Forbid yourself to write worse

90% of the aspiring writers I know could cure over half their problems just by forbidding themselves a number of bad habits. Most are willing to cut back on them, but unwilling to go so far as categorical discontinuance. That’s unfortunate, because the discontinuance is a free, self-directed writing class.

By and large, I don’t like writing games. That’s my term for challenges where you have to write without this or that, or must include words beginning with such-and-such a letter, some other cutesy stuff. This, however, is not a game. This is a creative way to develop habits that look good in a printed book.

Here’s the logic. Most bad writing habits represent mechanisms which have value when used with restraint. Only when they become easy outs are they problems; it’s easier to just follow the bad habit than to write well without it. Okay. Suppose you deny yourself the easy out. You can’t use them at all. Now you confront the dilemma: how else can I convey what I need to say? Without the easy cheat, you must recast sentences. You must ask whether you even needed the cheat. You retrain yourself to tell it with your words, straight and clean.

  • Adverbs. Try writing without a single one.
  • ALL CAPS. Write without a single instance.
  • Ellipses. Not even one.
  • Bold, italics, underlining. Try with none.
  • Semicolons. What if you couldn’t use any?
  • Exclamation points. Huh? “Forbidding myself those is preposterous!” Not so much as you imagine.
  • Passive voice. Forbid its use.
  • Sentences that begin with ‘But’ or ‘And.’ This one will vault your writing skyward.
  • Em dashes. Try without them, even in the case of sudden interruption of dialogue or thought.
  • Parenthesized comments. None.
  • Making the excuse to yourself, “That’s just my style.” Answer yourself: “Then my style is wrong. I must improve it.” If there is one sentence that obstructs a writer’s growth like a block of granite, it is that fatal sniff: “Well, that’s just my style.” It’s a statement that tells me my services as editor will be of little use. If I drive my car on the wrong side of the road whenever it’s convenient for me, “that’s just my driving style” is not a good answer for the police. If I curse in job interviews, “that’s just my style of interaction” is not going to win over an employer. If your style is wrong, fix it.
  • “S/he felt.” What if you forbade yourself to tell the reader feelings? What would you do? You’d learn to show them, not tell. More show is better. More tell is worse.
  • Anything else cheesy. Don’t allow it.

Sound like I’m telling you to strive to be boring? No. Remember, this is not how the finished product will be. This is self-disciplined training.

If you forbid yourself to cheat, then sit down to write, you leave yourself no alternative but to re-examine your mode of expression. You will discover that each mechanism, everything you have been told represents bad writing, does have its niche. And because you did everything possible not to use it, it will be handy for when no other usage will convey the meaning. The desired end habit is to resist using them except when all the alternatives are worse, or even grotesque. Bad habits are always guilty until proven innocent, unnecessary until proven necessary.

If you’ve recast the whole sentence or para a few times, and could find no other non-crappy way, you may need one of those mechanisms. Passive voice, italicized emphasis, ellipses, adverbs and all: they are parts of writing for reasons. They are like drinks of whiskey or dishes of ice cream. Now and then, nothing else satisfies–but you probably shouldn’t have one every few hours of the waking day.

My given list of bad habits is not exhaustive. Some people write like Hemingway, with para-long sentences strung together with ‘ands,’ yet without commas, and figure that if Hemingway did it, it must be okay. Some people are addicted to single dashes set off with spaces. Whatever you are doing, that does not resemble top-shelf writing, is probably your bad habit. I know my own. If you don’t know your own, you know little of yourself as a writer. That’s sad.

Try it. If your desire to improve is sincere, you will soon see.

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