Two things happen the minute you finally start winning as a writer. Everyone wants to know your secrets. And you can’t wait to share them. Every successful author has their little bag of tricks. But everything comes down to how you sculpt your sentences.
Throw away your copy of Strunk and White. It’s a terrible book for creative writers. I’ve only hate-read sections to my students as examples of what you should never do.
Instead, pick up a copy of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. That’s a good place to start. Next, pay attention to the principles I’m about to lay down here. Great writing has everything to do with your voice.
Start working on it.
Pay attention to how people talk.
Writing teachers like to sling around this common piece of advice, “write the way you talk.” But they never explain what that means. They also turn right around and contradict themselves.
My first MFA workshop disappointed me. Everyone — including the professor — devoted half their critiques to prescriptive grammar. They nailed each other for fragments and dangling modifiers.
Guess what? People use both when they talk, several times in a single conversation. They also interrupt and rephrase themselves. They abandon sentences in mid thought, and start over.
They swear. They ramble sometimes, but then they punctuate their point with simple, short sentences.
Revise your writing for vernacular.
You should do all of the above in your writing. If you want to connect with a huge readership, live in the vernacular.
My first year of blogging, I had to consciously revise all my posts to make them sound more natural. Now I’ve slipped into a flow. The prose comes out right the first time, and only needs a little tweaking.
The more you write, the better you’ll get at finding the right word as you swim along. A seasoned writer can flip through their mental thesaurus in microseconds.
Bend the laws of grammar.
Most people confuse grammar, punctuation, and syntax. They don’t realize that most of the “rules” we obey in our writing aren’t timeless.
You can start sentences with conjunctions and prepositions. You can start sentences anyway you want. And you can use comma splices and fused sentences. Creative genres embrace spontaneity. Vernacular gives us a much wider range of acceptable linguistic forms to work with.
Linguists often use the term “T-Unit” to describe meaningful chunks of discourse. A T-unit can come in the form of a sentence, or just a clause. Or even a word. When you write, “A rain-filled day in June,” that means something. Why ruin this lovely phrase with a subject and a verb? It doesn’t need one. Want an example of a one-word T-unit?
In the right context, one word says a lot.
You can obviously take this idea too far. Your writing still has to make sense. But it doesn’t have to bow before the laws of prescriptive style and grammar. The less you do that, the better.
Keep an eye on your clauses.
A fuzzy line divides grammar and voice. Grammar means what you have to do in order to make sense. Voice means what you do to announce yourself and your worldview to your readers. That’s one reason why you should watch out for long sentences with lots of clauses.
Also try to start your sentences with your main subject. Readers want you to get to the point.
Clauses don’t do that. Clauses hem and haw. They hedge. They qualify. They introduce secondary and peripheral information. Why would you ever start a sentence with unimportant information?
Example: “The other day, I ran into my ex-girlfriend.”
Nope. Try again: “I ran into my ex-girlfriend the other day.”
Better. But now you’re starting with “I.” Yawn. This story’s about you, not everyone. Let’s do one more round of revision: “My ex-girlfriend showed up at my work unannounced.”
Getting there. Maybe throw in a better hook: “Nobody ever wants an ex-girlfriend to show up at their job. But mine did.” Now, we’ve got a story. Readers can see themselves in these sentences.
Strong starts matter the most in your first paragraph. But you should make sure every first sentence of every paragraph begins with a key subject and verb. Don’t hem and haw.
Sometimes, an introductory phrase or clause does do the job. Short clauses can help you set off or emphasize especially important information. But they have to be short. Or they have to contain key information — which means central nouns and verbs. That’s the thing. So when editing you’re writing, ask yourself: “Does this clause emphasize important information? Or would readers want to skip past it?”
Pay attention to structure and rhythm.
You want to keep people moving through your piece until the finish. Which means you need more than a flashy headline and a feisty image. Those might lure them through the door. But it’s never enough.
Structure helps people read. We’re talking beyond grammar. Perfectly grammatical writing can suffer from terrible structure. Instead, try to balance your sentence lengths and patterns. Open and close your paragraphs with short sentences. Try building an idea across a few phrases that hang on the same verb structure. For example: “She’s not just any woman. She’s the one with all the guns. And all the ammo.” You get the idea. A good style guide like Pinker’s can go into more detail.
You should also consider how your writing sounds in everyone’s mental ear. We all have one. Even when we read silently, our vocal cords flex. We’re hearing the words in our brain’s sound system.
People tend to talk — and think — in iambic pentameter. With the occasional spondee. It’s not perfect, but close. Don’t turn into a meter slave, but do read your work aloud. Or read it slowly inside yourself. Let your brain imagine the sounds. Your writing needs sonic textures.
Lucky for me, the MFA program let us take poetry and fiction workshops. So I spent a lot of time in coffee shops reading Mark Strand and Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds. Reading damn good poetry will punch up your writing in any genre. Poetry is all about potency.
Use visceral, active verbs as much as you can.
Sometimes, you can’t drive around the word “is.” But you can most of the time. Don’t let yourself get lazy with verbs. You can do better than “Her hair was black.” What a boring sentence.
Try this: “Julia wore her black hair in a messy bun.”
You really shouldn’t build a sentence around “is” more than a few times per thousand words. When you have to, use a contraction so it sounds less static. Blog posts with too many static verbs put readers to sleep.
Watch your pronouns.
First and second person thrive in creative genres. They speak directly to readers and make them feel like they’re sitting next to you at the bar. They build connection and rapport.
Most popular writers know that even when they write about themselves, their stories have to resonate with readers.
Doing that takes work on the sentence level. You can’t just write a sad story about your childhood. You can’t start half your sentences with “I.” Even if readers see themselves in your work, they’ll walk away if you keep reminding them it’s about you.
Take a close look at the stories that go viral here and elsewhere on the web. Count how many first person pronouns they use. Hardly any.
A selfless writer will do almost anything to keep from starting a sentence with the word “I,” just like they avoid “is.” We’ll use “we” and “us” in order to drive home the universal of our experience, and let our readers immerse. In the end, it’s about getting out of the way.
Turn yourself into a kind of third person character. Writing this way changes how you think about your own experience. It takes you out of your head, and gives you the space and perspective to throw in those little truth bombs that people love so much.
Pause to reflect, comment, and kid.
The second worst piece of writing advice is “Show, don’t tell.” Look, sometimes you have to tell us what’s going on. Especially in memoir and other forms of personal writing.
Don’t tell us the obvious, but don’t make us do all the work, either. You need to frame your narratives. Give them a skeleton.
Your voice involves more than simply how you tell a story. People like your writing because you stop to explain the significance of what’s happening. Tell them what you learned.
Your life lessons don’t need to be pretty. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. Readers like hard truths.
They also like humility and self-deprecation. So if an experience taught you something ugly about people, or yourself, share it. Tell us. Go explicit. Give us a little glimmer of hope, though.
Wet their appetites and skip the boring stuff.
Nothing irritates me more than a writer who has a decent story, but clutters it up with useless detail. Let’s say they’re describing a date that ended with terrible sex. Excellent. Just say that.
Start with, “My bad date ended with terrible sex.” Describe the funny parts of the date, and then skip to the bedroom. You don’t need to tell us what you ordered, or even where you were eating.
These details don’t matter. Unless they do. If he insisted on going to a fancy restaurant, then say that. You don’t need to tell us how fancy. One or two sentences will do the job.
Try something like this: “He took me to the kind of place where they make you wear a jacket. The kind of place where the waiter doesn’t write down your order, because he’s a showoff.”
Now, you’ve done a lot more than just describe the restaurant. You’ve stated your attitude and mood as well. Also, you’ve let the reader sketch in the details themselves. See? Voice. Engagement.
Turn a cliche upside down.
Everyone says you should avoid cliches in your writing. But you can use them, as long as you offer a fresh spin. It’s one of my favorite things to do. This trick adds spontaneity to your writing.
It can also jump start your ideas.
Cliches exist for a reason. Commonplaces, maxims, and proverbs embody the so-called wisdom of prior generations.
They usually try to offer some truth about how to engage with the world. So when you take one and rip it apart, you’ve got people’s attention. They’re at least going to hate-read you.
Read everything you can.
These basic concepts won’t turn you into a bad ass overnight. They’re a start. You have to do more than follow simple principles. You have to watch them in action to see how they work.
This means you have to read. A lot. Like Stephen King says, if you’re not reading a book a week — you probably shouldn’t be writing. Of course, I think he meant the equivalent of a book.
You have to read the genre you want to write in. If you dream of writing novels, then read novels. Read two a week. If you want to write blogs, then read as many bloggers as you can.
Also, try watching some Netflix. Not just for the story. But for the language. A show with a good dialogue can teach you a lot about turns of phrase. When you’re a writer, everything can be your teacher. Everything can help shape your voice. Good books. Gripping TV. A song with compelling lyrics. Let all of this spill into your writing. Get good enough, and who knows? Readers might even forgive a typo or three.