Today is a very special day because I’m going to give you 10 tips that will instantly improve your writing.
I say ‘instant’ because you can implement each of these tips right now and immediately improve your writing.
It took me years to realise all of these tips. But here I am serving them up on a plate for you.
I’m not saying you will be able to pen the next War and Peace right after reading these tips. But they certainly could form the foundation of a great work of literature.
If you have more humble ambitions (like me), these tips will also improve your sales copy, email communications, dirty poems, and solicitations for intercourse scrawled on your pub’s bathroom wall.
1. Write the way you speak
You know that thing you do when you move your lips and noises come out? (Jeez, I’m patronising…)
And you know that thing you do when you hit your keyboard and little squiggles appear on the screen? (I’m such a twat…)
Well try and make them converge.
Writers spend years developing their voice.
We spend years searching for bigger words and “smarter” ways to say things.
But after years of writing stuff that’s supposed to sound like, well, writing, we realise that we could have saved a hell of a lot of time if we had just wrote the way we spoke from the start.
If you learned to write from college, you probably suffered from a severe writing handicap for a long time without even knowing it.
I spent three years writing English Language & Literature essays.
My friends wrote law essays, biochemistry essays, politics, philosophy, and economics essays.
Did any of this writing actually make us better writers?
When you write the way college teaches you to write, you end up alienating a lot of people.
You end up writing in a way that’s only concerned with showing how smart you are.
Anyone who isn’t part of your little club ends up feeling stupid.
The point of writing is to communicate something to another person.
Effective communication is all about being clear.
Not confusing the other person with ten-dollar words.
“Ten-dollar words” comes from a Hemingway quote.
William Faulkner said this of Ernest Hemingway:
Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used.
Then my boy Ernest hit back with this right hook:
I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange then in the proper combination you make it stick. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any.
Then, while Faulkner was on the ropes squirting blood outta his nose, Ernest slammed him with another and KO-ed him:
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. Did you read his last book? It’s all sauce-writing now, but he was good once. Before the sauce, or when he knew how to handle it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Faulkner. But unless you’re gonna try and write the next The Sound and the Fury, you should probably take your writing advice from Hemingway on this one and shy away from the “ten-dollar words”.
Here are some tips to help you write how you speak:
- Read it out loud
- Write without a filter (tidy up later)
- Read plays that capture the way people speak and study the rhythm of speech
2. Order words for emphasis
Put important words at the beginning and end of sentences.
I figured this one out intuitively a while back.
But then I came across a book that did an excellent job at putting this idea into words and showing why it’s so important.
Putting strong stuff at the beginning and end helps writers hide weaker stuff in the middle.
He then advises us to look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to see how emphatic word order works.
Check it out (I’ve bolded the emphatic parts):
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Once you’ve done that, do the same with the Gettysburg Address.
3. Lube up your writing with humour and self-challenge
What do you do when you’re suffering from dryness…?
Do you keep soldiering on and deal with the burn?
Or do you slap K-Y Jelly on that thing and have yourself a party?
The same’s true with writing.
If you’re bored, the reader’s definitely going to be bored.
Take this list as an example.
We’re talking about the nuts and bolts of writing here. It’s kinda interesting but not massively interesting. We’re on number 3 of a list of 10 and I’m already wondering how I can make this more fun for myself.
I made you think about friction burn and genital dryness… just for the hell of it!
You don’t have to be as crass as me.
But if you find your attention waning, you better up the ante!
Here are some games you can play while writing:
- Ask a friend/loved one for a crazy word or phrase and then challenge yourself to slip it in to your writing. Two phrases my girlfriend recently suggested were “favourite brown thing” and “punctured Stretch Armstrong”. I successfully completed my mission.
- Explain something as though you were talking to a 5-year-old.
- Write a sentence with the intention of making the reader cry.
- Write a sentence with the intention of making the reader laugh.
- Write a sentence with the intention of making the reader crap their pants.
- Halo 5: Guardians.
4. Kill adverbs
The road to hell is paved with adverbs. Stephen King
I wrote about this here:
I can’t compete with Stephen King’s argument here.
He goes into more detail in his great book, On Writing, but on the topic of adverbs he basically says:
they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s – GASP!! – too late.
Adverbs are particularly nasty when they come in the form of dialogue attribution.
‘Put it down!’ she shouted menacingly.
‘Give it back,’ he pleaded abjectly, ‘it’s mine.’
‘Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,’ Utterson said contemptuously.
One of the best things you can do for your writing is to get rid of all of these.
I banned myself from using any adverbs with dialogue attribution.
I only use ‘said’.
Sometimes I use ‘asked’… and I hate myself for it and swap it with ‘said’.
5. Be specific
One of the easiest ways to infuse your writing with realism is to use specific details.
I read a great travel essay the other day that nailed this.
It’s called ‘Land of the Lost’ by Stephen Connely Benz.
Here are a few examples showing how to use specific details from that essay:
A dense fog made everything – buildings, trolleys, pedestrians, mongrels – appear insubstantial.
From champagne you progressed to various homemade wines poured from repurposed plastic soda bottles. Plates of food were brought forth – herring, sausages, cheeses, radishes, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes. Bottles were lined up on the table: brandy, wine, and vodka.
Then it was time for desert: cheese blintzes, fruit blintzes, cakes, and cookies.
When you include rich, specific details like this in your writing, you make the writer feel like they are actually there.
I certainly felt like I was there at a Moldovan get-together when I read this essay. And I don’t even know what blintzes are! (Just looked it up. It’s a pancake.)
Here’s another great example from Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys (which is a must-read):
Everyone traded, officers as well as the rest of us, heroes as well as cowards. Knives, bowls, spoons, forks, mugs, stools, hammers, they all got nicked from the canteen and the barracks. Bayonets disappeared from their automatics, mirrors from cars, spare parts, medals… You could sell anything, even the rubbish collected from the garrison, full of cans, old newspapers, rusty nails, bits of plywood, and plastic bags. They sold it by the truckload, with the price depending on the amount of scrap metal. That’s war for you.
6. If in doubt, cut it out
This is true when your dog has something weird in their fur.
It’s also true when you’re writing.
Economy of expression is beautiful, baby.
If something takes you 20 words to say but you can say it in 5 words…. Choose the 5 words!
I was gonna make this section longer.
But it proves my point to keep it short. What else can I say?
7. Only use the active voice
Way too many people default to the passive voice.
Using the passive voice makes you sound weak.
It makes you sound about this big.
Don’t use the passive voice at all until you know how and when to use it. When you know why you’re using the passive voice, instead of “just using it”, that’s when you get your visa stamped to passive land.
Use only the active voice for the next million words you write.
- Derrick was touched by John. (Bad! Weak! Passive!)
- John touched Derrick. (Good! Strong! Active!)
- I wasted fifteen years of my life with your cheating ass. (Good! Strong! Active!)
- Fifteen years of my life were wasted with your cheating ass. (Bad! Weak! Passive!)
8. Talk to one person
Things like tone of voice, pace, and knowing what words to use will sort themselves out if you just focus on talking to one person.
Two people I pretend I’m talking to when I write:
- My brother
- My girlfriend
So if you’re getting sick of the incessant dong and dung jokes already… imagine how THEY feel actually having to put up with me in person.
When you need to explain something complicated… think how you would explain it to your one person.
When you need to move the reader to tears… think how you would make your one person cry.
When you need to make the reader spit their drink out with laughter… think how you would make your one person do that.
9. Identify crutches (and kick them away)
Everyone uses clichés.
Everyone picks their nose.
But you should do both as little as possible!
If you pick your nose too much you’ll make it bleed.
If you stuff your work with too many clichés you’ll make the readers’ eyes bleed.
Clichés, and other common forms of speech, are linguistic crutches. They make us feel safe. We’ve used them, and heard them used so many times before, that we can use them again without slowing down our writing.
But you must try to destroy ~90% of them if you want your work to sound original.
Some clichés I used recently:
- ‘bone white’
- ‘bury the hatchet’
- ‘cast-iron constitution’
Instead of relying on crutches like these, you want to mainly use your own metaphors and turns of speech.
When you do that, something interesting starts happening…
Once you’ve found your own alternatives, they become clichés.
You start to rely on your alternatives because you don’t want to do the spade work again. (Damn it, I did another one.)
10. Use the power of suggestion
Instead of describing a masculine hero’s “strong brow” and “chiseled jaw”, it’s often enough to simply say he’s ‘handsome’.
You could add some defining features, like ‘stubbled’ and ‘dark’, but don’t go overboard. Or you could nix the word ‘handsome’ and just have one or two defining words that imply it.
Let the reader do the work.
If you look at the reviews of erotica books, you’ll see a common complaint:
“Too much description.”
Yes, even in the world of erotica, if you give a frame-by-frame account of a graphic sex scene, many readers are gonna find it “creepy”.
That’s because their fantasy is different from your fantasy.
And this applies to all genres. Erotica is just an example.
Of course, there are many instances where being blunt is the best method.
You should get used to using suggestion AND bluntness.
Juxtapose them for emphasis.
Let the reader doing the work in one scene, then hit them with a strong image in the next.
Bonus: read a lot of shit
Okay, that’s common sense.
But I don’t mean “read a lot of stuff you like”.
I just mean “read a lot of stuff”.
Poems, personal letters, science journals, pulp novels, classic novels, short stories, plays, comic books.
Read stuff from all over the world.
Read stuff from all ages.
There’s no dogma here. No master list. But if you need some direction, here are two suggestions I currently follow:
- The Bradbury Trio: 1 short story, 1 poem, 1 essay every day
- The Nobel Prize Challenge: 1 laureate’s work every month
There you have it. Those are my top 10 tips that will instantly improve your writing. Do you have anything to add? 🙂