By Fred Arnold
Why Better Your Writing? I say, Why Not!
Writing can be tricky. Academic, technical, creative, SEO, journalistic, feature; all are types of writing that require their own style, and with their own style a structure needs to be developed. The command of language offers insight into the world of knowledge, a world brightened by the nuances of the writer. Here. Now. Past and present. Stories are told for the benefit of each individual. Do you fear your writing? Does the idea of spinning a tapestry of words into a self identified masterpiece turn you off – all due to the weakness in your prose? Read these 10 ways to better your writing, and I promise you won’t regret it.
1. Subjects and Verbs Matter: The Beauty of Emphasis
A sentence’s structure will define to the reader if they will continue to read a story, therefore it is one of the most important aspects at bettering your writing. Redundant, vague, and over ambitious prose only fuel a readers confusion, so structuring a sentence properly is a must.
“A person walked into a bar while the bartender cleaned crystal glass after crystal glass.”
Here we have what is called a right branching sentence. That is: subject, “a person”; verb, “walked”; followed by the rest of the sentence branching to the right. Right branching sentences are important because they define the subject and action right away. It is possible to confuse your reader in a sentence that separates the subject and verb.
“A person, small and timid compared to the bartender; friend of the electrician, John; a man able to hold his own in a round of shots, walked into a bar.”
In this sentence the reader may get lost in the description of the person and care little for the action being taken. This style is not wrong, but it should be used wearily and with a purpose. Define the subject. Define the action. And split them apart when there is purpose. Here is a paragraph from a news story by Lydia Polgreen, New York Times:
“Rebels seized control of Cap Haitian, Haiti’s second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed.”
This sentence has the ability to confuse the reader except for the fact that the subject and verb are right there. Who seized? The Rebels; followed by how, where, and what.
Begin and end a sentence or paragraph with words that bring emphasis. This will help a writer hide unimportant stuff in-between. Remember, punctuation acts as stop signs, yellow lights, and changes in inflection. The period, most important of all, fuels the word before it. Periods catch the eyes of readers like a stop sign at an intersection. Since they follow the final word, that word lands in the cross-hairs – see the correlation? This logic also sticks to the start of a sentence or paragraph.
Along with this, order can be a powerful tool. Take this sentence from Larry King, Philadelphia Inquirer:
“Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes, house clothes.”
He shows the urgency of the situation in a progression. People come from daily activities and work, which is often the case, but he shows how the situation differs by stating “house clothes.” The reader might think pajamas or an unmatched outfit. All of this builds up tension and shows the action of the moment.
2. Aweful Adverbs and -Ings: The Road to Activating Your Verbs
Creating prose that utilize the active voice bring action to the reader.
Roy Peter Clark once said, “Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.” As well as George Orwell’s strong defiance against passive voice when he said, “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
These great writers saw a flaw in passive voice that should be taken seriously by every writer. Voice, active or passive, has nothing to do with the tense of the sentence. A sentence can be active and past tense, or passive and present tense. Take this simple definition to heart:
- If the subject performs the action of the verb, we call the verb active.
- If the subject receives the action of the verb, we call the verb passive.
- A verb that is neither active or passive is a linking verb, a form of the verb to be.
Here is an example of active verbs in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (italics used to emphasize the verb):
“Bond gave a shuddering yawn. Helet the curtains drop back into place. He bent to switch off the lights on the dressing-table. Suddenly he stiffenedand his heart missed a beat.”
Only use passive verbs to bring attention to the receiver of the action. This can change up the tempo of a sentence which can be a nice effect, but limit it. Another reason why is sentence length: using passing will always result in a longer sentence, active will result in shorter sentences. For example:
“There were leaves all over the ground.” or “Leaves covered the ground.” Seven words versus four.
Always remember, the clearest sentence means the best sentence.
Along with the tips above, ridding yourself of adverbs (scarily, happily, frankly) and words ending in -ing will create better flow to your prose.
Adverbs are supposed to modify a verb. Most writers, however, use it as a way to artificially intensify the verb which leads to redundancy. This is because an adverb can mean something that is already contained within the prose.
“I smiled happily.”
Why state happily when a smile already implies happiness? When using adverbs they should be used to change the meaning of the verb.
“I smiled sadly.”
This sentence creates the desired effect. I am smiling, but I am melancholy at the same time. To the reader, that changes facial structure, the softness of the eyes, and the way the person might be standing.
The flow of a sentence is everything. Rhythm and rhyme and twists and turns. Your prose guides the reader and, as pointed out, clarity is all important. -Ing words offer the reader more syllables to read as well as the sad dive into past/present progressive tense that, often times, feels uncomfortable. Also, continued use of -ing words creates an unneeded connection between ideas that might not be connected at all. -Ing words have the bad habit of resembling each other since they, well, rhyme – in a way.
3. Long or Short? Long or short?!
Many writers fear the long sentence and have issues with punctuation to benefit the rhythm of their prose. This fear and anxiety is not unwarranted. Remember, the longer the sentence, the more likely something is incorrect, but once the fear is defeated, the long sentence will become one of the most utilized weapons in your arsenal.
To digress, the short sentence should be used to show immediacy and action. One of my favorite words will show this meaning.
The sound and strength of that word means it can stand alone. Just as short sentences have their place, the long sentence can be used to show depth or grandeur or time. Take for example Tom Wolfe in his essay, “A Sunday Kind of Love”:
“Love! Attar of libido in the air! It is 8:45 AM Thursday morning in the IRT subway station at 50th street and Broadway and already two kids are hung up in a kind of herringbone weave of arms and legs, which proves, one has to admit, that love is not confined to Sunday in New York.”
This is a perfect example of short, medium, and long sentence utilization that prompts a poetic effect. Love, a strong emotion used at the start, is expressed, in length, within the long sentence where the reader can fall into the idea of love.
Keep in mind: Monotony does not make decent prose, so vary sentence length!
Stephen King’s “On Writing”
4. Punctuation and Patterns to Establish Pace
Structure. Structure. Parallelism. The importance of it within your writing is endless. Diane Hacker once wrote, in A Writer’s Reference, “If two or more ideas are parallel they are easier to grasp when expressed in parallel grammatical form. Single words should be balanced with single words, phrases with phrases, and clauses with clauses.”
Parallelism may not be something you are familiar with, so take for example Martin Luther King Jr.(Italics used to show parallel construction):
“So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from theheightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snow capped Rockies of Colorado.”
Parallelism works best with repetition with a twist. Think of this:
“Boom. Boom. Boom.”
That parallel structure is pretty boring. Try:
“Boom. Boom. Bang.”
Changing boom to bang brings action to the sentence. It also changes the inflection and adds some flavor.
Now to punctuation. Humans use punctuation for two reasons:
- To set the pace of reading.
- To divide words, phrases, and ideas into convenient groupings.
Punctuation is important because it decides the pace of your story. This and sentence lengths will define your writing voice, so it is important to utilize all punctuation types available. Doing so will keep your prose different and fresh page after page.
Types of Puncuatation:
- Period: Ends a sentence with a slight pause.
- Exclamation Point: Adds a loud tone to the sentence.
- Semi-Colon: Separates long lists and connects two similar independent clauses.
- Ellipses: Used to omit words to a quotation.
- Hyphen: Changes the inflection of speech within your prose.
- Comma: Separates a series or used with a conjunction to connect two independent clauses.
- Colon: Use a colon when referring to a list or a following explanation.
For further information on this, click here.
5. Do Not Repeat Unless There is a Purpose
Repetition is a wonderful thing. It can add rhythm, it can add mystery, it can add foreshadowing. So many elements can be brought to life with simple word placement, but it also comes with a crux. Often times writers accidentally repeat words that have no benefit to the story. Roy Peter Clark wrote:
“Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating an effect that Don Fry calls ‘steady advance.'”
Here he uses create in two different tenses which he states, later in life, that he noticed it one day and, promptly, deleted the repetition. Keep an eye out for stray words such as this.
6. It is ALL In the Details.
One of my Journalist Professors referred to this as, “Getting the name of the dog.” Details. No one will read a story that has no depth to it. Joseph Conrad, a novelist, once said, “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see.” Appeal to people’s senses. That is, after all, how we live our everyday lives.
7. The Power of Dialogue
Mm, dialogue. Have you ever opened a book you have to read for school and determine whether or not you will read it by the amount of white space in the columns? Long winded prose come in all types of books and can bore your audience. Keep in mind that you can advance the story using dialogue as well. I will sum this up with a quote from Roy Peter Clark:
“In many ways dialogue defines a story because its power drags us to the scene and sets our ears to the action.”
8. Keep An Ending In Mind
Think about this: J.K Rowling wrote the ending of the Harry Potter series first. By knowing what you want the ending to be, you make it easier for yourself to get there. Click here to read up on different types of endings.
9. Read and Write!
This one, I believe, is pretty obvious. Writing is a skill. And like any other skill, it needs to be developed. Reading successful authors will give you new and interesting ideas when it comes to your prose. It also increases your vocabulary. Yay! Also, write consistently and when I say consistently, I mean everyday. Write, write, write! Practice does make perfect!!
10. Proof Reading… Do It Last
Do not over criticize yourself while you are writing. Get the draft done. I will let you in on a secret: no editor will expect a first draft to be perfect. So don’t fret the small stuff; get your story or article or academic piece done, then worry about the above listed tips.