Friday, August 17, 2012

Five Tips For Good Writing That You Will Not Hear Somewhere Else

One.  In the very first sentence, give me the most important reason you can why the reader should read this piece.
I don’t care if it’s a run-on sentence.  Somehow, by the end of that first sentence, make it clear that there is something important and valuable for the reader that the piece is leading up to.

Note that after you have written that sentence, you can go back and insert a “teaser” in front that makes the reader willing to wait. But not too long.  In the first three paragraphs of no more than 4 sentences each in your piece, whatever type of piece that is, you should make sure that the reason in that first sentence you wrote comes through.
It’s still usually a better idea to come across with that reason by the end of the first paragraph. If you haven’t done it by then, your writing is usually pretty content-free.  I’m talking about good writing, not just popular writing.

Two.  Absolutely never use a metaphor or a simile.  Use a model instead.
A metaphor or simile is about the most powerful way you can communicate.  It is therefore usually the most dishonest.  It is, effectively, a “partial model” – and what you leave out tends to undercut your point.

To help yourself do this, whenever you find yourself writing a metaphor, cast it in terms of a model instead: So-and-so can be thought of as a … with simplifications justified by … (fill in the blanks). Arctic sea ice can be thought of as an ice cube floating in a glass with heat applied seasonally, etc., etc. Not: Arctic sea ice is like a giant ice cube.
Three. Look at a paragraph and ask, does this look complicated?  If so, then imagine yourself screaming at somebody (preferably yourself) “All I’m trying to say is …, you idiot!” Then rewrite using those very simple words, minus the swear words.

Don’t worry if that means several extra paragraphs.  Making things clear and simple takes as long as it takes.
Four.  If possible, visualize yourself actually carrying out what you’re talking about or proving or showing. Then, if possible, say it that way in the reader’s terms.

That tends to eliminate a lot of the passive voice and clarify your own thinking.  Instead of “it follows from Dingbat’s Theorem that 2 + 2 = 4 except when the modulus is 3 or 4”, say “If you apply Dingbat’s Theorem to 2 + 2, you find that it still = 4, except when you use modulus 3 (2 + 2 = 11) or modulus 4 (2 + 2 = 10).” Or you can say, “I looked at 2 + 2, and I asked, what if I applied Dingbat’s Theorem? …” Then the reader is following your train of thought and can come to his or her own conclusions.
Five.  If someone like an editor suggests a change, never take that change verbatim, and never reject it completely.

What the critic is really telling you is that he or she did not understand you.  But the change he or she is suggesting is his or her words, not yours. Find your own words for making things clearer.
What This Blog Post Is Really About

Notice that I said early on that I’m talking about good writing, not popular writing.  You can be popular and good – but better to be good.
You see, I think “good writing” is jam-packed with content, taking the reader further than before it is read, clearly and fairly presented.  That means that the writer must do the same thing:  Think through what he or she is saying, as he or she is writing, so that it’s to the point, new, clear, and fair. In other words, for the good writer, writing is thinking.

Let’s see how that works. One. Start by thinking about why someone else should care about this as much as you do.  Look for the part of the subject that makes you care, if you were in the reader’s position.
Two. Now start developing your argument.  Organize the way you think about the subject in a simple way.  That means a model, not running shooting from the hip by riffing on a metaphor.

Three. Now, as you write down your argument, review and simplify.  It is always going to be a balance between conciseness and depth – but it’s easier for the writer to fall in love with the complexity and make it too complicated. Correct that.
Four. Now the work of writing can begin to seem like drudgery, with all the things you have to remember.  Well, the first thing you should remember is that what you’re really doing is persuading yourself. Imagine yourself hearing someone else say that.  Would you buy that?

Five.  Most writers pick up little tricks of writing as a squirrel gathers nuts – who cares what kind of nut, let’s just try this and this and this. They pick these techniques up from people who are, effectively, critics/editors. Eventually, good writers figure out the patterns behind these tricks and what really works. And then, these writers put things in their own voice, as described above. 
Sooner or later, your writing will get reviewed by an editor/critic, and that editor/critic will make suggestions – but those suggestions are really their own tricks, in their own voice, not yours. Don’t be lazy and do exactly what they say. Be a good writer and use the feedback to persuade better, in your own voice.

What is good writing?
Good writing is thinking.

Good writing is persuading the reader well.
Good writing is filled with meat, clearly and honestly presented.

Give it a try.

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