For those of you who know me, you know that I hate four-letter words like nice and good because their meanings are entirely subjective, and therefore, they mean nothing. You can imagine how annoyed I get when people say, “So-and-so is a ‘good’ writer,” but I get even more annoyed when people say, “I’m not a ‘good’ writer.”
I say, “Pish posh.”
While some chalk up a “good” writing style to natural ability, I want you to know that even if you have the crappiest writing style in the world, you can get better. And if you do indeed have what is considered the crappiest writing style in the world (which I’d like to read, so send it to me), maybe your readers want to read your crappy writing style. Maybe it’s what they’re looking for. Regardless of what we’re considering “good” and “crappy” today, here is a list of best practices I follow when I write and practices that will help both “good” and “crappy” writers find their voices:
- Read. Read. Read. Don’t scan. Read. Your RSS feeds do not count. You need to be reading books or at the very least, lengthy magazine articles. I don’t care if you’re reading Foucoult or Dr. Suess or anything in between; the act of absorbing the written word will result in that same written word (and by same I don’t mean copied) dissipating in your own writing.
- Write. Write. Write. I will never be a world champion snow boarder unless I snowboard snowboard snowboard; likewise, you will never be a good writer unless you write write write. Practice!
- Practice perfectly. OK, I admit I have mixed feelings on this point because we all make mistakes, and I’m certainly from the school of Learning From Your Mistakes; however, I had a gymnastics coach when I was a kid who always said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.” Maybe he was just a jerk, but I think there’s some validity in his mantra. When you write, double- and triple-check your work. Are my proper nouns capitalized? Are the common nouns lower-cased? Do the ends of my sentences have punctuation? Are my commas joining complete thoughts? Did I use to, too, and two correctly? How about there, they’re and their? A little rusty on your grammar? Listen to Grammar Girl’s Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing or pick up a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
- Write with an active voice. Avoid sentence structures that contain a to-be verb; you can most easily identify them by looking for sentences that start with there or by gleaning out was, is, were, and being. Get to the heart of your verbs and use them! Using verbs will make your writing come to life.
- Get straight to the point. When I was teaching, it drove me crazy when students started all of their sentences with I think or I believe. Because you’re the writer, your readers will automatically assume that what they’re reading is what the author (you) think or believe.
- Use all seven coordinating conjunctions. That’s right. There are seven. Most people use three, and only three: and, but, and or. Try using the other four to liven up your writing. For, nor, yet, and so are small but powerful words when you’re connecting two complete thoughts. (And let’s review the rule: When using coordinating conjunctions, you need two complete thoughts, a comma after the first thought, and your coordinating conjunction.)
- Punctuate! I love commas and periods as much as the next writer, but if you really want to get me riled up, throw in a semicolon–or even better, a dash! Use a semicolon when you want to join two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction; use a set of dashes when you want to make a parenthetical statement–like this one–without using parentheses.
- Toss out all these best practices. You know the saying, “Rules are meant to be broken”? It’s especially true in writing. But I caution you, don’t break the rules because you don’t know them; break the rules because you made a conscious decision to do so.
So that’s it. The eight best practices above are the ones I use every day to craft the voice and style in my writing. What about you? Do you use these best practices? Or do you have others that work for your style and your writing?