I was complimented today about my writing. Inspired by my fan, I offer seven tips on how to improve writing. I jotted these down for myself; I always am pleased to accept further suggestions.
First, know the substance. I am able now to write about various subjects, offering commentary with which others are willing to engage and to complete a blog in a single sitting. That is the result of years of research on recurring themes.
To anyone who is impressed by anything I have to say, I disclose this fact hidden in the open: you are only seeing the surface. The preparation remains invisible.
Second, know the audience. I have to remind myself of this precept. The audience matters more than the author. I am not alone in succumbing to my own rhetoric. For non-fiction prose, whether expository or persuasive (the former is incorporated in the latter), the test is the understanding of the reader rather than the satisfaction of the writer. The substance and the tone must be calibrated appropriately. That sets a prerequisite: the author is obligated to figure out who her audience is.
Third, state a thesis. Every how-to manual advises as much. That is with reason. It is different for a mystery novelist, which I am not, than a lawyer and a teacher, both of which I am. Even in a detective story, Dr. Watson must appear as a stand-in for all of us, to be given the explanation of the crime. The reader of a legal brief or a textbook wishes for it to be interesting, but not enigmatic.
The point(s) should be set forth explicitly and early. That is a guideline, not a rule. But any deviation from the principle should be judged on its effect, whether at the end a reasonable person would in turn be able to repeat what she had gleaned from the page.
Fourth, organize. An outline may be too formal. Nonetheless, order is expected. Sense is derived from it. Sentences ought to flow in a sequence, paragraphs should form a structure.
Fifth, become relentless about revising. My own impression of my craft is not consistently favorable. I am not an especially good writer. I am, however, an obsessive editor. There are always words to be removed, if only I show the initiative. I care about language: I want to learn from my mistakes, and no doubt someone will see grammatical errors here.
The most minimalist scribblers, Hemingway or the late Raymond Carver, were laconic in manuscript form, but they became polished in published form thanks to the application of a red pen. Editor Maxwell Perkins deserves the admiration that literary critics lavish on him, for improving not only Hemingway but also F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe; Gordon Lish did the same for Carver. What worked on the Great American Novel is even better applied to a newspaper article or business letter. The perfect first draft is an aspiration, yet generally unattainable.
Sixth, appreciate the value of writing. A person reading this blog is a person who wants to write well. She likely already acknowledges that the ability to communicate is crucial. Except to the hermit, an idea is nothing if it is not shared.
But even those who agree that writing is a worthwhile skill may not realize how difficult it is to develop. Like public speaking, a related competency, writing is a task practiced by most professionals. It can be done at a level of minimal competence with minimal training. That makes progress all the more challenging, because the basic standard is easy enough to meet and the benefits of outstanding performance are either not apparent or not promoted with sufficient incentives.
Writing is integral to thinking. The expression of the thought isn’t mere flourish. To conceive of “style” as extraneous is to devalue substance as well.
Seventh, be dedicated to the project. Every day, I write. That means I also have to lead a life with enough that is compelling in it — and I am the most difficult to satisfy in this regard — to make it worthwhile to memorialize. I look for new experiences. I read about everything. To be open requires discipline. A writer is necessarily a participant in the world.
I am inspired by thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. His sermons became essays; his essays, sermons. His journals were a source for both. His days were full, because he was curious about the happenings around him — he is able to share that enthusiasm with others through words. His epigrams continue to be quoted.
To write well is to live well.