How to Be a Better Writer - Part 1
Did you know that I once prided myself in writing long, detailed, and comprehensive emails? I would spend hours writing these essay-like emails where I anticipated the responder's thoughts, feelings, and questions.
It was all for naught.
Who reads 10,000-word emails that could be self-published on Amazon? You know, the emails that have scroll bars in them, and the bar inside the scroll bar is tiny so you know that you have to scroll for seconds to get to the end.
When I dedicated time and energy to improving my writing, I learned something crucial: people don't have to read what I write. I have to write so that people want to read. That small shift in my writing mindset made me dive deep into several books on how to become a better writer.
Part 1 of this series of articles looks at the following books:
- On writing well by William Zinsser
- Writing tools by Roy Peter Clark
- Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
- You are a writer by Jeff Goins
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
William provides advice on the general concepts of writing non-fiction and then covers specific topics like food, travel, science and technology, sports, and more.
- Cut and revise mercilessly. Find out what you are trying to say in your sentence. Cut any words that do not serve that purpose. This includes adverbs, cliches, and obvious statements (e.g., green grass).
- Remember William's four keys to writing: clarity (what is the purpose?), simplicity (small words are just as effective, if not more than big words) brevity (don't use four words when two words will do), and humanity (write like a human, avoid jargon, write as if you are explaining it to a 5-year-old or your grandma).
- When writing about complex subjects (science, technology, red muscle mitochondria in mahi-mahi, etc.), think about writing in a reverse pyramid. Start with one sentence that is general knowledge and people know. Then expand that to two sentences that build on the one sentence. Expand further until you cover your topic.
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Writing Tools offers 50 strategies to improve your writing. These strategies are the ones I am using now in my writing:
- Write concisely and cut words. Cut adverbs (words that end in -ly), prepositional phrases (e.g., in the story, in the article), phrases that grow on verbs (seems to, tends to), abstract nouns that hide verbs (consideration -> considers; observation -> observes), and restatements (a hot, humid afternoon -> a hot afternoon or a humid afternoon).
- A note on abstract nouns: The others make sense but let me explain abstract nouns further. A sentence like, 'The business takes the laws into consideration' can be re-written into 'The business considers the laws', which is much shorter AND there is a better verb-noun agreement for the reader to follow along.
- Vary sentence length. These are five simple words. Here are another five words. See how monotonous it is. Having sentences the same length? Notice what happens when I add different sentence lengths. It becomes music. Different lengths mean a different pace. Because I have worked in management consulting for so long, I write long sentences. So one thing I'm trying in my writing is shorter sentences. Very short sentences.
- Read for both form and content. Good writers are readers. If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to improve your writing. If you are trying to write a business email or write copy for customers, read other great business emails or copy to learn form (style of writing) or content (what was written), but not both at once. This is so you can focus on one aspect of writing at a time.
Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Verlyn's book, and it might just be on my Kindle version, has every sentence separated by a return.
Something like this introduction.
His entire book is like this, so he can use his own strategy of comparing the sentences in his book.
- Compare your sentences. One interesting suggestion from Verlyn was to hit 'return' on every sentence so you can see all of your sentences lined up in a column, like comparing numbers in an Excel spreadsheet. Looking at your sentences, you can compare such traits as length, whether it begins with a noun or a verb, how much punctuation you use, whether a sentence is too long, and can be divided into two or three sentences, etc.
- Good writing is based on what you read. If you want to write better, find authors, and works with great writing. I have not read his books, but I have heard a lot about John McPhee and his book Draft №4. If you have read my latest book, Essential Habits, I tried to emulate (possibly unsuccessfully) Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday.
- Writing is revision. It is almost never the case that the first thing you write is perfect. I write, leave it for a while, cut unnecessary words, re-arrange the sentence, and do many things before it gets to you. And even then it isn't perfect. This means a few things: write to get your draft on paper, give it time to breathe, and then come back to it with a fresh pair of eyes and mindset.
You are a Writer by Jeff Goins
Jeff Goins did not think he was a writer. But he received a wake-up call from his friend, who told him he shouldn't try fancy things to be a writer, all he had to do was write. Austin Kleon talks about this in his book Keep Going. He says don't focus on the noun, focus on the verb. Don't focus on being a writer, focus on writing. This advice applies to whatever you are trying to do.
- The secret to successful writing: write for yourself. I would say that the same thing applies to whatever you are doing. If you are starting a business, build a product or service that you would use. When you are writing, write articles that you would enjoy reading.
- The secret to good writing is practice. But not just any kind of practice. Public practice. This means shipping (publishing) the work, getting feedback from others, improving based on the feedback, and then writing and shipping the work again.