I love simple tricks to improve writing. I’m always delighted to show people how a few small fixes, like removing passive voice or cutting unneeded words, can tone a flabby piece of writing. Sometimes just a few easy changes produce dramatic results.
Learning to write better over the long term, however, is an ongoing process without any shortcuts.
Plenty of books about writing aim to show writers how to improve their writing. Some writing books focus on grammar, others on the craft itself. Some are helpful; many are not. Style guides offer tips that range from specific advice (”Omit needless words.”) to vague suggestions (”Create an objective voice.”). Style guides often don’t explain why a piece of writing succeeds or fails.
As William Zinsser says, we all need models. To learn to write better, we need to read great writers, study their works, and imitate their styles.
Here’s an analogy, using my process of learning photography as an example.
Photography is a skill, just like writing is a skill. A camera has knobs and dials and settings that must be learned, much as writers need to learn certain style and grammar rules. When I started learning photography, I didn’t know what I was doing and took an endless number of poor photos of boring subjects.
I read a little bit about my camera and learned the how to use all the dials and gizmos on my camera. I learned to control the focus and speed of my shots. I began to take better photos. Although I improved the technical aspects of my photography, I still didn’t understand what made for a compelling photograph. Occasionally, my efforts would result in a great photo, but I could never capture good photos with any consistency. I created good images by accident, not by design.
I started studying other people’s photos on Flickr, on Instagram, in galleries, and in photo books. I read a little bit about composition, color, and light. Whenever an image caught my attention, I analyzed it to understand why I liked it. I considered why the composition worked as a whole. I studied photos to learn what made an effective subject. I saw how photographers used lines, shapes, and forms. I studied colors and patterns. I learned about different types of light and their effects on the subject. I tried to recreate the elements I liked in other people’s photography in my own photos. I never achieved identical images, but produced better photos. I practiced and practiced to get the images I wanted. Imitating other photographers helped me improve more than learning any technical wizardry. After a few years, I’d started developing a recognizable style.
In 2013, one of my photos was chosen out of a field of 225 to be part of an exhibition of twenty photos in Guatemala. I took this photo based on its color, light, symmetry, and simplicity. I created this image with intention, not by accident. [I should also note that this photo was taken with a point and shoot camera, proving once again that good images are made with composition and light, not expensive gear.]
I explain all of these things about photography to point out that we can do the same thing with writing. Beginning writers have often mastered the technical aspects of writing, such as sentence structure, but lack a real voice and style. I am convinced that to write better, we should read more. As writers, we need to study the works of other writers to learn what makes for powerful writing. We’ve all read works or stories that leave us in awe. When we find an effective piece of writing, we should stop and analyze it. We can then reproduce what we like in our own writing.
It’s okay to model your writing on that of writers who are not academics: novelists, poets, or preachers. Here’s a very short example from a quote I’ve always liked:
Forgetting for a brief moment about the content, we can analyze Thoreau’s passage and look for clues about what makes this effective writing.
Thoreau immediately connects with the reader’s emotions. Who hasn’t felt like the odd person out, a person keeping pace to the beat of a different drummer? We’re then validated for being those people; Thoreau lets us know that we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. He reassures us that we’re okay just as we are. He understands us.
He also speaks to us in language that we understand. The longest word in this passage is three syllables and ten letters long (companions). To make this passage even simpler, he could have used friends rather than companions, but we still understand his meaning. Notice also the short and direct nature of the sentences. He provides us with one idea at a time. Thoreau tells us something powerful in simple language.
The passage is chock-full of concrete nouns and verbs: man, pace, companions, drummer, step, music. We understand the passage because we picture all of these real, concrete things. Thoreau never would have used the word conceptualize when he meant ideas.
When read aloud, the words have a pleasing rhythm. The words do not sounds mechanical, as there are no nominalizations. Thoreau writes without words that end in -ism, -ion, -ment, -ize, -ization, or -ity. George Orwell, of course, parodied so much formal writing in his “translation” of the well-known verse of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes in Politics and the English Language. Simple language is often the most powerful.
How can you produce something effective like this in your own writing? Here are some suggestions:
Is there an emotional moment in your narrative? A moment of sadness, of betrayal, of rage? Can you write about it in such a way that the reader can feel a sense of empathy? Academic writers often shy away from emotional content in their writing, fearing that they’ll be judged as “biased,” or worse, an “activist.” I reject the idea that we should be writing emotionless prose; emotions are part of the human experience. An emotional connection with a reader is a powerful force.
Where in your writing are you using big words when simple ones would do the job? What’s the biggest thing you can say with the simplest words possible? Lots of writers worry that short, plain words won’t convey the meaning of their complex ideas. Try replacing big words with smaller ones and see what happens. Remember also that short sentences pack more punch than long ones. You could even try explaining your idea with 1000 of the most common English words. (Warning: more difficult than it looks!)
Along the same lines, how many concrete verbs and nouns can you use in your writing? Even when discussing ideas, concrete nouns and verbs make ideas real for the reader. How many nominalizations have you used? Can you replace them with either their verb form or another set of words altogether (e.g. compartmentalize becomes “put into a box.”)?
Read your writing out loud. Does it read like the lyrics to a good song, one where everything just sounds right? If it falls flat or makes clunking noises, pick some different words, change the punctuation, and try again. Does your writing sounds like a poor translation of a computer manual? Aim for clarity, remove needless words, and pick better verbs. Have you written sentences that are so long that you can’t take a breath? Help your readers: be generous with punctuation and clear places to pause.
Find appropriate models. Find writing you like. Figure out how the author bewitched you. Practice writing. Reproduce in your own writing the elements that you find effective and powerful. Be assured that imitating writers you like will not prevent you from developing your own style. Instead, ride on the shoulders of great writers just long enough to grow your own wings to fly.