at skills of substance, software skills, and skills for published authors, and it touches on skills that are particular to form and genre. For more on how to develop your writing skills, pick up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing, available in paperback and ebook.
How important is it for a writer to be able to discern the difference between good writing and bad writing?
Pretty important, if you ask me.
I know some writers aren’t concerned with quality. In today’s do-it-yourself and get-it-done-fast world, quality plays second fiddle to quantity. Who cares if your books are full of typos, bad grammar, and poor logic as long as you have published lots and made a bunch of money?
Readers care. Agents, publishers, and reviewers also care. And while you can still make a million with a bunch of badly written books and a stellar marketing scheme, your work won’t be taken seriously. Also (and this is critical), while it’s possible to make it big by writing badly, it’s not likely. It happens, but it doesn’t happen often. The better your writing, the better your chances for securing a readership and building a career.
The Characteristics of Good Writing
So, what constitutes good writing? Opinions on the matter vary widely. There will be different traits that make good fiction versus good poetry or good nonfiction. However, we can cull together a general list of the characteristics of good writing (in no particular order):
- Clarity and focus: in good writing, everything makes sense and readers don’t get lost or have to reread passages to figure out what’s going on. Focused writing sticks with the plot or core idea without running off on too many tangents.
- Organization: a well organized piece of writing is not only clear, it’s presented in a way that is logical and aesthetically pleasing. You can tell non-linear stories or place your thesis at the end of an essay and get away with it as long as your scenes or ideas are well ordered.
- Ideas and themes: is the topic of your paper relevant? Does your story come complete with themes? Can the reader visualize your poem? For a piece of writing to be considered well crafted, it has to contain clearly identifiable ideas and themes.
- Voice: this is what sets you apart from all other writers. It’s your unique way of stringing words together, formulating ideas, and relating scenes or images to the reader. In any piece of writing, the voice should be consistent and identifiable.
- Language (word choice): we writers can never underestimate or fail to appreciate our most valuable tools: words. Good writing includes smart and appropriate word choices and well crafted sentences.
- Grammar and style: many writers would wish this one away, but for a piece of writing to be considered good (let alone great), it has to follow the rules of grammar (and break those rules only when there’s a good reason). Style is also important in ensuring that a piece of writing is clear and consistent. Make sure you keep a grammar book and style guide handy.
- Credibility or believability: nothing says bad writing like getting the facts wrong or misrepresenting oneself. In fiction, the story must be believable (even if it’s impossible), and in nonfiction, accurate research can make or break a writer.
- Thought-provoking or emotionally inspiring: perhaps the most important quality of good writing is how the reader responds to it. Does she come away with a fresh perspective and new ideas? Does he close the cover with tears in his eyes or a sense of victory? How readers react to your work will fully determine your success as a writer.
I want to add an honorable mention for originality. Everything has been done before, so originality is somewhat arbitrary. However, putting old ideas together in new ways and creating remixes of the best that literature has to offer is a skill worth developing.
Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Good and Bad Writing
To write well, a writer must be able to recognize quality in a piece of writing. How can you assess or improve your own work if you can’t tell the difference between mediocre and better writing?
Writing is also an art form and therefore subject to personal taste. Can you read a book and dislike it but acknowledge that the writing was good? Have you ever read a book and loved the story but felt that the writing was weak?
A writer should be able to articulate why a piece of writing succeeds or fails, and a writer should also be able to recognize the qualities in a piece of writing even when it doesn’t appeal to personal taste. These skills are especially necessary when writers are reviewing or critiquing other writers’ work and when revising, editing, and proofreading their own work.
Where do you stand? Do you rate other people’s writing? Do you worry about whether your own writing is any good? Would you add or remove any characteristics of good writing from this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.