These writing tips are gifts given to me by other great writers. I collect them in my writing toolbox with the same satisfaction as my husband tucks away his new Makita drill set. “I’m going to build something great with this!” we think. And if we use these tools, we will.
Help someone know why they might want to read what you’ve written
I’m a bit embarrassed to say how recently I picked up this concept. Sinem Günel was critiquing an article I’d written, and she observed that my title and subtitle didn’t really promise anything. Readers want to know what they might receive if they take time to read what you’ve written.
I revised my title and subtitle of that article — Does It Make You Mad When Others Succeed When You Don’t? Envy may be holding you back, here’s how to escape it — to help readers know if they might, or might not, want to read it.
But a more significant shift happened as I worked on my next article — one about my experience trying to run despite arthritis. I was about halfway through writing it when a voice of self-doubt asked me, “Who cares about your knee problems? No one else is going to have exactly this issue. Why would anyone care?”
I had to think — Why would anyone care? When I had the answer — that other runners with imperfect knees would find hope from my story, I also had my subtitle. Clarifying why I was writing that article, knowing how readers might benefit, made it so much easier to finish.
Good stories can be summarized as: This is a story about X who wants Y but can’t get it because of Z
I picked up this gem from Laura Backes and Linda Arms White at a Children’s Writing Bootcamp. They added:
- Make X someone the reader wants to root for.
- Make Y a worthy pursuit.
-Play up the tension of whether or not X can overcome Z.
These elements of a good story can be found in non-fiction and are what make readers care.
You need to write a ‘shitty first draft’
“Even better news than that of short assignments is the idea of shitty first drafts. All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
~Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird
I don’t think I can say this any better than Anne Lamott did. If you don’t write your first draft without regard for its quality, then you can’t ever get to making that story great.
Write as only you can
In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes talks about preparing a Dartmouth College commencement speech. She had the whole speech written out, but something about it gnawed at her. The words were colorful, the message strong, but something didn’t feel right. Suddenly she realized that any number of people could have written the same speech. There was nothing uniquely Shonda Rhimes in what she’d written. And so she began all over again. The final speech is uniquely Shonda, and I will forever carry a mental image of a just-graduated Shonda lying on her dorm room floor while her mother packed her belongings into the car.
A similar message was given recently by Aimée Gramblin. In Dear Writers, Unabashedly Share Your Unique Brand of Brilliance. Aimee urges,
“Stop trying to write like the others. Hone your voice. Be bravely, unabashedly true to your unique voice.”
Aimee’s word choice ‘unabashedly’ has stuck with me. I ask myself each day in my writing and life, am I being unabashedly me?
Declutter your writing
“The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components.”
~William Zinsser in On Writing Well
After you have written that ‘shitty first draft,’ you should go back and look for words, phrases, even concepts you don’t need. Unnecessary words slow the reader down and distract from your message.
Zinsser gives humorous examples — “tall skyscrapers” and “smiled happily,” but the simple test is to look for words that you can take out and still convey the same message. Run a word count, then see if you can reduce the word count by 10%. You don’t have to achieve that goal, but trying will motivate you to clean out unnecessary words.
Done bests perfect
Revising is an essential step of writing, but don’t revise forever. At some point, you have to push your words off your computer and into the world. Being done and having others read what you’ve written is better than continuing to strive to make it perfect.
“Done is better than perfect”
is relatively well known. I adopted my misremembered version, “Done beats perfect,” as a mantra. I think the misquote is appropriate.
And on that note, I’m done.