Everyone’s a writer. It’s true. Look no further than the thousands of free – or nearly free – ebooks written by average Joes like you or me on Amazon. Or the variety of blogs on any and every subject that flood the Internet. Don’t forget the millions upon millions of social media posts that most of us contribute to everyday. And if you still don’t believe you write, open up the text message app on your phone and watch the evidence overwhelm you.
We may not all be writing the next great American novel (I’m looking at you, angry “Top Commenters” on message boards), but it’s probably safe to assume that mankind writes more often now than it ever has before – at least in some fashion. But just because we all write doesn’t mean that we’re all good at it. We can all draw a picture, but not all of those pictures would make it to an art gallery. In fact, very few probably would. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect. And writing is no different.
Here at the Bradford Group, we set goals each quarter. One of my goals this last quarter was to read two books about writing. This was useful for a few reasons: 1) I’d learn more about the craft of writing, something we all do every day. 2) Reading a book was part of our company’s quarterly theme, so it earned me a reward. 3) One of my goals in life is to write a book (not a very original goal, but I digress). 4) I work at a public relations agency – writing is a must.
The two books I grabbed from our library were Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (yes, the same E.B. White of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web) and On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Elements of Style read more like a rule book. It wasn’t as enjoyable as On Writing Well. Regardless, both had a lot to say about becoming a better writer. Let me share the top five things I learned.
Rewriting is a Must
Rewriting is an essential part of the writing process. Many people don’t want to bother with rewriting because it seems like a step backwards. Why go over what you’ve already written when there’s something completely new to be said? I get that. But chances are what you wrote the first time isn’t the best it could be. Maybe a later sentence sounds better and covers what you poorly wrote earlier. Or maybe you just need to sleep on it and rework it. As writers, we need to be comfortable with rewriting. I’ve rewritten all of these paragraphs to some degree. They are by no means the best they can be, but they’re better than when I started. Rewriting is as necessary to writing as exhaling is to breathing, so get used to it. The sooner you embrace it, the better your writing will be.
Remove [All] Unnecessary Words
In On Writing Well, Zinsser shared a characteristic he was [very well] known for among his writing students: Whenever he read his students’ papers, he would put brackets around any [and all] unnecessary words. Writing should be [incredibly] lean [and to the point]. If you can use one precise word instead of two vague words – always choose the one. He said the papers at the beginning of the semester were [totally] littered with extra [superfluous] words. But by the end of the semester, the brackets were usually gone. I haven’t mastered the bracket trick yet, but since reading the book I now see brackets in everything I read. The English language has a rich vocabulary, and writers should take advantage of that. Write concisely and precisely.
Write Like You Speak
This seems like an easy one. But put a pen or keyboard in someone’s hand and they suddenly feel the need to write like Shakespeare. If you wouldn’t speak a certain way, don’t write that way. Like most of you, I was taught in elementary school to not start sentences with words like “but” or “and.” But we talk like that all the time. We use sentence fragments and even end our sentences with prepositions. We speak comfortably but, when writing, force ourselves into boxes based on (sometimes arbitrary) rules.
If you’ve paid attention, you’ll notice I’ve used parentheses quite a bit. While I don’t speak in parentheses (is that even possible?), I write with parentheses all the time – even in something as short as a text message. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to write in a “professional way,” but felt limited because I couldn’t use parentheses. Sure, I may not be able to use them all the time, but I feel much more comfortable with them around. Write with the words, expressions and style choices that you speak and feel comfortable with. The reader can tell if you don’t sound like yourself.
Anything Can Be Interesting
I was a little hesitant to believe that a book about writing could hold my attention in an enjoyable way. For me, Elements of Style seemed to validate that notion. However, in On Writing Well, Zinsser taught me that anything can be written in an interesting way. It’s the writer’s job to keep the sentences cohesive and captivating. The first sentence should persuade you to read the second. And the third sentence should be even more enticing. One of his examples was a long excerpt from an interview he had with a famous birdwatcher. I’ve never been interested in birds or those that watch them. However, I was captivated throughout the entire piece (and trust me, it was fairly long). And that was his point. As long as the writer is willing to put in the hard work, anything can be written in an entertaining way.
Writing is Not a Contest
It’s easy to become intimidated by other writers. Why should I believe that I can write a book with the greats staring at me from my bookshelf? There is no way I can be as good as they, why bother? It’s a problem we all face. But writing isn’t a contest. I may never be as good as Homer, Ray Bradbury or F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that shouldn’t stop me from becoming a better writer than I am today. We all have to start somewhere.
If we can ignore the imaginary pressure of writers around us and understand the value of rewriting, the precision that the right word offers and that it’s okay to use words that we normally use, we can write better and make any subject matter compelling.
I hope you’ve learned something new about the craft of writing. Please feel free to share any tips, tricks or advice that you may have in the comments below.