Becoming a better writer

When I talk to people about improving their writing, I sometimes wonder if some flaws are simply hard-coded, or if anyone can improve those through effort. As Pepper Martin said to his manager Frank Frisch, after the latter’s rant during a time when the team was just bad, “You know, Frankie-boy, I got a jackass back home on my ranch, and you can run him from sunup to sundown, and he still ain’t never gonna win the Kentucky Derby.” That’s not a putdown without including myself; it may be true in some areas for all of us. I am pretty sure I’m tone-impaired, for example, because much music that some consider stunningly wondrous just sounds horrible to me, and I can’t make any decent music at all myself. I am not sure I have the physical wherewithal to improve. Likewise, I could have tried for a degree in math instead of history, but could I have comprehended even calculus? It’s doubtful, considering my struggles with pre-calculus. So some of what I suggest, I believe, might simply be outside some folks’ ken. But I can suggest it, and if people are trying to work on it, they can decide for themselves whether a flaw is innate or badly learned.

Homophones. These are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. A long list is here. Until you make time to differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ from ‘they’re,’ you will look bad. I don’t care if you mess them up in chat, but if you’re writing something people should want to read, you must get these right. A new grocery store opened just down the hill from me. It looked fairly downscale, and then I looked up to its opening day marquee: YOUR TO GOOD LOOKING TO SHOP ANYWHERE ELSE. The combination of slack-jawed, vapid flattery with such obvious lack of attention to accuracy grossed me out. I’ve still never spent a dime there. If they can’t muster a better public intro than most people’s standard chat and e-mail errors, that’s just sad.

Read a lot–and read good quality. If I write well today, it is for two reasons. The first, the technical correctness, came from heavy reading between ages three and seventeen. Even when I can’t tell you why something is incorrect, I nearly always know when it is, because I have read a great deal of correct writing. The second, refinement, also comes from lots of reading, and began when I went to college. This is where we learn to examine our statements for clarity, wean ourselves away from adverb overdose, push aside passive voice, and otherwise break the standard bad habits. Don’t assume that endcap bestsellers exemplify good writing habits; more often, they exemplify lazy pandering to a public that doesn’t know the difference and doesn’t care.

Punctuation. Look up the purpose of each mark, from the apostrophe to the hyphen. Check your writing to see if you use these correctly. Find the basics here. And if you do not, then…

Stop with ‘well, that’s just my style.’ If your style is bad, then it’s not an asset, and should be changed. Styles evolve. Don’t hug your weaknesses dearly to your heart, as if questioning them questions your validity as a person. Lots of great thinkers and people can’t write well.

If you write like you talk, stop. It’s not an asset, because people don’t read like they listen.

Never ask for critique you don’t want. Most requests for critique are actually requests for validation. These are unfair to the critic, whom you place in an impossible position. Your writing might not be very good. If it isn’t good, and you came seeking validation, your critic can’t win. If she tells you the cold truth, she just broke your dolly and crushed your dream, heartless snob that she is. If she uses all her own writing talent to find a nice way to tell you that your writing is bad, she expended much more effort than you had the right to ask of her, all for nothing, because you probably heard only the kind parts you wanted to hear. And if she lies, she was worse than useless to you, actually harmful to your development. Don’t ask for critique unless you want it for the sake of improvement, even if caustic. No worthwhile critic is needlessly cruel, but sometimes the simple truth is cruel in nature. You don’t ask a dentist to tell you that your tooth enamel and nerve will grow back, do you? Do you ask an orthopedic surgeon to tell you that your achilles will really only take three painless months to rehab, when in fact it will take a year of significant suffering?

The worst, the very worst, is when someone asks me to critique their child’s writing. Critiquing a child’s writing is an exercise in compassionate lying. The writing may be quite good for the child’s age, but it’s almost surely deeply flawed–obviously, since the child is developing English skills. Is it good for his age? I am not equipped to know; that’s the province of an English teacher (whose job is to provide age-appropriate critique), which I am not and could not be. Think about it. I have to lie. I have no other humane choice. Can we just agree, outside the child’s hearing, that asking this of me constitutes a request that I lie and say something is better than it is, for the sake of not crushing a little soul? That’s all I ask: to be relieved of the duty of honest sincerity, and that we all agree that I’m here to lie, and that by lying here, I’m helping and being a good guy. Neither you, your child nor I desire that I dissect it for real. Okay? If you want age-appropriate non-lying critique, best ask a professional educator who knows what is good for each age. I’m not qualified to do anything but lie.

Learn consistency of article, number, person and gender reference. This governs so much and weaves together. If you do not even know what this means, I’ll explain. If the subject is plural, and you later refer back to it, you cannot use the singular unless you are singling out one member of the subject group. This is why ‘they’ is an unacceptable substitute for ‘he or she,’ the eternal gender neutrality problem inherent in English, and probably the cause of more recast sentences than even passive voice addiction. If you describe an event in the future perfect tense, you can’t contradict the timing in the next sentence. Learning the tenses in English would be a good step, so here is a reference to study. Use of the right verb tense is a combination of literal common sense and knowing what the tense means.

Remember that narrative and dialogue are different. Narrative represents the storyteller’s viewpoint, or the story as seen through a character’s eyes. Dialogue is what people say, their actual words. Internal monologue (unspoken thoughts) is a form of dialogue. In dialogue, nothing has to be perfect; it simply has to sound like the speaker (or his/her thoughts). Part of crafting good dialogue is knowing how well-spoken the speaker is. The English can and should be as lousy as the speaker’s; the thoughts may be disconnected and inconsistent. It could make a travesty of this whole blog post, and be great dialogue.

Never follow any rule off a cliff. This one comes from C.J. Cherryh, one of the finest writers in print. There are times to break every rule, provided you know it well enough to break it. Here is what I tell writers: every writer gets a certain number of cheats per piece, defined as deviations from everything he or she is told not to do. Teachers instruct us to use some devices sparingly, especially adverbs, em dashes, semicolons, ellipses, passive voice, split infinitives, sentences ending with prepositions…you get the idea. When you hew blindly to a ‘don’t do this’ list, you do as badly as if you are addicted to overusage.

Cheat for a reason. Cheat for extra effect. Cheat because it will make a key phrase stand out. Any time you cheat, be sure the cheat pays its way. For example, I have used ellipses twice in this post. Under normal circumstances, I’d consider that slothful, but I believe both usages worked and paid their way. The second usage is questionable, if the definition of a cheat were ‘something I could eliminate through recasting.’ To me, that is not a definition, but a value test for most verbiage and literary devices. That is a tightening test more than it is a cheat’s value test.


10 thoughts on “Becoming a better writer”

  1. Loved your observation about the old “that’s my style” excuse. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that in undergrad and graduate writing workshops.


    1. Thanks, Trudie. As I see it, it’s like telling your physical therapist that three Big Macs a day is ‘my lifestyle.’ “Okay, but understand that it’s a bad one, likely to nerf the benefits of the therapy.”


    1. Thanks, Jenn! I’d call that an advanced skill, one that takes a lot of work. One of my favorite dialogue artists is military fiction author W.E.B. Griffin, especially his older stuff. He has been fetishistic, and his later stuff with his son is not so great, but he has some fantastic dialogue. Frank Herbert also absolutely rocked dialogue.


  2. Thanks for the wonderful reminders. Tenses are my weak point. I can use three of them in a single paragraph, giving my dear editor husband whiplash.


    1. They’re hard, because one has to maintain continuity. However, reading through it, an editor will catch that quickly because the editor is following the sentence and if there’s a break in time or reference, it’ll stand out. Glad you stopped by, Christi!


  3. My two cents: Always have a good editor on hand. No one can edit his or her own work well. This is not just self-serving. Yes, I’m an editor by trade. But I always get a good editor to edit my writing.


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