Getting it write: Nine ways to be a better writer

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1. Do away with long sentences

When presented with a piece of text, the first thing the potential reader will look at is the layout. Seeing a huge chunk of writing with no line breaks or punctuation will put people off reading your work. And even if they do endeavour, they’ll be working too hard trying to understand the logic of a five-line sentence to really grapple with what you are trying to say. Think of semicolons and full-stops as places where the mind stops to breathe, and try to keep sentences under two lines long. While you’re at it, resist the temptation to pepper your text with unnecessarily big words. Unless you are writing an academic paper requiring specific terminology, using big words doesn’t make you appear clever – it makes you look like you are trying too hard.

2. Write the way you speak

This is a really effective trick if you’re stuck: think about what you want to say, and say it. Out loud, to yourself. Then write it down, as you said it. Now edit it. That there is your voice, and it’s a voice people will enjoy reading, because the way we construct language during speech is different to the way we construct it in writing – and it’s usually easier to follow. Nothing is stopping you from decorating it with a few adjectives if you want it to sound prettier; once you’ve written the backbone, it’s up to you where you go next.

3. Take a break

The way I see it, there are two stages to writing. The first one is bleeding. By this I mean sitting down and letting the words out unhindered. When I am in Stage One, I try to forget all about the backspace key and just… write. I allow myself a good period of time before going on to Stage Two. I go make tea, watch some TV, talk to a friend – something to distract me and sort of ‘wipe the slate clean’. When I go back for Stage Two (editing!) my mind is a lot clearer and I’m able to spot mistakes more quickly. I read the work out loud, editing as I go.

4. Read more

Obviously. You can always tell readers from non-readers, and this is not a matter of snobbery: books are available to everyone. For free (hello? libraries). I have absolutely zero sympathy for people who do not read – these people have made a choice based on some ridiculous notion of reading being “uncool” or “a waste of time”. They tend to be a lot more narrow minded and have at hand much fewer ways of expressing themselves. When you read, and I mean REALLY read, you have at your disposal an entire wealth of ideas, words, information. When you sever that, all you have are reactionary opinions. If you want to be a better writer, you need to be a better reader. Read across genres. Read books you never thought you’d find interesting. And if you’re reading something you hate, know that it’s okay to put it down and move on to the next thing. Reading is cool. Even Gilly thinks so.

Gilly: You know all that from staring at marks on paper?
Samwell: Yes.
Gilly: You’re like, a wizard.

5. Pay attention to spelling

I get it, not everybody is good at spelling. Reading more WILL improve that drastically, but I can accept that some people’s minds are wired verbally, and some others aren’t. That’s fine. However, if you intend to write, and you intend to publish what you write, the least you can do is check your spelling. You know those red squiggly lines under your text in Word? Yeah, check them. Not everybody is good at spelling, but everybody can buy a dictionary. Do so. If you haven’t bothered to make sure your spelling is at least half-decent, why should I dedicate my precious time reading your work?

6. Style

Unless you’re writing academically, or you’re writing for a publication with a strict style guide, there really is no need to follow any established one. However, you should have a basic idea of what your own style is and stick to it. It’s all fine as long as you’re consistent. Questions to ask yourself: How do you format dates and time? How do you distinguish book/play/song/film titles from regular text? Do you write in American English or British English? Do you punctuate abbreviated titles (“Mr. vs Mr”)? Do you post URLs in full? Do you use single or double quotation marks?

7. Don’t plagiarise

Ever. Taking somebody’s work, copying it and pasting it and passing it off as your own is one of the worst things you can do as a writer. In many cases, it will get you fired or expelled, and will lose you the respect of all your peers, with good reason. If you are going to lift a string of more than three identical words from another source, cite it, link to it, make it clear that this is borrowed text. Having said that, other people’s work should act as a font of inspiration to you. Instead of copying their work, write in reaction to it. Consider writing to be a discussion instead of an end point. It’s perfectly okay to get an idea for a blog post from another blog post. Link to it, and say something to the effect of “I loved this post, and wanted to add my contribution to the topic.” You get inspired, the original author gets credit. Everyone is happy.

8. Consider your audience

When you first start writing, it’s tempting to think of your audience as a sea of faceless entities with no background, no nuance, no name. That gets very confusing very quickly. Writing to everyone and no-one ensures you find yourself stuck for ideas and works counter-actively: you mean to target everyone; you’re targeting nobody. Instead, think about who you are writing for. If you are contributing to a fashion magazine, for example, your target demographic will be quite clear to you; same goes for other established publications and academic journals. As for a blog: pick a demographic. I welcome all sorts of readers to this blog, but I am aware that my work appeals mostly to twentysomething women with at least a degree level of education and an interest in culture and some political issues. Knowing this gives me direction and helps shape my articles.

9. Write, write, write

It goes without saying that to be a better writer, you need to write more. You need to write all the time. You need to wake up in the morning with your fingers twitching to be typing. You need to take note of things which inspire you and expand on them afterwards. You need to experiment with fiction, non fiction, poetry and prose. You need to mix things up, write things in new tenses. Everything, and I mean everything, can be written about. Your dreams, your thoughts, your encounters, your family, your dietary habits, your holidays, shows you watch, things you read, discussions you have, what tea you’re favouring this week. Writing is a compulsion, and those who are ‘afflicted’ by it will agree that the only thing worse in the world than writing is NOT writing. So write constantly. Write horrible, awful, dreadful things and then burn them. Write even when you can’t write – there is no such thing as writer’s block. I promise you that your writing will get better, but only if you write.

  • Sarah
    August 13, 2013

    Great post. I used to write all the time and then I went through a stage where I wrote nothing more than shopping lists, which was hugely painful for me. Now I find I write intermittently. I hope I can start dedicating more time to writing again soon, because I love to do it. Some good points here that will definitely help me get started again. Thank you!

    • admin
      August 13, 2013

      Thanks, Sarah! I go through ups and downs as well but I’ve found it’s really important to push through. I try dedicating 30 mins a day to writing anything. Even if it’s just one page. I do a writing prompt, or write a blog post or something. It’s usually quite easy once you start the first few sentences.

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