Nothing ruins a great story like weak words and poorly structured sentences.
We’ve all been there. You’re working through your first draft or perhaps making your way through revisions. The scene plays out in your mind like a movie. But when you try to put it into words, it just doesn’t flow right.
In literature, language is what makes a piece of writing tick. The plot, the characters, they move through time and space on their own accord, but the words you use to tell their story give it rhythm and clarity. Read More
I’m a pretty organized person. Over the years, I have spent countless hours reorganizing everything from the kitchen cupboards to my clothes-packed closet. Now, I’m turning all that organizing into a set of writing tips that you can use to get organized too.
People look at me strangely whenever I offer to help reorganize their closets or garages, but it’s a process I enjoy. When you organize your stuff and your space, your mind feels calmer and more organized. You can think more clearly, and that feels good.
I’ve spent a lot of time organizing all my writing projects and have developed a few good methods for keeping things in order.
Basically, all of my writing exists in two formats: print and digital. Years ago, I kept hard copies of everything and tried many methods from file folders to binders.
As I tried each organizational method, I would figure out what worked well and what didn’t work. Now, most of my work is stored digitally, but I do still keep some old hard copies stashed away.
Since I put so much thought into how I organized my own projects, I thought I’d share my organizational writing tips so you can learn from all my hard work.
Writing Tips for Organizing Printed Material
After trying many different strategies for organizing hard copies, I realized that binders are the way to go. Why?
- You can purchase thick 3-5″ binders and cram in as much as possible.
- Organizing is easy with tabbed dividers.
- The pages go in and out easily by opening the rings.
- Clear-cover binders can be customized with fancy spine and cover inserts.
- There are a host of binder accessories available, from bags that hold pens and pencils to folders that you can clip in for holding pages that aren’t hole-punched.
Eventually, more and more of what I’d written was in the digital format. The material in my binders became dated and being environmentally conscious, I started opting to do regular electronic backups over the antiquated print method.
Writing Tips for Organizing Electronic Files
I’ve struggled with how to organize my electronic writing folder. For some reason, printed materials are easier to group and label. By using subfolders, I’ve been able to create navigable directories that make it easy to find anything and everything I’ve written.
Here are the sub-directories I’ve created in my “Writing” folder:
- Notes and Ideas: Notes on the craft of writing and random ideas that don’t fit anywhere else.
- Templates and worksheets: Blank character sketches or world-building worksheets as well as story-writing guides, like the Hero’s Journey.
- Completed Works: Pieces that are ready to be sent out or published.
- In Progress: anything that is not polished, with the following sub-folders:
- Journals and Freewrites: pretty self-explanatory.
- Feedback: feedback and critiques that I have given and received.
- Submissions: copies of work that I’ve submitted along with a spreadsheet for tracking submissions.
- Research for Writing Projects: information that I’ve found online and have saved because I think it might come in handy someday for one of my projects. Now that I use Evernote to clip material from the web, this folder has become an archive.
I reorganize this whole mess about once a year. I just went through it a couple of weeks ago and did a little clean-up, and I found that this system works well for keeping files where I can find them quickly and easily.
Tell me, how do you keep your writing files organized? Share your organizational writing tips in the comments!
Journal writing is something I’ve done on and off since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to keep a reading journal, but usually I inhale books, leaving little time between chapters to jot down my thoughts and reactions.
And by the time I finish reading, it’s often the wee hours of the night and time to fall asleep, which means I’m far too exhausted to post entries in a reading journal.
Next thing I know, I’m on to the next book without a minute to spare.
But lately I’ve been trying to capture my reading experiences by writing down notes about what I’ve read, and I find it incredibly helpful.
The Benefits of a Reading Journal
Keeping a reading journal:
- Increases retention
- Pushes you to contemplate the material you’ve read and study it as a writer while broadening your understanding of the material
- Provides a time and space for writing practice
Most writers already practice regular journal writing. There’s no reason you can’t start including your reading entries there, or if you like to keep things neatly separated, start a separate reading journal. Use a Word document, launch a blog, crack open a notebook. The important thing is that you record your thoughts and your reactions or observations about what you’ve read.
Creative Writing Ideas and Journal Writing
A reading journal can also help you grow as a writer, because you can note what works and what doesn’t. Which scenes in the novel were compelling? What character traits made you fall in love with the protagonist or loathe the villain?
You can keep notes about all your reading, not just books and novels. Jot down your thoughts after reading a magazine article, news story, or blog post. If you really want to get all-inclusive, you can even include music lyrics, movies, and TV shows. All of these are sources of inspiration.
Even if you don’t want to start a whole new reading journal, try writing down your reaction to whatever you read over the weekend. Look for writing techniques, such as plot twists and brain teasers, and make notes on the writer’s style and voice. See if knowing that you’re going to make notes changes the way you read something, and see if those notes benefit your own writing.
Do you keep a reading journal? Is there another genre of journal writing that you prefer? Share your experiences by leaving a comment.
Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged.”
— Douglas Adams
Everyone knows the old saying: rules were made to be broken. But some people love rules, live by them, and wouldn’t dream of breaking them. For these folks, good grammar means strict adherence to every rule, no matter how archaic or minute.
That’s too bad.
Don’t get me wrong. Rules are good. They keep us organized, consistent, and civilized. If there were no rules, we’d all be living in a perpetual state of anarchy.
Learning the Rules
In the world of language, rules help us understand each other. After all, language is merely a series of sounds that are organized according to a set of rules. Without rules, language would just be a bunch of noise.
The rules of grammar are designed to help us communicate clearly, both in our speech and in our writing. When proper grammar is absent, writing is sloppy, inconsistent, and difficult to read. To put it bluntly, we need grammar in order to make sense.
When a writer hasn’t bothered to learn the rules of grammar, it shows. The prose doesn’t flow smoothly or naturally, punctuation marks are strewn about haphazardly, and there’s no sense of clarity. Sentences are jumbled, words are misused, and paragraphs are disorganized. It’s a mess. The work is lazy and sloppy. Nobody wants to read it.
Failing to learn the rules of grammar leads to bad writing.
But some writers stubbornly refuse to bother with grammar, and they’re full of excuses: writing should be an art, the rules don’t make sense, and who made up these rules anyway? But these are all just excuses, poor rationale for avoiding the work that is involved in learning grammar and applying it.
Grammar is not easy to learn, let alone master. Writers, editors, and proofreaders must make a lifelong commitment to learning the rules and determining when the rules should be broken.
Breaking the Rules
Writers who are dedicated to their craft will invest the energy required to master their most basic tools, grammar being foremost among them. But there are situations in which it’s best to break the rules—as long as you know which ones you’re breaking and why.
There’s a difference between breaking the rules to make the writing more effective and breaking the rules because you don’t know what they are.
When we break the rules of grammar, one of two things happens. Either the writing improves or it suffers. Writers who break the rules because they don’t know them are more likely to produce shoddy work. But when writers take the time to truly learn the rules, breaking them becomes an option, a technique that a writer can employ to add flair, color, and meaning to the text.
Sometimes sticking to the rules doesn’t make sense. This is especially true when we’re writing dialogue. People don’t speak in a manner that translates easily into proper grammar. So if our dialogue is written according to the rules of grammar, it can sound unnatural.
Additionally, many grammar rules were established a long time ago. Language is constantly evolving. If a particular rule makes the writing sound old-fashioned or outdated, then discarding the rule is probably the best option.
Learn the rules as thoroughly as you can and then decide how to apply them on a case-by-case basis, depending on the audience and context.
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). He does eventually find the ideal word, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out which word he ends up with and where he gets it.
The Right Word
Billy Crystal’s search for the perfect word in Throw Momma from the Train is one of my favorite film representations of what it means to be a writer. Finding the right word can breathe life into an otherwise lifeless sentence. When we choose words carefully, our writing is clearer and more meaningful.
Of all the tools and techniques that we writers use, none are as critical as our raw materials, our basic building blocks: words. A riveting story will fall flat on its face if readers can’t make sense of it. A thought-provoking essay will be handily dismissed if the language doesn’t clearly communicate the writer’s ideas and intentions. And poetry, which especially emphasizes word choice, is intolerant of lazy writing and poor word choices.
I believe the two greatest goals in word choice are to be clear and concise. Certainly, there are people who pride themselves on reading a convoluted passage dozens of times in order to understand it. However, if a piece needs to be read multiple times for basic comprehension, the writer has grossly failed at his or her primary responsibility, which is to communicate.
Having said that, precision is also an important considerations. Does the word you’ve chosen convey your intent accurately? Could it be misinterpreted? What connotations does it carry?
How to Make the Best Possible Word Choices
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and techniques you can use to make the best possible word choices. Here are some simple writing tips to help make your writing clear and coherent:
- Dictionary: Make sure each word means what you need it to mean. If you’re not 100% sure about a word’s meaning, look it up in the dictionary. Watch out for homophones!
- Accuracy: Every word should convey your meaning accurately. Precision leads to greater clarity, so use the most precise words available. There’s no such color as dull black. It’s charcoal.
- Connotation: Connotation goes hand-in-hand with accuracy and precision. Be aware of each word’s deeper meaning. For example, when people are cheap, the connotation implies that they are stingy, but people who are economical have smart spending habits.
- Necessity: Is every word and every sentence absolutely necessary? In my editing work, it’s not unusual for me to cut 50 or more words from a 1000-word piece. If a word (or phrase) isn’t essential, delete it.
- Aesthetics: Sometimes there are several different words that will do the job. Other times, there are a variety of ways you can arrange words or sentences. In cases like these, the decision may come down to musicality. Be considerate of how each word sounds.
- Clarity: Clarity is the ultimate goal of communication. If the writing is unclear, communication will be unsuccessful. Make sure your intent is obvious. Don’t be vague, and don’t hesitate to rewrite portions of text that lack clarity. Rework it until it makes sense.
- Simplicity: They say less is more, and it’s true. Don’t use a five-syllable word when there’s a perfectly good two-syllable word that will convey the same meaning. Don’t spend paragraphs or pages describing something that could be expressed in a few sentences. Keep it simple!
- Jargon: I love Star Trek, but I have no idea what most of the techno-babble means. However, it’s necessary to the story, otherwise characters would be saying things like, “That thing that makes our starship go is broken.” Beware: sometimes jargon is used ineffectively and causes confusion for the reader. Use it wisely and with caution (and make sure it’s necessary).
- Loaded language: Language is considered loaded when it’s designed to evoke a particular emotional response from the audience through manipulation. It usually involves twisting the truth and is a favorite practice among politicians, pundits, and charlatans. If you have to rely on manipulation to make a point, maybe your point is not worth making.
- Specificity: Vague, obscure writing is meaningless. The trick is to strike the right balance between being specific and providing too much detail. For example, you might give a character a star-shaped birthmark below her right ear. That’s specific. However, long fingernails on a woman are so common, the detail may be too general and therefore meaningless.
- Be natural: Language is most clear when it sounds natural. If readers have to trip over their tongues to get through a paragraph, your text is in trouble. A great way to make sure the prose flows naturally is to read it aloud.
- Thesaurus: Use a thesaurus to find the best possible word choices for every sentence you write. If a word sounds wrong, feels wrong, or doesn’t have the exact meaning that you intend, find a replacement in the thesaurus. If you can’t find one, then some rewriting may be in order.
Every Word Matters
How much effort do you put into choosing the right words for your writing? Have you ever spent days, weeks, even months, in search of the perfect word? Do you often consult with the thesaurus? Share your word-choice adventures by leaving a comment, and keep writing!
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?
Writing Tips for Good Fitness
Most writing tips address creativity and productivity, but these tips are all about staying fit. After all, fitness isn’t just for athletes. All professionals need to keep their skills toned and eyes on the ball.
- Work out: As a writer, you need to give your language center a good workout every now and then. Read a book or brush up on the rules of grammar. Challenge yourself with a crossword puzzle or a game of Scrabble.
- Gather your equipment: Find good, solid resources that you can use to stay on top of your game. Find a blog or a book, a podcast or a video series. Look for resources and sources of inspiration that will help you build up your weaknesses and maximize your strengths as a writer.
- Do your exercises: If you want to write but don’t know what to write about, then try some writing exercises or prompts. These are also ideal for building your skills and toning underused muscles. In other words, if you’re a fiction writer, do some poetry exercises. If you’re a poet, try some storytelling prompts.
- Show up for practice: Write every day. If you don’t write as part of your job, then set aside ten to twenty minutes for daily writing practice in your journal. Even if you can’t work on your larger projects, you should still write something, anything, every day.
- Game plan: Don’t haphazardly write whenever the fancy strikes you. Think about what you want to write, then develop a game plan: a five- or ten-year strategy to achieve your writing career goals.
- Eyes on the ball: Once you’ve set your goals, revisit them annually, monthly, or better yet, weekly.
- Win the match: Every time you reach a milestone, reward yourself with a trophy. Celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. Was that your 100th rejection? Treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Did you just land your first byline? Get a massage. Book deal? Take a vacation.
Those of you who have been visiting Writing Forward for a while know that I am a big advocate for working hard and trying to continuously grow as a writer. The sooner you start working your writer’s muscles, the sooner you’ll be in tip-top shape and on top of your game. Why not start now?
Do you have any writing tips to share? Leave a comment!
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.