On Good Writing

Although I would hesitate to label myself a “good writer,” I do know a thing or two about good writing. Having been classically educated, much of the advice and wisdom I received came from immersing myself in the poetic language and imagery of the Great Books. My teachers were, and still are, authors such as Homer, Shakespeare, John Milton, Dante Alighieri, Albert Camus, Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton.

Words hold great power, either for life or death. There is much truth in the old proverb, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Beyond wounding or healing, hurting or helping, words frame our reality. Words name that which is true and that which is false; that which is good and that which is evil; that which is beautiful and that which is grotesque.

Words conceal or they reveal.

Therefore, it behooves us all to learn not only how to write but to write well. To that end, here’s a list (albeit a rather short one) of some writing tips I have received over the years.

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Writing Tips

  1. Reverse-engineer what you read. If it feels like good writing, what makes it good? If it feels awful, why? 
  2. Prose (narrative) is a window onto the world. Draw your readers into a particular perspective, let them see how you see, by using visual, concrete language.
  3. Let verbs be verbs. “Appear,” not “make an appearance.”
  4. Primarily use active voice rather than passive (e.g., “He received the gift graciously” vs “The gift was received graciously”).
  5. Minimize concepts about concepts, like “approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, level, model, perspective, process, range, role, strategy, tendency,” and “variable.”
  6. Beware of the Curse of Knowledge: when you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. We all joke about reading “sciency” reports or complain about tech people speaking another language. If you want people outside of your particular field and/or industry, minimize your use of acronyms and technical terms. Liberally provide examples. Remember: what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to anyone else.
  7. Develop an allergy to jargon and clichés.
  8. Old information at the beginning of the sentence, new information at the end.
  9. Save the heaviest for last: a complex phrase should go at the end of the sentence.
  10. Grammar: learn the rules and then learn how to break them effectively.
  11. Coherence is key; readers must know how each sentence is related to the preceding one. If it’s not obvious, use: that is, for example, in general, on the other hand, nevertheless, as a result, because, nonetheless, despite, etc.
  12. Find the best word. Don’t use the long word, the fanciest word, or the most impressive word. The best writers are those who can distill the metaphysical and abstract into children’s literature–make the complex simple. Consult a dictionary with usage notes and always keep a thesaurus handy.
  13. Omit needless words.
  14. For those of you who are perfectionistic, let go of your inner critic. When you sit down to write a draft, refrain from proofreading until that draft is complete.
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Revision/Editing Tips

  1. Revise several times with the single goal of improving the prose. Make sure you have a good variety of long to short paragraphs and sentences.
  2. Read it aloud.
  3. Read it backward (sounds weird, but trust me, it’s effective).
  4. Have at least one other person who can help you with editing and proofreading. Fresh eyes help.
  5. If you don’t have an editor, step away from your writing for 24 hours, or do something completely different, and then come back.
  6. Use Grammarly (free version is still VERY helpful), even if you think you know all the rules.
  7. Proofread everything at least three times before submitting your work for publication.
  8. Make sure your content fits your audience.
  9. Make sure you are writing in YOUR voice.
  10. Be ruthless in cutting out material. It hurts, but it’s worth it.

A few words of encouragement…

Remember, take your time. Good writing requires attention, patience, and perseverance. It is a craft that you must learn, a skill that takes effort to master. Don’t be afraid to fail–we all have our share of mistakes. Embrace those errors, learn from them, move on and grow.

Most importantly, read as much and as often as you can. Remember, every writer is a reader first. Read widely, read deeply, and re-read continuously. Find an author you love, then read every author who influenced them. If you aren’t filling up your bucket, sooner or later your own well will run dry.

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