Scott Postma

A blog about the Great Books, the Craft of Writing, and Human Flourishing.

Nine Tips that will Set Your Writing Apart

If you’re a writer, you have a message to share.

If you are not a writer, somewhere along the way you will be. You will need to write a term paper, a personal letter, or some kind of office correspondence. But you will need to write. At the very least, it’s likely you already text, email, and post on various social media. That’s writing. The bottom line is we all write–even if it’s not books.

If you want your message to be taken seriously, you need to write well. Writing well is what sets you apart. It’s what will get you noticed and keep readers interested in what you have to say.

Following are nine tips that will help set your writing apart now:

 

Read Voraciously

If you want to write well you have to be well read. There’s no way around this. If reading is not your thing, writing well won’t be either. The best writers are voracious readers.

One way to get started is to create a reading schedule and stick with it. Perhaps, one book per month is a good place for you to start. You can always adjust your reading volume as you go.

For a well-rounded reading experience, you might try alternating between genres like this:

  • Month 1 – History/Biography/Contemporary Novel
  • Month 2 – Relationship/Stewardship/Leadership
  • Month 3 – Theology/Philosophy/Poetry
  • Month 4 – Classic Literature / Craft (Writing) / Science

Each month select a genre from the list in that month. Rotate through the genres as you rotate through the quarters. With this approach, you could read from most of the major genres in a year. It’s just an idea. The key is to become a voracious and well-rounded reader.

 

Read Selectively

Solomon, the resplendent king of ancient Israel, wrote “…Of making many books there is no end….” With all the books being published today, there’s no way to read everything you want. It’s important to do a little homework and find out the best authors in the genre. Be sure to read the books written by people you admire, the writers who inspire you to do your best work. But also read others who are experts in their field, even if you don’t know them.

Don’t ever feel bad about putting down a book that doesn’t get the job done. It’s a waste of time to read second-rate writing just because you feel you should finish what you start. Use your limited time to only read the best.

Read the Best Blogs

Choose a few good bloggers in your favorite genre and read them, regularly. Choose a couple more from other topics of interest. But don’t take on more than  five or  six a week, 10 tops. Otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and stop reading altogether. Glean from these writers, comment on their posts, and interact with them.

Read the Best on the Craft of Writing

Following is a list of suggested reading on the craft and mechanics of writing in no particular order:

 

Read the Classics (and the Trivium)

The Classics

Mark Twain said, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” I say, make time to read the classics.

This may seem unnecessary to some who have nourished themselves on contemporary literature alone, but if you want to stand apart as one who writes well, you need to be familiar with classics. These are the venerable works of literature that have maintained their influence throughout history—particularly in our western tradition—because they best capture the human experience. 

The Trivium

The Trivium deals with logic (the art of thinking), grammar (the art of symbols), and rhetoric (the art of communication). These are the essential tools of every communicator. If you want to write clear and accurate prose, it’s essential to understand how these categories of thought relate to both writer and reader.

Charles W. Eliot, former Harvard University president, said a liberal arts education could be obtained by reading for just 15 minutes a day from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. Challenged to live up to his statement he went on to compile and edit a 51-volume anthology known as “The Harvard Classics.”

If you want to write well—or at least better—get yourself a five-foot shelf, fill it up with classics, and spend 15 minutes a day reading.

Here’s a quick review of the first three tips in verse

Read broadly to stretch your mind.

Read selectively, the best of kind.

Read classically to rouse the muse.

Read frequently, you’re the books you choose.

 

Keep a Writing Journal

Writing well is better caught than taught. That means you’ll read some things along the way that catch your eye or steal your breath. When you trip over a fresh metaphor, or stumble across effective dialogue, or even cross paths with a meaningful quote, you’ll want to remember it. Keep a writing journal to catalog those jewels.

Use it to jot down ideas, collect expressions, and define words you’ll want to incorporate in your writing later on. It’s also a good place to freewrite and keep track of authors you may want to read.

 

Vomit First

We all know what Hemingway thought of first drafts. Your high school English teacher may have called it freewriting. Someone else whose name I don’t recall said to kill your internal editor. Annie Dillard says she lays down a line of words the same way a miner digs his way into the canyon. He knows the path is not the work. It’s the path to the work. Guy Kawasaki says he vomits on the paper and then picks out the chunks.

However you want to say it. Whatever metaphor you choose. The point is the same. Don’t get hung up on the first draft. The whole lie about writer’s block is just a failure to understand your first draft is about getting something on paper—anything—so you have something to work with. Flannery O’Connor said she didn’t even know what she wanted to say until she saw it on paper.

Learn to just write. Write lists. Write in streams of consciousness. Write ideas. Write about your pain. Write about your fantasies. Write about your neighbor, or your pet, or your kids. Write a letter you’ll never send. Just write something and don’t expect it to be good. Writers are artists. So think of your first draft as plopping the clay or the paints onto to the palette. That is not your masterpiece. That is your medium. That is what you’re going to use to create your masterpiece.

 

Write One Good Paragraph at a Time

Limit paragraphs to one idea. Begin with a topic sentence, then provide one or two supporting sentences, and finish with a concluding sentence. If you want to be as clear as mud, give the reader several ideas to untangle in each paragraph. Otherwise, provide a topic sentence that includes the main idea and the controlling idea. The main idea is the paragraph’s topic as it relates to the overall thesis. The controlling idea is your position on the topic. For example, if you follow my advice on how to write a paragraph, you will write clear and meaningful prose. The supporting sentences can explain your idea, provide examples, or even enlist a quote. The last sentence should be your conclusion. That’s how to write a clear paragraph your readers will understand.

 

Clean up the Mess

I don’t mean too sound two harsh, but in my opinion, a great deal of a whole bunch of the kind of pourly written writing that I’m talking about has alot of extra craftily written and fanciful words, and very complicated syntax or diction for they’re sentence structures, so much so that it really is very difficult for the reader, whether they are a good reader or not good readers, to understand completely what it is that they was hoping to say, in so many words, to his reader. Get the point?

Say exactly what you mean; mean exactly what you say.

Use active voice.

Cut the ambiguity.

Drop the word “that” whenever possible. More often than not, it’s possible.

Separate run-on sentences with a period.

Cut the unnecessary adverbs. Mark Twain said every time you feel inclined to use the word “very,” replace it with “damn.” The editor will strike it and cut the weak spots for you. Adverbs have a place, but use them sparingly. Use them when there is not an active verb for what you want to say.

Use concrete nouns whenever possible. C.S. Lewis said, “If you mean ‘More people died’ don’t say ‘Mortality rose.’

Get the noun-verb agreement right.

Cut the misspelled words. They make you look stupid. Yes, even when you text! Use the spell-checker but don’t rely on it, completely. Buy a dictionary and learn to spell instead.

Cut the unnecessary commas. I’m for the oxford comma because it clears up the ambiguity. Other than that, only use commas where they belong, with appositives and dependent clauses. Again, watch for comma splices. That’s where two independent clauses are separated by a comma when they should be separated by a period, or perhaps a semi-colon in some cases. A misused comma gets in the way and clutters your writing.

Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style, will help with some of this. It’s a must-have for every writer.

 

Study Grammar

In college, my journalism professor told me it’s okay to break the grammar rules… if you know them and why they exist. Writing is mostly an art, but it’s also a science. If you get the science of writing down, first, you can develop the art with practice. Regardless of what others tell you, don’t rely on editors to do your job for you. Study the rules of grammar to write well.

Some of these titles would be worth adding to your library: The Essentials of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer; Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (Quick & Dirty Tips) by Mignon Fogarty; and Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar : Complete Course.

 

Sit Your Butt in the Chair

Of course you’ve heard that before. But there’s a reason you keep hearing it. When it’s all said and done, and you’ve assimilated all the tips and training your mind can handle, the only way to improve is to practice.

Writers write. So sit your butt in a chair and write every day.

It doesn’t matter if you write long-hand or on a keyboard. It doesn’t matter if you write poetry or an email, an op-ed or a novel; it only matters that you write. Set a word or page goal, and knock it out. Every. Single. Day.

Okay, you can have one day off in a week, but that’s it.

If your time is restricted, block out what you can—fifteen minutes or an hour—and write till the timer goes off. However you do it, if you want to write well, you have to practice well.

Hint: Be okay with being mediocre for a while as you put in your hours. This is true for anything you want to do well (Think Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours).

A mediocre writer who is exceptionally disciplined will produce exceptional work if he or she keeps at it.

 

You Provide the 10th Tip

What would you add to this list? Share your thoughts in the comments. As always, I look forward to hearing from you.

 

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About Scott Postma

Scott is a writer and teacher living in North Idaho. He loves teaching the Great Books, writing and blogging, and collecting more books than he’ll ever read in a lifetime. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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8 Replies

  1. Scott, I discovered you on ChristianLeaders.com and was intrigued by your education. I am currently trying to finish up my first book. I am trying to be self editing with the help of a few friends. Thanks for these tips.
    I am beginning to understand POV, grammar, and active vs. passive. I am writing non-fiction mixing my story, a few other stories and testimonies and Bible study. I am afraid of loosing the average reader – so am planning to put some of the more studious parts in a study guide at the end of each chapter. What I am struggling with is choosing the most important to leave in and getting my point across without most of the study.
    This dilemma is pretty specific to religious writing. Any advice? Thanks, Kent

  2. Cyndi

    Never ever take an english class taught by a womans study professor. Or remember that the answer to every asdignment is always that woman suffered way to much and need to become superior. Thats all!

    1. Cyndi

      Assignment…oops 🙂

    2. Cyndi, that’s hilarious. Unfortunately, some go into the teaching field with an agenda other than teaching their “techne.” Good to hear from you 🙂

  3. I own the Harvard Classics 🙂 … One step … Done!! 🙂

    My #10 would be simple … Like what you write. Writing is that much greater when you like what you write. 🙂

    Great Post!

    1. Jaclyn,
      Yes, that’s a Master’s Degree on your bookshelf. And you don’t have to spend $30,000 to get it 🙂 Read on. You’ll love it. Thanks for stopping by. Blessings!

  4. Angela

    Thank you for a well-written piece on the craft of writing, Pastor Scott. Whenever I am asked for my editor/publisher/agent’s contact info, my initial query normally is along these lines, “Tell me a bit about your goals as a writer.” Further along in the conversation I inject, “Please tell me a little about your daily journaling,” and, “Well, tell me approx. how much time a week you devote to recreational reading?” Certainly, “Do you ever challenge yourself to stretch your casual reading beyond your genre of choice,” can make an invaluable point. Writers are virtually always unquenchable readers. During this conversation, I begin to understand this person’s heart. They are creative, have a story to tell, & want to have it told, in some format, as quickly as possible.

    The inevitable, “Do you think I can make a living as a writer,” question has never failed to appear during one of these early mentoring sessions. That one question has expanded my ability to be kind but honest far beyond what I could have ever imagined. My typical answer goes something like this, “Please write for 1 solid month, for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, with no thought of anyone else reading it. At the end of that month bring me, completely unedited, what you believe to be your 3-4 best expressed efforts, and 3-4 of the musings you personally believe to be utter garbage. After I have red-lined your work until it resembles a preschooler’s art project, then, and only then, will I discuss with you the exciting yet anxiety ridden process of becoming a, “paid writer.”

    I once informally mentored a young lady in writing for perhaps 6 weeks, until she discovered she didn’t want to be a writer at all! She came to me one week and explained she hadn’t completed her writing exercises that week because she had come across some of her old sketch books and had gotten lost in them. She is a gifted artist, who had left her first creative love somewhere along life’s path. Returning to that first love was a wonderful moment for her, although I implored her to continue to at least keep a daily journal.

    I typically require dedication to reading, writing & networking of anyone who approaches me for mentoring. Somehow, the fact that I was able to provide for myself very nearly comfortably for many years as a writer has made me an expert. I once found that entirely laughable, but have long since given up debating the point, and came to the place where I can graciously accept that I can perhaps encourage others with some of what I still need to finely hone myself.

    Writing takes time. Stephen King, an undisputed genius in his genre, may often have the extraordinary gift of knowing his entire next book prior to ever striking the first key, but most of us plod along, and eventually will sit glaring at a blank page long enough to become discouraged. When that point comes, go for a walk, call an elderly friend to visit and soak in their experiences, read, or watch a movie. For movies that have overridden my personal writer’s block moments of distress in the past, I recommend those that have writers as key characters. Back to the king of modern horror, it has always fascinated me how many of his lead characters are writers. “Stand By Me,” “The Shining,” and “Bag of Bones,” come quickly to mind. For a movie that is more family friendly I would suggest, “Little Woman.”

    Joining a writer’s group at the local book store or library can be time very well spent. There isn’t one in your area? Start one!

    Attend author’s lectures. Do not only seek out your favorite authors. As in reading, stretch yourself.

    Write thank you notes, inscribe books you are gifting, and write reviews on forums such as, “Yelp.”

    Offer your unpaid services as a regular contributor to topical forums that interest you. Contact the site moderator directly, to make note of your desire to do so, only after you have submitted perhaps 10 posts. Consistency in submitting thought provoking & insightful posts can easily lead to being asked to join the site’s board as a regular contributor, and may often include a small honorarium.

    Practice writing on the same subject in this manner:
    A 400-500 word article, a 100 word press release, and a 140 character tweet.
    Having enjoyed a gig that required turning in an average of 25 of this manner of writings every week for nearly a year, I cannot stress enough what an amazing exercise this is.

    When the opportunity arrives for you to be paid to write, please understand you may have to check your pride at the keyboard for a season. (Never a bad idea in any situation.) It may be some time before your name is attached to any of your writings. Be patient. The way to determine if you are a leader is to turn around & see if there is anyone following you. The way to determine if you are a writer is to ascertain if anyone is reading your work.

    Read. Read. Read.

    Write. Write. Write.

    Blessings,
    Angela <

    1. Angela,
      Yes! Writing takes time. And the way to get better is as you say: “Read. Read. Read. And Write. Write. Write.” Thanks for sharing your valuable wisdom here. Blessings!