Sharpen Your Prose with These Random Writing Tips
Updated: Jul 12
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, nonfiction author, novelist, or grant writer. Or any other kind of writer, for that matter. I present them to you in no special order.
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.”
As a side note: every good writing rule can be found in The Elements of Style. This link will take you to the first edition, published by Professor Strunk as pamphlet for his rhetoric classes at Cornell University; the updated version that is best known today as “Strunk & White” was created by his former student E. B. White. Yes, that E.B. White.
Not everything is “amazing!”
“Amazing” means “to surprise someone greatly; to fill with astonishment.” Yet the word has lost its punch thanks to overuse. Count how many times you hear “amazing” over the course of the day. See what I mean? Or try watching one of those award shows where celebrities hand each other trophies for being celebrities. Every time one of said celebrities using the word “amazing” take a shot of your favorite adult beverage. You’ll be dead of alcohol poisoning outside of seven to ten minutes.
Which is the better sentence: “The food at the Hawthorne Inn is amazing” or “The food at the Hawthorne Inn a delicious array of traditional Italian dishes.” Don’t use a word like “amazing” when you can describe something fully. And for those playing along, the Hawthorne Inn was the restaurant of choice during the 1920s for criminal kingpin Al Capone.
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 within your work. Better to proofread out loud than hand your teacher or editor 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.
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 broke my heart to strike it, but I did and rightly so. It just wasn’t necessary at that part of the narrative — or anywhere else in the book.
“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, a detailed story, or complete nonsense. Just keep your 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.
What are your favorite writing tips and tricks? Do you have any pet peeves? Let us know in the comment section or tweet me @RealArnieB.