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Thursday, January 31, 2013

More Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing

Punctuation matters.
A while ago, I wrote about some easy ways to pump up your writing.  It turned out to be a fairly popular post (though nowhere near as popular as my January 15 post on "How to Write an Opening Sentence," which got a bewildering 37,000 page-views). I thought I'd share a couple dozen more of my favorite tricks for forcing oneself to do a better job of writing. So here goes.
DISCLAIMER: All rules can be broken. Try sticking to them first.
  1. On a separate piece of paper or in a separate doc file, write down (as simply as you can) your main message; what you're wanting to say. Keep that piece of paper (or doc file) visible, off to the side, while you work.

  2. Avoid long sentences.

  3. Try varying your sentence lengths more. Paragraph lengths too.

  4. When in doubt, leave it out. Fewer words equals less revision.

  5. Don't hoard a good phrase until the ideal situation comes. Write full-out, all the time. Hold nothing back.

  6. "Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass." (Chekhov)

  7. An ultra-short sentence at the beginning or end of a paragraph adds impact. Try it.

  8. Go back to the last thing you wrote and strip all the adjectives and adverbs out. How does it read now?

  9. Stop using "seamlessly." (Unless of course you're a seamstress.)

  10. Stop using "effectively." It adds nothing.

  11. Stop using "burgeoning." Trite. Lazy.

  12. Never use "whilst," "thusly," "ergo," or any other arch words that make you sound like an insufferable pedant.

  13. "Substitute 'damn' every time you write 'very'. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." (Mark Twain)

  14. Stop giving a shit what your English teacher thinks.

  15. Get on with it.

  16. If any sentence has you working on it longer than 60 seconds, rewrite it immediately as two or more short sentences. Recombine.

  17. Ask a friend to change three words in something you just wrote.

  18. Go back and edit something you wrote a year ago. Notice how much of it stinks.

  19. In thirty seconds or less, take three words out of whatever you just wrote. If you can't do it, the penalty is to take out six words.

  20. Learn to recognize, and stop using, overused expressions. A good rule is: If you've heard it before, don't use it. Things like "hell bent," "all hell broke loose," "[adjective] as the dickens," "so quiet you could hear a pin drop," etc. will creep into your writing while you're not looking. Go back and find such atrocities. Rip them out. Set ablaze. Bury.

  21. Specificity counts. Your friend doesn't drive a car; she drives a tired-looking red Camry. It's not a "sweltering hot day." It's the kind of summer day that makes even pigeons sweat. The gunman didn't have a gun; he had a .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock. See the difference?

  22. Don't use the same adjective, adverb, or pronoun more than once in the same paragraph (unless of course somebody is holding a .45-caliber Glock to your face). See how long you can hold out before using any word a second time. Think of synonyms, alternative phrasings, pseuodnyms, creative euphemisms, indirect references, colloquialisms, never-before-heard coinages -- anything except the same old word, repeated.

  23. Elmore Leonard once said: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

  24. Leonard also said to "leave out the parts people skip."

  25. Read good writing.


  1. Love it. Post more.

    1. I was gonna say that!

  2. All information is very useful, but I like number 1 in particular.

    1. The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.
      Provigil Online

  3. Anonymous1:14 AM

    #26 - what do you recommend we read?

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  4. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Saved to file

  5. This piece should be mandatory is all writing courses. That said, I suggest one addition: "Stop using ‘literally’.” Thanks.


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