Not an expert, purely observational. Well, I did study linguistics at Uni but I’ve forgotten it all, so…
1. Over-using the thesaurus. It was drilled into many of us at school to look for fancy or alternative words. While this works as a vocabulary extending tool, there’s no point in building up a mental lexicon if you never just deploy it. Often the word that comes naturally and obviously is the best one – the one that most clearly communicates what you want to say. Communication is the whole point of language, after all – befuddling the reader with awkward, polysyllabic words is a fast way to send them away.
2. No sense of purpose. Generally this is to entertain, to inform, to educate or inspire. It’s always worth having this in the back of your mind so you can check that you’ve achieved it: make an entertaining post funny, make an informative post useful. Otherwise, it can all feel a bit pointless.
3. Doesn’t scan. Rhythm is so often overlooked, but is essential for keeping a reader engaged. The natural rhythm of a sentence and the rise and fall of breath patterns can all carry your reader along, or leave them struggling and stuck. I read everything I write ‘aloud’ in my head, and switch it around for fluidity.
4. Over-long sentences. Related to point 3, sentences that don’t give the reader pause for breath are frustrating and difficult. A semi colon will often bounce things back up again – Virginia Woolf was mistress of this, and could write whole paragraphs without a full stop.
5. Not reading enough of the right stuff. If you want to be a great musician, you study music. If you want to be a fashion designer, you keep an eye on the catwalks. Reading good literature & journalism is the single greatest thing you can do for your own writing style, grammar and syntax. You absorb it by osmosis – trust me on this.
6. Reading too much of the wrong stuff. Nothing kills my inner voice like a late-night binge on poorly written fan fiction. I know, I know… but sometimes you just need to see your OTP get together against dramatic adversity! ?
7. The perfection trap. You know what’s better than the perfect piece of writing? A piece of writing that actually ever gets written, in any form. I am mainly speaking to myself, here, I confess.
8. Starts or ends weakly. Often when I begin a piece, I’ve already got the first and last lines nailed. Grab the reader at the start, and pull them back to you at the end, and you can get away with all sorts of waffle in the middle. Start well, end strong.
9. Lack of routine. We should be writing every day. I think most of us sort of know this, but few of us really make time for it. Someone recently emailed me about a meeting and said she saves the mornings – every morning – to write. That’s the kind of priority we should be giving our work. Lately, I start each morning with a rough stream-of-consciousness journal entry in Day One, and then dive into a blog post or article from my to-do list. It’s like a muscle that needs regular exercise and a decent warm up each day.
10. Live. One of my favourite things about talking to other writers is they tend to make fascinating conversationalists. They’ve always done an awful lot – worked a surprising range of jobs, developed expertise in unusual & quite uselessly specific areas. Usually they can talk about this stuff well, because they’ve already made a little narrative in their mind. Writers collect up life experience and hoard it away, ready for that rainy day when they weave it into something publishable.
You can still write when you’re living in a bubble, but you need self awareness and outside perspective to make it resonate. Without some colorful life experience, you just don’t have as many stories to tell.
What tips and tricks do you use to keep your written work strong? I’m always hoarding this kind of info, so please share!
It's almost exactly a year since we placed our offer on this house, and committed to actually doing it; to leaving the city-living we'd always known, and moving out to somewhere sleepy, rural and [...]