Monday, October 14, 2019

5 Simple—and Not So Simple—Ways to Improve Writing

As a journalist, creative writer and editor who has run a writing group for a decade, I’m often asked for writing strategies. How can I make my writing clearer? What can I do better? I’m suggesting five simple—and not so simple—ways to improve writing.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to say what you think. In her groundbreaking, The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron suggests that a daily writing practice—what she calls “morning pages”— helps a writer break through. There are “official feelings”—what you're willing to say in public—and “real” feelings—removing artifice and contrivance. If a writer says, she’s feeling “okay”, consider what that means. Get specific. Honesty and authenticity require courage and risk-taking, but the payoff is huge.

2. Eliminate Unnecessary Words. Pesky adverbs. “Dutifully watched” when “watched” is enough. Adverbs and other filler words are every new writer’s downfall. Actually, I thought, when I thought suffices. If there is one extra word that keeps a sentence from standing without it, delete. This doesn’t mean there aren’t times and places for beautiful, sensory-laden descriptions.

3. Don’t write in a vacuum. Find a writing group, a critique group, a writing partner. Never underestimate the value of feedback. Feedback is a tool for learning. Just this weekend, I shared a piece I wrote in Women’s Writing Circle. The input invited me to rethink the structure of several sentences and rewarded me with reader reaction to my narrative. I felt inspired to keep working at my craft.

Two strategies not easily accomplished.

4. What is the objective of my story? We can all tell a good story, but the reason we tell a story is to inspire, inform and engage. Why this story—not another? Too often, writers dance around the issue. They’ll say, I think this is going to be a piece on caregiving, when what they’re trying to write is the mother/daughter relationship ... the husband/ wife relationship. Unless you’re writing a “how to” piece, good writing focuses on human interaction, on relationships, on strong portraits. Insight into your goal for writing the story in the first place invites precision.

5. Reflection. Without reflection, the reader is left wandering. Whether it is the memoirist or the protagonist in a novel—reflection is analytical. It requires an understanding of human psychology and motivation. Paint clear portraits. Backstory, inner monologue and sharp, realistic dialogue are tools in reflective writing. Don't assume readers are mind readers. Give them something to work with. Who is this character—his age, his background, his trauma, his turning point? Delete the superfluous and get to the meat of your story and the heart of your character.

These are my strategies. There are many others. Can you offer a writing strategy that works for you?

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