Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing
Por John Scalzi.
A writing question:
What writing tips would you whisper to those who aren’t aspiring professionals, but would like to write better? If I asked you about losing weight and you said “Diet and Exercise” you’d be a) correct and b) ignored. So no ideas that take work. We want the quick fix! Tips like “Edit your work” aren’t useful. “Gerunds are your friend” are.
So, the task here: Tell y’all how to write better without you actually having to make an effort. Fine. Here’s how I would do it.
(NB: These work pretty well for people who do want to be pro writers, too.)
0. Speak what you write: This is rule zero because all other rules follow on this. Basically: If what you’re writing is hard to speak, what makes you think it’s going to be easy to read? It won’t be. So speak out loud what you write. If you can’t speak it naturally, rewrite it. Simple.
1. Punctuate, damn you: For God’s sake, is it really so hard to know where to put a comma? When people read, even in their brains, there’s usually some part of them that is sounding out the words. Without appropriate punctuation, especially commas, that word-speaking part will eventually choke on the sentence. Having said that, there’s a tendency to over-punctuate as well, particularly with exclamation points. Too little punctuation makes it seem you want to collapse someone’s lung, too much makes it look like you’re a 14-year-old girl writing an IM. You want to avoid both.
Here’s a quick and dirty guide when to use punctuation:
Periods: When you’re writing down a thought and you’re at the end of that thought, put a period.
Commas: When you’re writing down a thought and you want to take a breath, whether mental or physical, put in a comma.
Semi-colon: Put these in your writing in the place where, in conversation, you’d arch your eyebrow or make some other sort of physical gesture signalling that you want to emphasize a point.
Colon: Use when you want to make an example of something: For example, just like this.
Question Mark: Quite obviously, when you have a question.
Exclamation point: When you’re really excited about something. You almost never need to use more than one in a paragraph. Use more than one in a sentence and you damn well better be using it for humorous and/or ironic effect.
Dashes: You can use these when you’ve already used a colon or a semi-colon in a sentence, but be aware that if you have more than one colon or semi-colon in a sentence, you’re probably doing something wrong.
Somewhat related: Use capitals when you should (beginning of sentences, proper nouns), don’t use them when you shouldn’t (pretty much every other time). Lots of people think not using capitals makes them look arty and cool, but generally it just makes the rest of us wonder if you’ve not yet figured out the magical invention known as the shift key. Alternately, the random appearance of capitals in inappropriate places makes us wonder if you don’t secretly wish the Germans won World War II (and even the Germans are cracking down on wanton capitalization these days, so there you are).
2. With sentences, shorter is better than longer: If a sentence you’re writing is longer than it would be comfortable to speak, it’s probably too long. Cut it up. This is one I’m guilty of ignoring; I tend to use semi-colons when I should be using periods. In fact, I’d say the largest single editing task I have after writing a piece is to go in and turn semi-coloned sentences into two sentences (or more, God forgive me).
Shorter is also better with paragraphs, but there’s such a thing as too short: Take a look at a not-particularly-well-edited newspaper and you’ll see a lot of single-sentence paragraphs, generally preceded or followed by other single-sentence paragraphs that should have been compressed into one paragraph. Good rule: One extended idea or discrete event per paragraph.
3. Learn to friggin’ spell: I’m not talking typos here, because everyone makes them, and I make more than most. I mean genuine “gosh I really don’t know how this is spelled” mistakes. This is particularly the case with basic spelling errors like using “your” when you’re supposed to be using “you’re” or “its” for “it’s” (or in both cases, vice-versa). Here’s a good rule of thumb: For every spelling error you make, your apparent IQ drops by 5 points. For every “there, they’re, their” type of mistake you make, your apparent IQ drops by 10 points. Sorry about that, but there it is.
What’s truly appalling is that even people with advanced degrees (I’m looking at you, scientists) screw these particular pooches. I look at some of the writing I see from people with MAs and PhDs after their names and I think no wonder China’s poised to kick our ass.
Look, spelling isn’t hard. Nearly every single computerized writing tool has a built-in spellcheck that will catch 90% of your spelling errors, and as for the rest of them, well, it isn’t too much to ask adults to know the difference between “their” and “there.” It’s really not.
Also, here’s a handy tip for those of you with Internet access (which, by definition, would be all of you reading this on my site). If you have a word, the spelling of which you’re not sure, and you don’t have a dictionary handy (either bound or online), copy the word, paste it into Google’s search engine, and hit “search.” If you’ve spelled it incorrectly, chances are really excellent that when your search results come up, up at the top Google will ask “Did you mean:” and present whatever word it is that you’re failing to spell. There’s no shame in doing this.
Bottom line: Typos aside, there’s no reason not to spell things correctly (and you really should get on those typos, too, although I note that I’m the last person in the world to ride folks on that one).
Related to this:
4. Don’t use words you don’t really know: It’s nice to use impressive words from time to time, but if you use an impressive word incorrectly, everyone who does know what the word means will think of you as a pathetic, insecure dork. I’m just saying. Bear in mind that this is not limited only to “impressive” Latinate words, but also (indeed especially) to slang. Use slang incorrectly — or even use last year’s word — and you’ll look like teh 1am3r. Unless you’re using the slang ironically, in which case you might be able to get away with it.
But generally: stick to words you know you know, or make real good friends with that there dictionary thingie.
5. Grammar matters, but not as much as anal grammar Nazis think it does: The problem with grammar is that here in the US at least, schools do such a horrible job of teaching the subject that most people are entirely out to sea regarding correct usage. It’s the calculus of liberal arts subjects. But grammar need not be stupendously complicated; in the final reduction the point of grammar is to make the language as clear to as many people as possible. Frankly, I think if most non-writers can manage to get agreement between their verb and their subject, I’m willing to spot them the whole “who/whom” conundrum.
Now, obviously, you should know as much grammar as you can; the more grammar you know, the better you can write. But the bottom line is just this: Be as clear as possible. If you’re not confident about the grammar of a sentence, re-write it and strive for clarity. Yes, it’s possible that in doing so the resulting sentence will lack style or something. But it’s better to be plain and understood than to have people admire your style and have not the slightest idea what you’re trying to say.
6. Front-load your point: If you make people wade through seven paragraphs of unrelated anecdotes before you get to what you’re really trying to say, you’ve lost. Yes, Mark Twain and Garrison Keillor pull that stunt all the time. But: Surprise! You’re not them. Also, there were lots of times when Twain just needed to get to the goddamn point, already.
Now, sometimes people write to find out what their point is; I think that’s fine because I do that myself. But most of the time after I’ve figured out my point, I’ll go back and re-write. Because that’s the magic of writing: You can do that. It’s not actually a live medium. No, not even in IM, since you can still re-write before you hit “send.”
This point is more flexible than some of the others; sometimes you want to go the long way around to make your point because doing so makes the point stronger. I took the long way around in my “Being Poor” essay, for example. However, most of the time it’s better to let people know what you’re doing than not, if only because then you have a better chance of them sticking around until the end.
7. Try to write well every single time you write: I have friends who I know can write well who send me the most awful e-mail and IMs because they figure it doesn’t matter how many rules of grammar and spelling they stomp on because it’s just e-mail and IM. But if you actually want to be a better writer, you have to be a better writer every time you write. It won’t kill you to write a complete sentence in IM or e-mail, you know. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it until it will actually be more difficult to write poorly in e-mail and IM than not (mobile text messaging I understand has more limitations. But I tend to look at text messaging as the 21st Century equivalent of semaphore, which is to say, specialized communication for specialized goals).
There really is no excuse for writing poorly in one’s blog. At least with IMs and e-mail your terrifying disembowelment of the language is limited to one observer. But in your blog, you’ll look stupid for the whole world to see, and it will be archived for as long as humanity remembers how to produce electricity. Maybe you don’t think anyone who reads your blog will care. But I read your blog — yes indeed I do — and I care. Madly. Truly. Deeply.
8. Read people who write well: Don’t just read for entertainment, but also look to see how they do their writing — how they craft sentences, use punctuation, break their prose into paragraphs, and so on. Doing so takes no more time than reading what they write anyway, and that’s something you’re doing already. If you can see what they’re doing, you can try to do it too. You probably won’t be able to re-create their style, since that’s something about that particular person. But what you can do is recreate their mechanics. Don’t worry that your own “voice” will get lost. Be readable first and your own style will come later, when you’re comfortable with the nuts and bolts of writing.
9. When in doubt, simplify: Worried you’re not using the right words? Use simpler words. Worried that your sentence isn’t clear? Make a simpler sentence. Worried that people won’t see your point? Make your point simpler. Nearly every writing problem you have can be solved by making things simpler.
This should be obvious, but people don’t like hearing it because there’s the assumption that simple = stupid. But it’s not true; indeed, I find from personal experience that the stupidest writers are the ones whose writing is positively baroque in form. All that compensating, you know. Besides, I’m not telling you to boil everything down to “see spot run” simplicity. I am telling you to make it so people can get what you’re trying to say.
Ultimately, people write to be understood (excepting Gertrude Stein and Tristan Tzara, who were intentionally being difficult). Most people are, in fact, capable of understanding. Therefore, if you can’t make people understand what you write, most of the time it’s not just because the world is filled with morons, it’s also because you are not being clear. Downshift. People will be happy to know what you’re saying.
10. Speak what you write: Yes, I’ve covered this before. But now after all the other tips you can see why this makes sense. If you can’t make your writing understandable to you, you can’t make it understandable to others.
And now I’m off to speak this to myself. If I can do it with my writing, you can do it with yours.