10 Secrets to Writing Well
I require my undergraduate journalism students to buy two books to keep by their sides at all times. One of them is the AP Style Book; the other is called When Words Collide: A Media Writer’s Guide to Grammar and Style.
I can’t tell you how much I love my When Words Collide book; I use it all the time. I’d like to share some information with you about one of my favorite chapters in this book. It’s called 10 Little Secrets, 10 Big Mistakes—and the information is useful if you aim to be a better writer.
Secret 1: Read
If you don’t like to read, you can’t possibly love to write. The two go hand in hand. I have always been a voracious reader. I love fiction as well as nonfiction and I’ve been lucky enough to study a handful of classics in literature in both high school and college.
Language is an amazing thing—and you can’t really work on building your own voice without listening to others. Other writers are the best examples of how to do things well—and not so well. Read widely and often.
Secret 2: Have Something to Say
If you don’t have anything to write about you are in quite a pickle. Ask yourself what your expertise is and start from there. What do you like to read? What is important to you and the community around you?
“You can’t write well if you are not in command of the material.” —When Words Collide
It is much easier to write about what you know a lot about than what you know nothing about. But, oftentimes, freelancers have to write about topics that either they aren’t fluent with or aren’t excited about. That’s life. Learn to work it and make it interesting. If your story isn’t interesting, no one is going to read it.
Secret 3: Organize Your Thoughts
There is a reason you had to write all those research papers while you were in school—they taught you how to organize information in a meaningful way. Making a plan before you start writing something will save you endless hours of revising, and revising, and revising.
Some media forms, like newspapers, already have a story structure to follow, which helps. Ad copy also has a certain structure to it. Use the structures to your benefit!
Secret 4: Consider Your Audience
There is no way a magazine about raising chickens in your backyard prairie will publish your story on London fashion trends of 2012. Figure out who your public is before you send out queries.
Every publication has its own typical reader—so find out what it is! You will also want to consider the style of the writing the publication features, so that you know if you should be writing a funny first person narrative or a more straight-laced news story written in the third person. Do your research so you don’t waste your (or an editor’s) time.
Secret 5: Know Grammatical Conventions and How to Use Them
Back to grammar again! You need to know the rules in order to break them.
“Writing well means making countless good decisions, from choosing just the right word to crafting phrases and clauses and sentences and paragraphs that say just what you want them to say, with precision, clarity and grace.” —When Words Collide
Secret 6: Master a Solid Working Vocabulary
I love getting my “word of the day” from Dictionary.com. It helps build my vocabulary—which, lets be honest, can always be improved. I also harness the power of Thesaurus.com to look for perfect synonyms and antonyms. Words are a writer’s tools—and we have to learn to use them wisely.
Secret 7: Focus on Precision and Clarity
Why use 25 words to say something when 11 words is enough? Creating clear, crisp writing is hard work! Learn to say exactly what you mean with the least amount of words takes practice. Deleting unnecessary words from a paragraph or sentence is my absolute favorite part of editing—and a necessity when you only have so much room on a page to fill.
Secret 8: Hear Language
No matter if you work for radio, television, or print—write for the ear. Even when you are reading something on the page, you’re hearing it silently. I always make sure to read my stories out loud before they are published. If your tongue trips over something, your brain will, too.
Secret 9: Revise
I like to take some time away from my stories (if I can) between revisions. It helps give me distance and sort of forget exactly what I wrote or how I wrote it. I like having that perspective. I also like having a colleague read over my stories and offer their advice and insight. Peer reviewing is something I strongly suggest if you have someone you trust.
Secret 10: Apply the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair
The last secret to writing well might be the hardest—just practicing! The more you write, and the more you struggle, the better your writing will be. What I write today is 10 times better than what I wrote a decade ago—and it’s all because of practice.
Do you have any secrets that should be added to this list?