On the back of my business card, I have a series of random--and excellent--writing tips that I've accumulated over the years. It's common sense stuff that every writer should follow, be it a student, business writer, novelist, or grant writer. Or any other kind of writer, for that matter. I present them to you in no special order. Heed the advice!
- Omit needless words.
The best rule from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White. Good writing is concise. Take out the words that slow down your sentences. The result is vigorous prose that engages your readers.
Bad Example: "I really think it would help your sentences and overall quality writing by cutting out words that don't help your sentences propel the ideas forward."
The Fix: "Omit needless words."
- Not everything is "amazing!"
The word "amazing" has lost its punch thanks to overuse. Count how many times you hear "amazing" over the course of the day. See what I mean? Some good replacements: breathtaking, astonishing, fabulous, powerful, incredible. Come up with your own list of "amazing" replacements, and then put them to work. Your sentences will thank you.
- Proofread out loud.
The mind plays a trick on our eyes. We know what we wrote, so when we proofread silently, we don't realize we wrote "too" when we meant "two" or "read" when we meant "red." When you proofread out loud you will "hear" your errors. And consider this: a missing letter in "public" can lead to unintended embarrassment to your prose. Better to proofread out loud than hand in mortifying prose.
- Avoid the adverb "very."
The word "very" slows down your sentences. It sets up a comparison that you do not need. Example: "My mother is 'very' pretty." As opposed to what? A warthog? Remove "very" from your sentences so that they are strong and declarative. As Mark Twain said: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."
- Don't use the word "literally" when you mean "figuratively."
This is a common mistake. "Literally" means something is true; "figuratively" is a metaphoric comparison. For example, if you said, "That movie scared me so much my heart was literally exploding" then you would be writhing on the floor, looking like the creature from the movie Alien just burst through your chest. This would be a case where "figuratively" is your go-to word.
- "I remember" is a blocked writer's best friend.
Are you stuck in your first draft? Write down the words "I remember" and then write what you remember. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or even if it makes sense. If you get stuck again, write down "I remember" once more and then write what else you remember. It can be a list, stream of consciousness prose, or complete nonsense. Just keep you pen (or keyboard) moving, let the writing take you where it wants to go, and create a bounty of material to edit into a working draft. There is no wrong way to do the "I remember" process!
- Don't fall in love with any of your sentences.
That's right. They will break your heart every time. In other words, no matter how beautifully crafted a sentence strike it out if it doesn't help move your text forward. As many a great writer has said of the editing process: "kill your darlings." I once wrote the single best paragraph summary of WWI for my book Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. But in the end, it only detracted from the narrative. It killed me, but I killed it and rightly so. It just wasn't necessary at that part of the narrative.