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:
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.
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:
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- Spunk and Bite by Arthur Plotnik
- The Elements of Editing by Arthur Plotnik
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- How to Blog a Book by Nina Amir
- Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson
- The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
- A Pen Warmed-up in Hell by Mark Twain
- Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right by Jan Freeman
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
- On Writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- On Moral Fiction by John Gardner
- The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
- On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
- Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right by Bill Bryson
- Writers on Writing edited by James Watkins
- APE by Guy Kawasaki
- On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch
- You Are a Writer by Jeff Goins
Read the Classics (and the Trivium)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.