1.Variety, not Size
When it comes to sentences, longer is rarely intrinsically better. This is not to say that all sentences should read like a Dick and Jane book, but it’s easy to fall into the mindset that more complex sentences equal better writing. Untrue.
A technique that some may find helpful is to treat your writing like a piece of jazz music, with the length and the makeup of the sentences standing in for the musical rhythms. Jazz music is not like a waltz, for instance, in which the rhythm remains ever-predictable at BUM bum bum, BUM bum bum, BUM bum bum, ad infinitum. (My apologies to waltz fans everywhere.) Good writing should be much more like a jazz piece:
BUM! Ba-da-da-dee-da-da-dum-diddy-diddy-diddy-diddy-dum! Bob-bop doo wah diddy. Bum! Bum! Diddy-diddy bop!
If you could hear that in my head, you’d be tapping your feet, but since you can’t, let’s use some actual writing examples:
“I woke up. It was cold. The room was dark. I couldn’t find the phone. I had it last night. Now it was gone.”
“When I woke up that morning, the room temperature caused my breath to hang in the air like tiny storm clouds, and in the darkness I was unable to find the phone which I had placed upon the bedside table just the night before when I returned home from the club at 2am.”
“I woke with a start. The room was too cold, and my breath formed tiny clouds in the air. They reminded me of storm clouds. Why? I instinctively reached for the phone, but it was gone from the bedside table. Where was it? I searched my memory of the night before when I returned home from the club where I met Rebecca and her fiance. It was 2am by the phone’s glowing screen when I placed it in its accustomed spot. I must have passed out.”
Which phrase would you rather read? I vote for the third.
2. Adverbs are Just Pretending to be Your Friend
A well-placed adverb can certainly help to enliven an otherwise lifeless phrase, but too many of them can have your readers reaching for the air-sickness bag. This is true in all kinds of writing, though it’s most frequently given as a tip to beginning (or simply untalented) fictions writers. Let’s look at a re-write of the second phrase above:
“When I unexpectedly and violently awoke that morning, the room temperature inexplicably and ominously caused my breath to hang in the air like tiny storm clouds, and in the darkness I was unable to find the phone, which I had habitually and firmly placed upon the bedside table just the night before when I drunkenly and unsteadily returned home from the club at 2am.”
OK, that’s an extreme example, but you see my point. Compare that to the third phrase, which contains only one adverb. Again, which would you rather read?
Adverbs can become a crutch when you’re trying to breathe more life into listless prose, but usually less is more. Instead of, “William furiously and forcefully placed the bottle onto the table.” try, “William slammed the bottle onto the table in front of me. I’d never seen him so furious.” This has the dual virtue of using a stronger, more expressive verb (slammed) as well as introducing a variation in sentence length. It also provides additional information to the reader; not only was William furious, he was also more furious than the narrator had ever known him to be.
3. The Spellchecker really is Your Friend
First let’s make it perfectly clear; we’re talking about spellchecker, not autocorrect.
Autocorrect is NOT your friend.
Autocorrect blithely changes “I made the crosscountry team!” to “I made the cross-dressing team!” with nary a beep to warn you of what’s happened.
Autocorrect is the know-it-all friend who claims to know best and always orders the octopus tartare for you while you’re still out parking the car.
Autocorrect and adverbs hang out together and talk about you behind your back.
Spellchecker, on the other hand, is that one good friend whom you can trust to proofread your work with a kind, but critical eye. It doesn’t presume to know what you meant to write, it gently underlines things it’s not sure of with a charmingly squiggly little line. And the more you use it the more you can teach it about your writing habits (both good and bad).
Make use of spellchecker to help improve your writing, but don’t just settle for its out-of-the-box settings. Spellchecker only knows to look for what it’s been told to look for, but we all have our little bad habits, such as overused words or sentences that are too long, and this friendly little tool can be set to look for and point out whatever we tell it to look for.
As you write and revise your work, you’ll undoubtedly stumble upon things that you do that you’d rather not repeat. They may not be “incorrect” per se, but they make your work repetitive or less interesting than you’d like it to be. As you notice these writing quirks, you can program spellchecker to recognize and point them out to you in its subtle, apologetically helpful way.
In time, you’ll not only have created a much more powerful proofreading tool, but it will also have taught you to be a better writer by pointing out your missteps instead of just quietly changing them for you.
4. Snip Those Paragraphs
Yes, there are rules for paragraphs. Yes, they were pounded into your head from an early, impressionable age. But it’s also unavoidably true that endless, unbroken passages of text can be the death of any slight bit of interest your reader might have had in what you’ve got to say.
Of course “illegally” shortening paragraphs is more acceptable for some kinds of writing than others. It should be done with caution so as to avoid losing any sense of structure in your writing at all. But in fiction and certain informal writings, it can be not only helpful in making endless paragraphs more readable, it can also be a powerful tool in driving home a point or grabbing the reader’s attention at a crucial moment.
5. Make up Your Mind, Already
Perhaps you’ve experienced the following sort of reaction while reading a piece of writing. The writing is good enough, points are well articulated, sentence length is varied, there are no obvious errors, but there’s something, some little… thing that bothers you about it. It’s like the sensation of walking through one strand of a cobweb, but not being able to find it and swipe it away.
The above scenario is often brought on by a certain lack of consistency, and for some it can be crazy-making.
A lack of consistency in writing can involve something as simple as using or omitting the Oxford Comma. Whatever your stand on whether or not it should be used, the writer should certainly make a choice and stick with it.
Similar choices might include capitalization of headers, punctuation after headers, bolding or unbolding of headers, the use of abbreviations or acronyms in some places but not in others, and the list goes on.
Inconsistency of any sort, not just in the examples above, can be enough to make some readers give up and read something else. And they might not even know why.
In short, pay attention to the details, make a choice, and stick with it.
6. Don’t Tell Me How to Feel
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who excessively uses “air-quotes” (and by “excessively,” we mean at all)? Or maybe they like to tell jokes and then immediately explain the punchline. Maybe they just like to punctuate a witty remark with a self-congratulatory wink.
This is the person readers are reminded of when you use too much formatting in your writing!
Formatting exists for a purpose, but that purpose is not to spoon-feed the reader so that they know exactly which words you think are dramatic or particularly note-worthy. If you write well, the reader will know those things without having to be told.
Formatting such as bold, italics, and underlining may sometimes be used sparingly, but use them too often and you risk sounding like the old knock-knock- joke:
Control freak — now YOU say “control freak who?”
Exclamation points, on the other hand, are the devil. Eschew them. Disavow them.
With the possible exception of writing dialogue for a play or novel, I’ve never encountered an instance in which an exclamation point is truly necessary.
7. One For the Poets
This is actually two tips combined into one:
1. If you’re a beginning poet, don’t spend too much time with meter and rhyme. Start with free verse until you’ve amassed the necessary experience and confidence to move to the next level.
Rhyme and meter can be tricky things. If you’re a beginner, it’s way too easy for everything to start sounding like “Roses are red; violets are blue,” or “Mary had a little lamb.” Unless you’ve mastered and harnessed the power of more complex constructions, your readers will be too distracted the sing-song meter to pay any attention to your brilliant theme.
And speaking of theme, every poem should have one. But don’t confuse “theme” with “topic.” The theme of a (good) poem is an idea, or topic combined with an opinion.
Suppose you’ve set out to write a poem about a tree. That’s all fine and well, but your poem won’t amount to much if you don’t also start with some sort of opinion about trees (or one tree in particular). Your readers will quickly tire of reading about “bark, rough to the touch,” and “leaves, green as green can be” if there’s no actual opinion being expressed about said bark and leaves.
“Trees” is not the theme of a poem.
“Trees are nothing but ugly, misshapen reminders of when our romance died in that God-forsaken cabin in the woods,” however… Now that’s much more like it.
Of course, all of this sage advice, as with anything else, should be taken with a grain of salt. Rules were made to be broken, so none of this is carved in stone. In general, however, it’s best not to start breaking rules until you’ve learned them well in the first place. Once you’re feeling confident that you’ve learned exactly how these and other rules of writing work, you should feel free to break them as it suits your literary needs.
Except for exclamation points.
Exclamation points are the devil.