It has been said that writers are born, not made. Some take that to mean that you are either born with talent, or you may as well not try. That’s probably bunk. If writers are born, they are born out of the sweat and tears of determination and practice. Whether you are drumming up SEO content or working on the next great American novel, writing well and employing the habits of effective writing are essential.
First, it’s important to practice.
Practice keeps you in the habit of writing and thinking about writing. Nineteenth century author C.S. Lewis, most famous for The Chronicles of Narnia, says that “what you want is practice, practice, practice. It doesn’t matter what we write… so long as we write continually as well as we can. I feel that every time I write a page either of prose or of verse, with real effort, even if it’s thrown into the fire the next minute, I am so much further on.”
Another prolific writer, recently deceased Saul Bellow, observed that “somewhere in his journals Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pray and dig away long enough, and lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous.” When you practice the craft of writing and pay diligence to it, you grow. Even if you write tweets for a business firm, you are bound to come up with more unique, interesting, and creative content when you practice. Imagine an athlete who only played her sport at game time — she wouldn’t be good at it and would not be long rewarded for her “efforts.” So practice, practice, practice. Start now. Call it writers’ Spring Training.
Having some “filler” in your drafts is o.k.
It’s certainly tempting for any writer to stop when we have so-called “writer’s block.” Larry Gelbart, though, says “don’t stop.” He wants us to put something there and keep moving. Recently I wrote an article on decade themed parties and decided to employ Gelbart’s advice. I could have stopped and stared at the computer screen when I was stumped on what to write about a 1970s party that wouldn’t be a tired cliché. Instead, I wrote, “too much Footloose not enough Studio 54,” and moved on to the 1980s. Later, while editing and revising, I realized Footloose wasn’t even set in the ’70s, but I understood where my mind was headed. If I had tried to flush that out in the first draft, I’d still be writing it. Listen to Larry. Use filler and keep writing.
Beware of clichés.
“Beware of clichés…. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought — even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”
Geoff Dyer is not dead (here is his website), but this advice was too good not to share. Clichés are death to all that is interesting. I can’t say that clichés are never ok, because writing, like most art, only deals in absolutes for the strict business of breaking them. That being said, clichés are never ok. “It goes without saying” that the “early bird catches the worm” and “curiosity killed the cat” so a true “jack of all trades” would never to “keep up with Joneses” by recycling tired clichés.
If it goes without saying, then please, please, just don’t say it.
Ctrl-F and Delete those Adjectives
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Adjectives are not the enemy here (Hint: its clichés). Adjectives can be a crutch, though. I recently read an article about a mama raccoon saving her litter of baby raccoons during a bout of bad weather. It passed through my twitter feed with the phrase, “mother raccoon shields her litter on turnpike from cold,” so of course I read it. I read it and said “awwww… how heartwarming and precious!” If the tweet had falling back on adjective addiction, I probably wouldn’t have clicked on the link following “Heartwarming and precious tale of courage.”
“Don’t say it was delightful; make us say delightful when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘please, will you do the job for me?’”
Reflect on What You Wrote
In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell claims that a “scrupulous writer” will constantly, even after every sentence (so definitely before sending that tweet), ask him or herself four questions. I leave you with those four questions to take back to your own stack of papers and document files (and practice!):
What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
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