“The struggle to improve our sentences, is the struggle to improve ourselves,” writes poet Mark Tredinnick. What is it that improves our writing? Essentially, clarity, connection, brevity and staying away from cliche. Here are some easy principles to help us get there:
1. Keep asking yourself: what am I saying?
Writing is the process of winnowing our thoughts and emotions down to get rid of wobbles, lumps and fuzziness. You know you’ve understood what you’re writing about when you can nail it down to one sentence.
2. Make the reader care.
Structure a series of hooks or unanswered questions that keep your reader emotionally engaged. As soon as the reader stops caring, you um … don’t have a reader.
3. Don’t get fancy.
Write like you talk.
4. Stay active – unless the passive is serving a useful purpose.
Every sentence should have a subject, verb and object and in that order. If you use the passive voice e.g., “The door was opened,’” rather than, “He opened the door,” make sure this is a conscious writing decision.
5. Go light on adjectives and adverbs unless they’re actually serving a function.
Often, adjectives and adverbs are accessories, cluttering our sentences, while their meaning is absorbed by a more potent verb or noun. If an adjective or an adverb serves to cast surprising or ironic meaning, or to enhance the reader’s understanding of a specific idea, then keep it. For example, “killing me softly” complicates the verb as opposed to “killing me brutally,” which is redundant. "Cold beauty” offers a specific portrait, rather than “stunning beauty,” which is also redundant.
6. "Show don’t tell" when describing a sense or emotion.
Instead of writing, “He felt relieved,” say something like, “He couldn’t stop the shudder that escaped his lips.” Showing allows the reader to interpret the text instead of being told how to feel.
7. Keep your tenses stable.
Hold onto the reins of your tenses so you don’t stray out of the past or present mindlessly.
8. Take aim with your writing, and target the reader.
Write for and towards a reader. Don’t be obscure or pretentious. Stand in a reader’s shoes. Read through his or her eyes. Is what you’ve written interesting, useful or entertaining?
9. Zoom in and out.
Interesting writing is textured. It moves from the specific to the universal and from the abstract to the specific. If you’re writing about the impact of bad eating habits on general health, describe a McDonald’s burger and the person eating it. If you’re writing about getting dental floss stuck between your teeth, make it about a deeper truth.
Could the experience lead to considering how sometimes when we try to do the right thing in life, we get stuck in good intentions?
10. Stay in one skin.
Pick a point of view and stick to it. If you’re writing in the first person, you can’t know what other people are thinking or feeling but you can imagine or suspect. “It was as if she was looking for faith, scrambling and failing.”
Third person point of view allows you more freedom to move between perspectives but is less intimate for a reader. Readers like to connect with an "I."
11. When you’re finished writing, you’re not finished.
Rewriting is a crucial part of the writing process where we bring left-brain thinking and ask logical, analytical questions like: does this make sense? Have I left something out? Does one line follow logically from the next? Can I say this better? Is there a more perfect word to describe this? Reshape, sculpt, eliminate. Writing generally improves with every word you cut.
12. Apply the "mattress principle:" sleep on it.
Step away from the writing and let it settle. Writing needs time. The time a grain of sand needs to turn into a pearl.
13. When you’re finished, ask yourself, "What am I really saying here?’"
Sometimes we change in the writing, and what we end up saying is several degrees off what we began wanting to say. Pull the narrative threads tightly through the text to make your work seem seamless, effortless.
14. Read it aloud.
Sometimes we can hear what works and what doesn’t work out loud more easily than when it's on the page.