Friday, January 22, 2010

Ways to Improve Your Writing...100, Actually

One hundred ideas for improving your writing...that's quite a bit to digest, especially in ten "bites" or categories. I was emailed a link to a list of "100 Little Ways You Can Dramatically Improve Your Writing." What follows is my synopsis and annotations to the list.
  • General: These general suggestions are actually quite good. Keeping a jotting notebook, reading more, and listening are useful to writers. I keep a notebook so that when I get an idea, I can write it down. Reading provides good models, providing you read good writers, of course. And as for listening, Count Leo Tolstoy (Mr. War and Peace) used to go out among the peasants and listen to pick up vernacular speech, vernacular meaning the language of the native or home people from its Latin roots--or language of the slaves, which tells you something about the Romans. "Writing on the go" is an interesting idea. Western writer Louis L'Amour once said that he wasn't a finicky writer, that he could set his typewriter down on a freeway median and type away.
  • Grammar and Spelling: These suggestions are less useful and can be summed up with the following words: don't make mistakes. Duh! Two suggestions are worth discussion, though. "Learn new words." Words are the writer's brick and mortar. Use the best building materials you can find. "Don't rely on spell-check." Our language is subtle and devious. Spell-checkers are naive, country bumpkins in the big city. They do their best, but....
  • Creative Writing: These are all good, basic ideas. "Show, don't tell" is probably the most basic and is very important. "Have a backstory" is a more advanced concept. These good suggestions don't really get the story written, though. Many times we write from emotion and intuition. When we do that, what we have read (our writing models) assume greater importance.
  • Business and Technical Writing/Journalism: Considering many of my readers are students, I'm lumping these two categories into one and calling it Non-fiction. There are useful ideas here: have an angle or focus, be specific and accurate, know your audience, find the "local color" if possible. Think about these if you are writing a research paper, a news release, or an essay.
  • Writer's Block and Inspiration: These ideas could be useful, but I am reminded of a story I once heard the actor Sir Laurence Olivier relate. A method actor had a scene to play where he had to project extreme fatigue. The actor stayed up late to come to the set really tired. Olivier said something like, "My dear boy, wouldn't be easier to just act?" From the perspective of a consciousness-based writer, I practice Transcendental Meditation and find my creativity easier to access. Of course, someone will probably read this and think, "He's not creative, he's boring!" My point, though, is that I do not find the creative process particularly painful and depressing--and for that, I am grateful.
  • Style: These points might be useful when rewriting or when you're in the "let me read about writing" mood, but no one really goes into writing thinking, "Okay, now be original, use original metaphors and similes, use fewer adjectives." These points can be used as a sort of checklist when polishing: "Have I used too many adjectives? Am I structuring ideas in passive voice?"
  • Composition and Organization: Of use to consider, especially in non-fiction. I remember in the movie Finding Forester where Sean Connery says, "You write the first draft with your heart, the second draft with your head." Many of these points are considerations of prewriting and of revision, not drafting. One of the points in this section is to "make use of the writing process," and if this were the Bible, we would prophetically emphasize: There is a process of writing, and a time for every step of writing under heaven (sung to the old Byrds melody).
  • Revising and Editing: Four of the points are very useful. Write the first draft for yourself. You should be able to write anything in a way that in some manner pleases you--even a grocery list (illuminate it!). How long are you going to be a writer if you don't at some point please yourself? Even if you change it later for some other payoff. Sleep on it. Time not only heals all; it also reveals all. Time allows a fresh eye; it allows the intellect to kick in. Read your work out loud. This is excellent advice. Closely reading the actual words on the page focuses the attention on each and every word, and also on the rhythm of the words. Ask someone else to read your work. A good idea would be for that "someone" to have some skill with words--and someone honest enough to tell you the truth (but, hopefully, tactful, too).
  • Computer and Web Tips: "How to Write for the Computer Screen" might be another title for this section. This section deals with the visual "look" of print on screen--an interesting concept, really. Of course, for general computer advice, a good basic rule is to ask someone younger than yourself!
On the website that lists all one hundred suggestions, each suggestion is also a link, sending you back to the original online article where the concept was found. That's a nice gesture to the other writers and websites.

In conclusion, being a better writer has at its basis being a better thinker. Being a better thinker has at its basis having greater and clearer awareness. Take care of your body and mind. You want to be a better writer? Don't be a dull, sick, fatigued, stressed person. You might say, "Yeah, but what about famous, alcoholic writer So-and-So?" That writer was a genius in spite of lifestyle, not because of it. I practice the Transcendental Meditation technique to sharpen my mind. It doesn't interfere with my lifestyle; it enhances my lifestyle. If you want to shop, first go to the bank. If you want to write, first go to the source of thought and language--and that place is within you. Then put the graphite to the cellulose.

Copyright 2010 by Thomas L. Kepler, all rights reserved


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