Have you ever seen the movie Throw Momma From the Train? It’s a classic 80s comedy about the hilarious misadventures of a writing instructor (Billy Crystal) and one of his students (Danny Devito). When the film opens, Billy Crystal’s character is suffering from an extreme case of writer’s block. In fact, he can’t complete the first sentence of his next novel: The night was…
The character’s search for the perfect word to finish the sentence persists throughout the film (as a sub-plot): The night was hot. The night was hot and wet. The night was humid. The night was cold. The night was foggy. The night was dry.
Of course in the real world, we can solve such problems by using a thesaurus, but in the movie, this quest for the perfect word provokes a lot of frustration from the character (and laughs from the audience). Read more
Believe it or not, there are a few writing tips that we writers can steal from athletes, strategies that show us how to stay in shape and on top of our game.
Athletes work hard even when they’re off the field. They spend hours practicing with their teams. They run miles around the track when nobody else is around. They swim the laps, dunk the balls, and sweep their rackets. They do all this so that when it’s time to play, they’ll steal the show and take home the trophy.
We all went to elementary school, where we learned our ABCs and how to diagram a sentence. In high school, we read the classics and wrote the essays. Now we’ve been let loose on the field. We pen articles, publish blogs, peck away at novels, and compose poetry.
So, how do we stay in shape when we’re not dribbling all over the court? Read more
The human mind is a funny thing; it likes to play tricks on us.
For example, when we proofread and edit our own writing, we tend to read it as we think it should be, which means we misread our own typos and other spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes as well as problems with word choice and sentence structure, context, and overall readability.
If you have a friend or family member who has good grammar skills, maybe they can help you out by proofreading and editing your work before you send it out or publish it.
For special submissions and publications, hiring a professional proofreader or editor is the best way to make sure your writing is free of errors.
But for most of us, it’s not likely that anyone’s going to proofread and edit every single piece of writing that we create. That’s especially true for writers who put out a lot of material — like bloggers. Proofreading and editing services can get expensive, and friends and family probably don’t want to spend all their free time checking your work.
Do-It-Yourself Proofreading and Editing Tips
Sometimes the only option available is to do it yourself. Here are twenty-one proofreading and editing tips that you can put into practice for polishing your own writing:
- Proofread and edit every single piece of writing before it is seen by another set of eyes. No exceptions. Even if you hire a professional editor or proofreader, check your work first.
- Understand the difference between proofreading and editing. Edit first by making revisions to the content and language. Then proofread to check for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- Use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word when you edit. This feature saves your edits. You can then approve or reject those edits.
- Step away from a piece of writing before you proofread it. The longer the piece, the longer you should wait to proofread it. Let a novel sit for a few weeks. Let a blog post sit overnight.
- Before proofreading and editing, run spelling and grammar check. Then, run it again after you’re done polishing to check for any lingering typos. However, don’t count on software for spelling and grammar. Use it as a fail-safe.
- Read your work aloud. Pronounce each word slowly and clearly as you read and check for mistakes.
- Proofreading should never be a rush job. Do it s l o w l y.
- Don’t review your work once and then send it out into the world. I recommend editing until the piece reads smoothly and proofreading three times or more.
- At the very least, proofread until you don’t catch any more errors.
- Read the piece backward so you can see each word separately and out of context.
- Look up the spelling of proper names as well as scientific and technical terms that you’re not familiar with to make sure you’re spelling them correctly.
- Don’t make any assumptions. If you’re not sure about something, look it up so you can fix a mistake (if there is one) and learn the correct way.
- Don’t forget to proofread titles, headlines, and footnotes.
- Pay attention to the mistakes you’ve made in your writing. You’ll find that you tend to make the same ones repeatedly. Keep track of these and work on avoiding them during the initial writing process in the future.
- Choose one of the many style guides and stick with it. This will make your work more consistent, and you’ll have a great resource to use when you have questions about style and formatting.
- Start building a collection of grammar books and writing resources so when you do run into questions (and you will), you have access to reliable and credible answers.
- If you intentionally let grammatical mistakes slip through, do so by choice and make sure you have a good reason. It’s okay to break the rules if you know why you’re breaking them.
- Pay attention to formatting. Use the same formatting on all paragraphs and headings for a professional level of consistency. Learn how to use these features in your word processing software (in MS Word, this feature is called Styles).
- Proofread when you’re fresh and wide awake. Proofreading doesn’t go over well when you’re tired or distracted.
- Proofreading and editing can be tedious, so break up your revision sessions by doing other tasks that help you clear your mind: exercise, play with the pets or kids, go for a short walk, or listen to some music. Try to avoid reading or writing during these breaks.
- Make it your business to develop good grammar skills. Read up on grammar or subscribe to a blog that publishes grammar posts (like this one) to stay up to date on proper grammar.
Some people love the proofreading and editing process. Others despise it. If you’re into grammar, the mechanics of writing, and polishing your work, then proofreading and editing will be easier and more enjoyable for you. If not, just look at it as part of your job — something that goes along with being a writer.
And once you’re done proofreading and editing, make sure you get back to your writing.
Got any proofreading and editing tips to share? Leave a comment!
There’s a lot more to writing than typing words.
Writing well takes years of study, practice, and experience. It requires diligence and attention to detail, study and dedication to the craft. Each project has a unique set of requirements and different types of writing have different rules.
For example, when we’re writing fiction, we have one set of concerns (character, plot, and setting, to name a few), and when we’re writing poetry, we have en entirely different set of issues to deal with.
Basically, writers have to keep a lot of balls in the air. It becomes more natural with practice, but there is a myriad of elements to deal with in any given project.
Tips for Writing
With that in mind, here are thirty-six tips for writing just about anything. You can use this as a checklist when you start a new writing project and refer back to it whenever you get stuck. However, keep in mind that these tips don’t address the specifics of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction; they’re general tips for writing anything rather than specific tips for form and genre.
- Start with a plan. To reach a destination, you must know where you’re going. We can freewrite in our journals and jot down ideas on scraps of paper, but bigger projects will go more smoothly if there’s a plan in place.
- Be prepared. What do you need in order to complete this project? Set up a space and schedule time to work on the project. Gather any supplies, materials, and resources you’ll need.
- Eliminate distractions. It’s impossible to write if you’re interrupted or distracted every few minutes. Turn off your phone, close your browser, and let others know you’re working.
- Know your audience. This is one of the most common tips for writing, and while it’s not mandatory, it sure makes for less revising once you’ve completed your first draft. Are you turning this piece in to an instructor? Submitting it to a magazine? Self-publishing? Who will read it?
- Be familiar with your genre. Sci-fi fans don’t want to read a book written by someone who’s never read any sci-fi books. If you don’t know your genre, you can’t possibly know your audience. Besides, if you don’t read a particular genre, why would you want to write it?
- Choose a style guide. There’s one style guide for journalism, one for medical writing, and another for everything else. If you’re submitting this project to a target publication or an agent (or if you’re self-publishing it), make sure you know which style guide you should follow.
- Brainstorm and outline. Nothing ruins a good writing session like realizing you have no idea what you’re trying to accomplish. Take a few minutes to jot down all ideas related to the project, and then spend some time drawing up an outline. You don’t have to follow it to the letter, but it will come in handy as a kind of road map.
- Conduct credible research. Most writing projects require some research. Whether you need the population of a city or the distance to another planet, check your facts and make sure your logic lines up. Also, make sure your sources are credible. Don’t gather your data from the first website you come across.
- Take breaks and stay healthy. If you’re writing for long periods, take a ten-minute break every hour. If you’re working on a long-term project, make sure you stay healthy by eating nutritious foods and getting plenty of exercise. It might take time away from your writing, but it will also make your writing better.
- Don’t procrastinate and when you reach goals; reward yourself. Writing requires a tremendous amount of discipline. It’s easy to procrastinate if there isn’t a boss hovering over your shoulder and pointing at the clock. Establish milestones for your project and reward yourself whenever you reach one.
- Stay inspired. Passion ebbs and flows, and so do ideas. But you can keep yourself motivated by figuring out what inspires you and regularly imbibing in it. Maybe books on the craft of writing keep you excited about your project. Reading or watching movies in your genre might help you stay motivated and inspired.
- Think about voice. In writing, voice is the tone of a piece — the author’s unique style. A children’s book shouldn’t sound like it was written by a sex kitten and an academic essay shouldn’t sound like it was written by a child. Is your narrative dry, witty, humorous, self-depreciating, or cocky?
- Complete a rough draft. While you’re drafting, turn off your inner editor and don’t scrutinize every word or sentence. Let the ideas flow and let the scenes and ideas move forward. You can fix it up later.
- Keep it simple: Use clear, concise writing. For some audiences, you might ignore this rule, but keep in mind that the simpler and more accessible your writing is, the more people it will be able to reach.
- Use the active voice. Passive voice sounds old-fashioned and outdated. Apply the subject + verb + object construct to your sentences so they are clear and direct.
- Use vivid language. Avoid boring, meaningless words (like nice and very) and opt instead for words with pizazz. For example, don’t write very good. Write excellent.
- Know when to show and when to tell. The most important parts of a story should be shown. Don’t tell the reader the character was tired if her exhaustion is critical to the plot; show her yawning.
- Choose the best possible words. Vivid language helps readers visualize the narrative. You should also choose the most precise, accurate words possible. Don’t say dark red if you mean burgandy.
- Let it sit. Once you complete a draft (and after every revision), let your project sit for a while. Short pieces can sit for a few hours. Longer pieces (like a book) may need to sit for a few weeks. Then you can revise with fresh eyes.
- Read what you’ve written. Before you revise, save a copy of your original draft and read through the whole thing once. If it’s a book-length manuscript, take notes about major changes that you need to make.
- Chop it up. You may need to move large portions of text around. The opening scene might work better at the end. Your thesis statement may be misplaced somewhere in the middle of your paper. Use cut-and-paste with total abandon. Tip: open TextEdit or NotePad in the background and use it to store large chunks of text that you need to move around.
- Delete the excess. You may need to delete entire scenes if they are not relevant to the plot. In fact, you may need to delete some of your favorite sentences and paragraphs. Get rid of anything that isn’t essential to the project’s thesis, objective, or plot.
- Insert. You may find gaping holes in your draft. Be prepared to add new sentences, paragraphs, even entire chapters.
- Rewrite. Depending on how messy your first draft is, you may need to do multiple rewrites. A lot of writers get worn out by this process, but remember — your writing improves with each revision. So dig your heels in and keep rewriting until it feels right.
- Edit. Once you have the main structure and concept down, you can edit for detail. This is where you make your sentences clear and concise. Look for grammatical errors, awkward wording, and vague phrasing.
- Eliminate unnecessary words. If you can delete a word without affecting the meaning of a sentence, then delete it. Often, articles (a, an, the) can be deleted as can pronouns.
- Get rid of the clichés. Better yet, don’t use them in the first place. However, when you’re editing, do your best to weed them out.
- Look it up! If you’re not sure about a word’s meaning or spelling, look it up. If you’re not sure whether you’ve structured a sentence correctly or used proper punctuation, look it up. Do not rewrite to get around the rules. Just learn them.
- Review the transitions. Each paragraph focuses on a different idea, but each paragraph should also flow naturally from the paragraph that precedes it.
- Check for repetition. There’s good repetition and bad repetition. Using the same word or phrase over and over, unnecessarily, is bad. Repeating themes, symbols, and images can be powerful.
- Make sure the sentence structures are varied. Sentences should vary in length and structure. Don’t start every sentence with “I” (a common mistake that young and new writers make). Follow long sentences with shorter ones.
- Read for flow. After editing, read it again. Does everything make sense? Does the entire thing flow naturally and smoothly? If not, go back and edit some more.
- Format your document. Formatting can be done at the beginning or toward the end. I usually format at the beginning, except when writing a long project, like a book, in which case, I wait till the end. Tip: don’t just learn how to format documents; instead, become a master of formatting. For example, if you use Word, learn how to use the style feature. You should know how to set spacing, indentations, font face and size, how to align text, and apply bold and italics.
- Proofread. No matter how strong your writing skills are, typos will slip past you. When you proofread, you’re looking for basic mistakes and typographical errors. Recommendation: proofread each piece until you can’t find any typos at all.
- Get a second opinion. Even though you proofread until you couldn’t find any typos, there are probably a few lingering around. There’s a scientific reason for this, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you get someone else to check your work. If necessary, hire a professional.
- Final polish. Ideally, you’ll read through it one last time (after letting it sit again) and you’ll find it squeaky clean. This means it’s done and ready to be served.
And that’s not all…
This list might seem overwhelming, but it just covers the basics. If you’re writing fiction, there is whole other set of things you need to do. If you’re writing for business or academia, there are additional rules to follow. Remember, there are a whole bunch of other things to consider with each form and style of writing. That’s why knowing your form and genre is so important.
But these tips for writing are a good start. Not only will they help you write, they’ll help you write well.
Do you have any tips for writing to add to this list? Share any tips that writers can use by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
It’s an old adage for writers: know your audience. But what does that mean? How well must we know the audience? And does knowing the audience increase our chances of getting published or selling our books?
Some writers insist that the best way to write is to just write for yourself. Sit down and let the words flow. It’s true that sometimes a freewheeling approach will result in some of your best work. And writing that way is immensely enjoyable. But there are times when a writer must take readers into consideration.
So we have these two contradictory writing tips: know your audience and write for yourself. Taken together, they don’t make much sense, so let’s sort them out. Today, we’ll focus on knowing your audience.
In business, academic, and other types of formal writing, the audience is a consideration from the very beginning. You wouldn’t write a business letter peppered with internet shorthand (LOLs and OMGs), and you shouldn’t use casual language in an academic paper. In instances like these, it’s easy to see why you must keep your reader in mind throughout the entire project, but what about poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction writing? Should the work be influenced by its intended readers? At what point does the audience begin to matter? And who is the audience, anyway?
Some writers know they want to write children’s books, so they keep a young audience in mind. After all, it wouldn’t do to write a children’s book laden with adult language or love scenes. Other writers want to publish a memoir, hoping their own personal story will inspire others. And if you’re hoping to inspire people, you should have a good idea about which people you want to inspire — whether they’re spiritual, impoverished, or creative.
These types of writers have specific goals, and their writing must be aligned with those goals.
That’s why in some cases, it’s essential to know who your audience is before you begin writing. But there are other cases when the goals aren’t so clear, and therefore, neither is the audience. In cases like these, does a writer ever need to think about readers?
Goals Aren’t Always Necessary (and Neither is an Audience)
When you write for the sheer joy of writing or love of craft and you do so without any particular goal in mind, the creative magic can sweep you away. When I wrote my novel for NaNoWriMo in 2008, I started with nothing more than a few characters. My only goal was to write at least 50,000 words. I didn’t give a thought to the audience. And I’m certain that approaching the project this way, with an open mind and without any particular goal in terms of content, is what enabled me to actually complete the first draft of my first novel. It felt like quite an achievement.
When I finished my novel, I knew instantly who the audience was. I had written a young adult novel! If I ever decide to revise and polish that (very rough) first draft and polish it for publication, knowing that the book is geared toward young adults will be helpful in informing the way I approach editing and proofreading. I’ll pay attention to the language to make sure it’s age-appropriate, and I’ll make sure the characters, themes, and everything else are suitable for the target age group.
Knowing the audience would influence which agents and publishers I might contact. Agents and publishers often specialize in specific types of writing; they cater to clearly defined audiences. Therefore, as a writer, it helps to know who the audience will be when polishing a manuscript and looking for publication opportunities. This becomes even more critical once the book gets published and marketing begins.
The Benefits of Knowing Your Audience (and When It’s Absolutely Necessary)
If you write in a journal and nobody ever sees your work, then you don’t need to think about an audience. Readers come into play when you decide to publish your work. There’s a point when you decide that you want to cross over from writer to published author, and it’s at that point that the audience starts to matter in a big way.
Agents and publishers can’t do much with your work if the audience is unclear. This is particularly relevant with fiction and nonfiction. There are dozens of poetry markets, so chances are, you can find your audience after the writing is done and polished. But other genres will need to be marketed to the right readers. This is also a factor in blogging and self-publishing.
Publication is the point where your art shifts into business mode. It’s the stage when you say, “I want to do this for a living and make money doing it.” That means you’re going to have to sell, and anytime you’re selling anything, you need to know to whom you’re selling.
Some Writing Tips Aren’t Absolute
So, the answer isn’t all that clear. There are some writers who need to know their audience from a project’s conception. Others don’t need to consider an audience until they decide to try getting published. Poets can probably get away with not thinking about the audience until they start looking for publications where they can submit their work. But one thing’s certain: once you set your sights on publication, that means you’re looking for readers. And since readers are your audience, you’ll have to give them some consideration.
Do you think about your readers while you’re writing? Are you concerned about getting published? Do you believe that knowing your audience is more beneficial than writing for yourself? What are some of your favorite writing tips?
Those of us who spend a lot of time studying the craft of writing inevitably come across bits of writing advice that we hear over and over again: show don’t tell, write what you know, and kill your darlings. These writing tips can be a bit cryptic, but the one about revisions is crystal clear: writing is rewriting.
The intention is to get ideas out of your head and onto the page (or the screen, as the case may be) as quickly as possible without worrying about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. You don’t need to get the details right. Just get that rough draft completed. You can clean it up later.
Like most writing tips, this one is debatable. Some writers prefer to labor over each sentence while composing a first draft. This means fewer edits later. Others use the drafting process to navigate through their ideas. This often means more revisions when the drafting is done; in other words, the bulk of time is spent on rewriting.
Getting it Right the First Time
If you have a good grasp on your project, then polishing as you go might be a good process for you. For example, if you’ve sketched your characters and made a detailed outline of your story, then you can focus on details as you work through your first draft.
It might seem like trying to get it right on the first draft will be a time saver. I’m not sure about that. Drafting in this manner means going over each sentence and paragraph several times before moving on to the next. In this sense, you’re still revising multiple times; you’re just doing it at the sentence or paragraph level rather than revising the entire manuscript.
However, this is a method I often use when writing blog posts, and I’ve found that there are some benefits to it. I find fewer errors when I proofread. I also outline the posts first when I use this method, so the drafting is a bit smoother since I already know what I want to say. As I draft, I go over each sentence and paragraph. Finally, I can usually polish it with a single proof.
It all goes by pretty quickly, but since I’m working on short pieces, I can easily keep all the ideas for each piece in my head as I’m writing. When I’m working on a more elaborate project, like a novel, there’s a lot more going on.
Get it Right Through Revisions
A book is a massive undertaking. It’s not unusual for writers to spend over a year on the first draft alone. If you’re writing a novel, you have a lot to think about: characters, plot, scenes, action, dialogue, description, themes, and story arcs. Even if you have a general idea of what your story is about, once you start fleshing it out, you’ll run into all kinds of problems.
These problems can slam the brakes on your writing progress. If you’re also paying close attention to grammar, spelling, and punctuation or working out the most minute details of every scene as you write your first draft, you’ll find yourself stopping every few sentences to iron out the wrinkles. When you do that, you risk losing your train of thought. If you’re deep into a scene, you could lose its entire flow because you’re worrying over minutia that could be dealt with later.
During revisions, you can shave off the excess, editing your piece down, or you can build on the narrative, fleshing out the details. You can clean up the grammar, get rid of all the typos, and fix everything that needs fixing. Every time you go through another revision, you make the manuscript better. All that rewriting leads to a clean, polished project.
Most writers seem to get the best results with this method.
If you’re going to write by rewriting, plan on going over your work multiple times. Here’s a good system:
- First draft: as you write the first draft, focus on getting your ideas on the page. Don’t go back and revise at all. In fact, don’t even re-read what you’ve written unless you absolutely have to in order to get your bearings.
- Review: go through your draft and make notes about large problems that have to be addressed. You might have to rename some characters, conduct research so you get the facts right, move large sections around, or make major changes to the narrative.
- Rewrite: using your notes, do a thorough rewrite of the entire draft. Now your messy rough draft is cleaned up.
- Revise: read through your draft again, making changes as you go. Tighten up the dialogue, smooth out the descriptions, check for sentence flow and word choice. You might do focused revisions: one for dialogue, one for fact-checking, one for double-checking your descriptions.
- Edit: you’ll probably clean up a lot of technical errors as you rewrite and revise, but when you edit, you should be focused on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. If you’re not sure about the rules of grammar, this is when you should look them up.
- Proof: finally! Now you’re just checking for those last remaining pesky typos.
You might have to repeat some of these steps. For example, I usually recommend proofreading a manuscript until you can’t find any remaining mistakes or typos. Ideally, once you’re done, you’ll bring in a professional editor. Remember, no matter how many times you go over your manuscript, a few mistakes and inconsistencies will slip through.
How Much Do You Rewrite?
Do you try to produce a perfect first draft or do you follow the old adage that writing is rewriting? Do you use different writing processes for different projects? I do. Finally, what are some of your favorite writing tips? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
If there’s one piece of writing advice that took me years to truly understand, it’s write what you know.
When I first heard this instruction, I thought it was odd. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but I do remember thinking that as far as writing tips went, it was absurd.
What about writing from your imagination or your feelings? How do genres like science fiction and fantasy fit into the idea that you should only write what you know?
It all seemed rather limiting. Was I supposed to write about American suburbia? That’s what I knew, and it was the last thing I wanted to write about.
One of the reasons memoir doesn’t appeal to me as a writer is because I don’t want to write what I know. I don’t want to relive my life. I want to use writing to live outside of my life, to explore what I don’t know.
I decided to disregard the advice and write whatever I wanted.
What Does It Mean to Write What You Know?
Over the years, I began to understand that write what you know isn’t one of those writing tips that is meant to be taken literally. It’s not a piece of instruction; it’s a guideline.
Think about the world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling invented a world of magic, a world that many of us might dream about but none could know in the literal sense. Yet she based that world on our world and on the many fantastical, fictional worlds that already exist in literature. Even if we’re not consciously aware of it, we are constantly influenced by what we’ve read, seen, and experienced. My guess is that in one way or another, the seeds of Harry Potter’s world came from Middle Earth, Narnia, and a galaxy far, far away.
The most fantastical worlds in storytelling are beloved because they are full of truths. They tell us who we are as individuals and as a society. I would guess that Ms. Rowling knows a thing or two about friendship and loyalty because there is truth in the relationships that exist between Harry and his closest friends, Ron and Hermione. These relationships have ups and downs but are constant.
While flipping back and forth between two channels late at night, Suzanne Collins saw kids competing on reality TV and footage of the war in Iraq. The images blurred in her tired mind, and the Hunger Games were born. She didn’t know a world where children are thrust into an arena to fight to the death. But she could take what she knew (or could learn), add a heap of her own imagination and render a believable world.
To write what you know does not mean to only write about experiences you’ve actually had or people you’ve actually met. It means you use what you know about life, nature, and humanity as the foundation for your stories.
Write What You Want
I believe the best writing is a balanced mixture of what the writer knows and what the writer seeks. Maybe the setting is the writer’s home town and the characters are based on her friends and family, but the plot is completely outside her realm of experience. Maybe the plot is taken from history, which the writer has researched (and therefore knows), but the world in which it is set is drawn from her imagination. Creativity and art are all about combining existing elements in innovative ways.
It is true: you should write what you know, but you should also leave room in writing for the unknown, room to explore and discover new truths, ideas, and possibilities:
- Write what you feel. Use your personal, emotional experiences and share them with the reader through characters you’ve invented. Emotional truths make a piece of fiction honest and compelling.
- Write what you imagine. Let yourself explore a world of possibilities: fantastical beasts, mythical creatures, aliens, and strange, magical worlds.
- Write what you experience. Every experience you’ve had can be translated to fiction. Remember your first day of school? Tweak that experience and give it to one of your characters, even if the character is an elf or an alien.
- Write what interests you. You can write what you know after you’ve learned it. Conduct research about things that interest you and then use those things in your stories. Pull facts and ideas from history, current events, and textbooks.
- Write what matters to you. It goes without saying that your work must matter to you. Write about what moves you, stirs your passion, fills you with joy or rage. If you’re invested in your project, it will come through in your writing and it will speak to higher truths.
What do you write?
How do you feel about writing tips like write what you know? Do you try to write what you know? How far outside of what you know do you take your writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
As a writer, it helps to be thick-skinned.
Professional writing is a highly competitive and saturated field where criticism is omnipresent for two important reasons:
1) It’s the most efficient way for writers to increase their skills, and
2) Written work is often positioned to receive much criticism upon publication.
And guess what? Everyone’s a critic — because everyone has an opinion. Anyone can read a piece of writing and opine that it is good or bad, weak or strong, or that it succeeded or failed.
There’s a definite art to providing well constructed and thoughtful criticism, which is designed to help a writer improve and that recognizes the fine line between personal preference and quality of the work.
The process of critiquing other writers’ work thoughtfully and intelligently will help you strengthen your own writing. The tips below explain how to provide critiques that are helpful and respectful. If you can apply these tips to the critiques you give, then you’ll better position yourself to receive helpful and respectful critiques in return.
Don’t Crash the Party
Generally, it’s bad form to sound off on a writer’s work unless you are invited to do so. There are a few writers who can’t handle feedback, and often these are the ones who won’t ask for it. Chances are, they’re just going to defend their work to the bitter end, so your feedback will be little more than a waste of time. Other writers will openly declare that feedback is always welcome. It is here that you should focus your efforts, assuming your goal as a critic is to help people, and not make them feel inferior or feeble. However, your best bet is to simply limit your critiques to those writers who personally ask you for feedback. This will usually be a trade, in which you swap critiques, an arrangement that should be mutually beneficial.
R.S.V.P. with Care
Some writers ask for feedback, but what they really want to hear is how great they are. These are the narcissistic types who write more for their own egos than for the sake of the craft itself. It takes a little intuition to figure out which writers really want you to weed out all the flaws in their work and which are just looking for praise. If your critique partner asks specific questions, you should answer, but try to avoid back-and-forth arguments and getting into a position where you are defending your critique or where the writer is defending his or her work. Exchanges like these are a sign that this is not a beneficial or positive critique relationship.
Bring Something to the Party
If you’re giving a critique, whether in a writer’s group, a workshop, online, or with a friend, you should take the time to really read a piece before you construct your feedback. Read every line carefully and make notes, mark it up as you go, and then jot down your thoughts when you’ve finished reading. If time and the length of the piece allow, give it a second reading, because that’s often where things really click or stick out. There’s nothing worse than receiving half-baked feedback. It’s blatantly obvious when someone hasn’t put sincere effort into a critique, and it renders the critique useless.
Devour the Food, Not the Hostess
Whatever you do or say during your critique, your feedback should be directed at the writing, not the writer. Don’t start your comments with the word “you” — ever. Always refer to the piece, the sentence, the paragraph, the prose, or the narrative. You are judging the work, not the individual who produced it, and though compliments aimed at the writer might be well received, there’s a subtle but significant difference between pointing out flaws in the piece versus the person who created it.
Let the Good Times Roll
When you are giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good. This is the cardinal rule of effective critiquing, and I cannot emphasize this enough: always start by telling the writer what works and where the strengths lie. By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.
Here are two examples to illustrate this point:
1. The language is effective, with strong, colorful images. I can really see this in my mind quite vividly. However, some of the wording sounds cliché, so one way to make this even stronger would be to come up with alternatives to the more commonly used phrases, like…
2. Well, there are a lot of clichés. You should have tried to use more original word choices. But your imagery is good; I can visualize what the piece is communicating.
The first example is an appropriate critique whereas the second is both unprofessional and inconsiderate. It’s much easier to let a little air out of an inflated balloon than to blow up a deflated one. It’s especially easier on the person who is on the receiving end of your feedback.
Try to Have Fun Even if it’s Not Your Scene
Some people hate stories written in first person, but that doesn’t make a piece written in first person bad; it just makes it less appealing to the person who is turned off by it. Know the difference between your own personal preferences in terms of writing styles and try to separate these from your critiques. You can also issue a disclaimer letting the writer know that some of the elements in his or her work are not to your personal taste. If the entire style or genre is outside of your taste, then you may be doing the writer a favor by declining to critique or by recommending someone who would be a better match.
Help Clean up the Mess
Eventually, you’ll have to tell the writer where the piece falls short. Do this with grace. Avoid using strong negative language. Don’t repeatedly say things like “this is weak,” “you’re using the wrong words,” or “it’s boring.” Instead, use positive language and phrase your comments as suggestions for improvement:
- This word is vague. A stronger word would be…
- A better word choice would be…
- This could be more compelling or exciting if…
Remember, you’re there to help, not to hurt. If someone appreciates your opinion enough to ask for it, then provide it in a manner that is conductive to learning and supportive of the writer’s efforts to grow. Whenever possible, offer concrete suggestions. If you spot a weak word, try to offer a stronger replacement word.
Nurse the Hangover
There’s a good chance that no matter how gentle you are, your writer friend will feel a bit downtrodden after hearing that their piece still needs a lot of work. Many writers are tempted at this point to give up on a piece, while very few will be motivated and inspired by the feedback.
After you’ve given a critique, check back with the writer and ask how the piece is coming along. Inquire as to whether your comments were helpful, and offer to read the piece again after it’s revised.
Learning How to Critique
Constructive criticism involves a little compassion. If someone cares enough about their work to show it around and invite feedback, then it’s probably something in which they are emotionally invested. If you are the person they feel is qualified to provide that feedback, then embrace the invitation as an honor and approach it with respect.
It can be awkward at first — after all, who wants to be the bearer of bad news (and almost every critique contains at least a little bad news)? After you do a few critiques, you’ll get the hang of it and it will become natural and easy. Just keep these basic tips on how to critique in mind:
- Don’t provide a critique unless you’ve been invited to do so.
- Don’t waste time on writers who are looking for praise. Seek out writers who want feedback that will genuinely help them improve their work.
- Take time and make an effort so you can offer a critique that is thoughtful and helpful; otherwise, just politely decline.
- Critique the writing, not the writer.
- Always start with the strengths, then address the weaknesses and problem areas using positive language.
- Be objective, especially if the piece you’re critiquing is not in a style or genre that you prefer.
- Make solid suggestions for improvement. Don’t be vague.
- Follow up with the writer to offer support and encouragement.
- Be patient with yourself as you learn how to critique effectively.
Do you have any tips to add? Have you ever struggled with providing critiques to other writers? Has the critique process helped you improve your own writing? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
The first time I heard the advice “Show, don’t tell,” I was young and it confused me.
Show what? Isn’t writing all about telling a story?
At the time, I shrugged it off as some kind of mysterious double-talk, but the phrase kept popping up: show, don’t tell.
It rolled off my teachers’ tongues. I spotted it in books and articles on the craft of writing. A couple of times, it appeared in red on my papers with an arrow pointing to a specific sentence or paragraph. Then, I took a poetry class and had a big aha moment where show, don’t tell became abundantly clear.
In poetry studies, we talk a lot about imagery. This poem has vivid imagery. What a great image! The images in the first stanza don’t go with the images in the second stanza. This kind of talk didn’t make sense to me either. Images in poems? We’re supposed to be writing, not drawing!
The irony, of course, is that my writing was packed with imagery and I was more prone to showing than telling. Nevertheless, the phrasing of these writing tips perplexed me.
Since then, I’ve worked with plenty of other young and new writers who have expressed embarrassment at having to admit they’re not sure what show, don’t tell means.
Show, Don’t Tell
Show, don’t tell is often doled out as writing advice, and it frequently appears on lists of writing tips. It even has its own Wikipedia page! Along with the advice write what you know and know your audience, it’s one of those writing-related adages that deserves some explanation because it seems counter-intuitive and raises a bunch of questions.
Yet it’s actually a simple concept. Ironically, the best way to explain it is to show, rather than tell, someone what it means, and I don’t think anybody’s done that better than Anton Checkhov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
– Anton Chekhov (source: Goodreads)
Oh, I Get It
I once heard a lecturer give a talk about love, and he made a good point: it’s not enough to tell someone you love them; you have to show people that you love them through your actions.
We can apply the same concept to writing.
You can tell your readers that two characters met and were instantly attracted to each other, or you could show the characters meeting, making eye contact, and checking each other out. He gulps, she bats her eyelashes, and readers get the picture.
When you show, you’re using words to create a scene that readers instantly visualize. Instead of intellectually registering what you’re telling them, they fully imagine what you’re showing them.
We can turn Checkhov’s explanation into a writing exercise in which we show, don’t tell readers our ideas:
|Kate was tired.||Kate rubbed her eyes and willed herself to keep them open.|
|It was early spring.||New buds were pushing through the frost.|
|Charlie was blind.||Charlie wore dark glasses and was accompanied by a seeing-eye dog.|
|Sheena is a punk rocker.||Sheena has three piercings in her face and wears her hair in a purple mohawk.|
|James was the captain.||“At ease,” James called out before relaxing into the Captain’s chair.|
Now you try it. Think of some simple ideas that you could show readers instead of telling them. Feel free to share them in the comments.
Are there any writing tips that you hear frequently but don’t quite grasp? Share your thoughts and questions by leaving a comment, and make sure when you’re writing, you show, don’t tell.
Wikipedia defines writer’s block as “a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.”
However, I have come to believe that in most cases, writer’s block is a symptom, not a condition.
Before we can cure writer’s block, we have to diagnose it.
Writer’s block is almost always presented as some mysterious disease. A writer sits down to work and nothing happens. The ideas are gone. The words don’t come. It must be writer’s block!
At times, writers certainly lose their inspiration or face challenges that prevent them from working. I’m not saying we shouldn’t call this writer’s block. What I am saying is that in my experience, there’s usually some underlying cause, and it’s often something that’s easily remedied. Instead of blaming our inability to work on a vague condition, we can figure out what’s really preventing us from writing and fix the real problem.
Today, let’s dissect writer’s block and figure out what causes it. We’ll also explore some solutions for curing writer’s block, and I’ll share some writing tips that have helped me stay inspired.
What Causes Writer’s Block?
The true causes behind writer’s block are probably infinite. Each of us requires a different set of conditions to be productive and creative. Some writers can trudge through a draft when they’re tired while others will just stare at the blank page with an even blanker look on their faces. However, there are a few common causes that we can identify:
- Physical ailments: If you’re sick, exhausted, hungry, or dealing with a headache, you might find it impossible to write. Allergies interfere with my ability to focus on anything, including writing, a few times a year. Whether you face these kinds of ailments occasionally or on a regular basis, it’s important to acknowledge the real problem and then look for a cure. That might mean taking a break so you can take care of yourself. I recently struggled with writer’s block because I had a nasty cold. I cured both my cold and writer’s block by drinking lots of hot water with lemon and honey.
- Mental and emotional stress and distractions: It’s hard to concentrate when you’re in a bad mood, stressed out, depressed, or angry. In cases of a bad mood, a little positive thinking might pull you out of it. You can also use relaxation techniques to calm your anger or alleviate your stress. It’s normal to be depressed after any kind of loss or trauma, and these times may call for taking a hiatus from your creative work. If depression persists for more than a few weeks or months, it’s important to see a doctor.
- Lazy days: Sometimes you just don’t want to write (or do much else, either). There’s a deadline looming but the sun is shining and the beach is calling. You swore you’d finish this chapter today but you’d rather take a nap. Technically, this probably shouldn’t be included on this list, because the problem isn’t that you’re blocked; you’re just feeling (or being) lazy. However, I know there are writers out there who use writer’s block as an excuse for being lazy. This is common when writers get burnt out and what they really need is either a break or a little motivation. Look for ways to get your energy levels up (eat healthy, nutritious meals and get plenty of exercise) and revisit your goals to regain your motivation.
- The grass is greener: This is a close cousin to the lazy day. It’s not that you’d rather get some rest and relaxation. You’d just rather do anything in the world other than work on your writing project. In fact, you’d rather surf the web, organize your closet, or schedule a dentist appointment. You may even be seduced by a brilliant new idea that’s tempting you away from whatever you’re supposed to be working on. The grass may look greener, but it’s not. The only cure here is sheer willpower. You can also use a reward system: get your work done and then treat yourself to something special.
- Avoidance and procrastination: Sometimes we go out of our way to avoid a difficult writing challenge. It could be that we’ve gotten our characters into a sticky situation and can’t get them out of it, or it could be a poem for which we just can’t seem to find the right rhythm. You might know, deep down inside, that you have to scrap some of your work or make heavy revisions to get yourself unstuck. Maybe you need to do some (boring or tedious) research. So you avoid it altogether. Instead of procrastinating, push yourself to face these obstacles head-on. You can also skip ahead and work on some other part of your project. If you’re truly stuck, then ask a friend to take a look and offer advice. Often, someone else can see a solution where we can’t because we’re too close to our own work.
I’m sure there are many more causes of writer’s block. I’ve experienced all of these in varying degrees. As I’ve grown more experienced, I’ve learned that whether I need to take better care of myself, push harder to get things done, or face up to an undesirable challenge, writer’s block can be cured, and usually, it can be cured easily.
A Few, Final Writing Tips for Combating Writer’s Block
- Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and drink plenty of water. Schedule time for rest and relaxation. Don’t run yourself down.
- No matter what you’re working on, some other project or activity might sound more enticing. Try to see one project through before starting another and reward yourself when you push through something difficult or unpleasant.
- On the other hand, if you have two projects going, you can rotate back and forth to maintain your interest in both.
- Get advice from other writers. Often, they’ll see a solution where you see no way out.
- Sometimes, defeating writer’s block is just a matter of getting inspired. Keep a running list of ideas and things that inspire you. Whenever you feel uninspired, this list will be there for you.
How Do You Handle Writer’s Block?
Do you believe in writer’s block? Is it a real condition or a symptom of some other problem? Is it possible to become uninspired for no reason whatsoever? Do you have any writing tips that would help other writers stay inspired and unblocked? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.