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A Brief Guide To Better Writing
Good advice but I'm a bit emotional
Note: I’m just adding this note just prior to publishing this piece. I’m emotional at the moment. News, noted below, that an important person in my writing journey passed away in 2021 colors today’s article.
I had a piece planned titled, “The Kids Are Alright” about every generation’s tendency to bemoan the next generation’s lack of respect for their elders. We’ll return to that topic in the future.
Today I am going to offer some thoughts and ideas on writing. Specifically on how you can improve your writing. I write this in honor of the fact that my youngest has been hired as a writing tutor/coach at her university. It is also inspired by a conversation last night with Jorge, a friend and mentor who encourages my writing.
In Stephen King’s, “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,” he writes that you cannot make a competent writer out of a bad writer and you cannot make a great writer out of a good one, but you can, with work, dedication, and timely help, make a good writer out of a competent one.
I don’t teach writing and don’t have enough experience coaching writers, though I have coached a few, to know if what King says is absolute truth. However, my limited experience tells me he’s onto something.
Those writers I have coached were hand-selected because I saw something in their writing. I’ve had a couple others approach me who, after reading some of their writing, I demurred. Time is always the excuse because, time is always an issue for me. It’s honest, though not entirely.
If you are reading this and I used a lack of time as an excuse NOT to provide coaching, I don’t mean you. This was meant for the others.
My Street Cred / Backstory
I’ve loved putting pen to paper (or bytes to SSD drive) for as long as I can remember.
I’m not suggesting I was or am a great writer. But I received enough unsolicited encouragement, beginning in Elementary School, to convince me that I had some talent. There are three teachers I owe a debt of gratitude to.
Mr. Blaisedell - my 6th grade English teacher
Ms. Buniff - my 10th grade English teacher.
She also taught an elective, Supernatural & Science Fiction.
She had sarcastic and cruel humor. I was in love with her.
Deb just showed me this - Ms. Buniff’s obituary. It made me sad. The description of her sounds like what I recall and why I loved her.
Mr. Seigel - my 12th grade composition teacher.
I have a longer backstory published here as a supplemental piece. I realized I was 900+ words into it and had offered no writing advice. A bit gratuitous but I liked what I wrote.
I cover the following in the above linked piece as well, so I’m going to summarize it.
I got busy with my family and my career. At thirty I remembered that I enjoyed writing. I wrote a couple free articles that were published in a local paper. I wrote several more articles that were published for pay.
Mary Beth Ray, an executive editor at Cisco Press, discovered a self-published book I’d written. She contacted me, made me cry, and gave me a publishing deal. We did two books together.
So… I’ve been paid to write - articles, corporate pieces, essays, and a couple books with a major publisher.
That’s my street cred. I don’t know if it needed to be established but there it is. Now to the advice.
Writing: The Basics
The Elements of Style
You need this book. It’s small. it is indispensable. It will correct many mistakes if you allow it to.
Whenever I am at a used book store, I look for copies. I give them away to those who have an interest in writing. In fact, I’m sending a copy to my youngest - the one I alluded to above.
Pay special attention to the section, Elementary Principles of Composition. And then pay special attention to every other page and section of that book.
I could end my advice here and the article would be complete and utilitarian.
But I have more words in me.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
In this book, Stephen King will also tell you that The Elements of Style is the only writing guide you need. The first part of this book is an autobiographical account of King’s career. The last 1/4th or so is writing advice.
If you get the books above, read them, and put their advice to use, you don’t need any advice from me. But I’ll offer a few nuggets anyway.
Matt’s Writing Advice
Stop Seeking The Silver Bullet
Most “aspiring” writers have dozens of books on how to write a novel or a story or a non-fiction best seller or crafting dialogue or writing screen plays….
What they don’t have is a schedule and discipline.
All (most) of those books, secret methods, are evidence of a lack of confidence and are wonderful diversions from actually writing. They are a never-ending quest for the silver bullet that will slay the vampire of procrastination and self-doubt.
I’ve done it too. I had all the books. And when I am in a used bookstore, I still look at them. I longingly rub my hands across them. I fantasize about buying them.
Before you buy another writing book (except for The Elements of Style), write every day for a month. Then, you can reward yourself by purchasing another book you don’t need. Put it on the shelf, preferably unread, go back and read a few pages of, The Elements of Style, and then write for another month before you buy the next book you don’t need.
Write Every Day
I don’t. But I should. I’m doing better though.
The noun is wrapped up in the verb. A writer writes. An “aspiring writer” is NOT a writer. One needs only to put pen to paper (or byte to SSD drive) to remove the qualifier. “Aspiring” is an easily remedied ailment.
Stephen King boo hoo’s the idea of inspiration. I agree with him. You don’t need your muse to write. You need a keyboard or a pen and time.
As King points out, sit down at the same time, same place, every day, and do the work. Your muse is attracted to the effort and might show up. But if that fickle bitch (or bastard - there are as many fickle bastard muses as fickle bitch muses) doesn’t show up, at least you did the work.
Cadence Over Grammar
Great editors are great! That does not make them great writers.
Good writing has cadence. I can read a piece with questionable grammar or usage if the cadence is compelling.
What is cadence?
Cadence is that quality that moves the reader along. It comes in the form of varied sentence length. A few short sentences. A longer, elegantly phrased, sentence.
A paragraph of those varied sentences and then a paragraph of a single sentence.
Do not be afraid of the single sentence paragraph. They can be magical. They convey importance or transition.
Read, Winnie the Pooh, by Milne. His cadence is beautiful!
Write with Confidence
Active voice! Avoid extraneous words. Don’t over-explain (I’m guilty of this).
All of those mistakes are evidence of a lack of confidence. A lack of confidence in your writing or a lack of confidence that your reader will, “get it!”
Lack confidence that your reader will “get it” is simply a revelation of a lack of confidence in your writing.
Very and Really are weak and also lack confidence.
“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Remove the weak qualifier and/or find a more suitable word.
I was very/really hungry.
Should be changed to:
I was famished!
Adverbs Lacks Confidence
There are times you may need the adverb. But, particularly, when added during action - often in dialogue - it weakens the writing. It lacks confidence.
Imagine: A woman discovers her lover in bed with someone else and the following dialogue occurs.
“You bastard! Get the fuck out of this house,” she shouted, angrily!
Angrily is unnecessary. The incident itself, her words, the fact that they were “shouted” provide enough context. She’s angry! She has every right to be. It’s obvious. Don’t bash me over the head with an adverb.
To be honest, you could write the above quote without including, she shouted. The quote alone would tell you that she is shouting and she is angry!
Okay… that’s a start.
Do the above and your writing will improve.
If you have a specific question or your own suggestion, feel free to add it in the comments.
If you are inclined to correct some mistake in my grammar or usage, I’m likely to shout angrily in response. Yeah… I’m threatening you with an adverb. Don’t do it!
Thanks for reading.
August 24, 2023
Per what I wrote above… Deb searched for Ms. Buniff and discovered she had passed away in 2021. Reading her obituary nearly brought me to tears. I wish I had looked her up sooner and been able to visit her and express my appreciation for her fun sarcasm, her encouragement, and let her know how often I thought about her. RIP.