It has been said, “There are two things wrong with most writing. One is style; the other is content. " The way a writer strings words together either grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and shouts, “Read me, " or hangs as limp and uninteresting as tattered sheets in a tenement window.
Let's examine the writing process and see how we can become better wordcrafters to improve our chances with readers. Here are some guidelines to give your work momentum and sparkle.
Communicate, don't try to impress. There is a happy medium between reading so tough you need an IQ of 180—and material that is helpful only if you have difficulty falling asleep. The comfort zone of the average reader is about the eighth-grade level, so practice the old rule of KISS ("Keep it simple, sweetheart"). Studies show that eighth-grade readers can understand fairly easy sentences with an average of fourteen words. Remember, we said “average. " You may have a one-word sentence and then a whopper. Just be sure it is basically a simple declarative sentence. If it becomes too long and unwieldy, break it in two. You can use such words as “and, " “but, " “additionally, " “yet, " “consequently, " “therefore, " or “accordingly" to divide sentences easily.
Use short words instead of long ones. For many writers who typically pride themselves on a strong, versatile vocabulary, this is difficult. Use common sense and keep your writing simple and direct.
Word choice is vitally important. Mark Twain observed, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. " Are your words colorful? Specific? Descriptive? Don't have a man “walk. " Rather let him amble, stride, stagger, or shuffle along. Avoid beginning most of your sentences with “the. " Try not to develop “I" trouble; overuse of “I" quickly bores the reader. Rephrase the sentence to do away with this repeated reference. Watch for repetition of words within close proximity.
Avoid ambiguity. Rewrite anything that is unclear. Think through any confusing areas. What do they mean? Could they be misinterpreted? Take the word “terminal, " for instance. It means entirely different things to a computer operator, an electrician, a bus driver, and a physician.
Keep a wary eye on overall language. Foreign words and unfamiliar jargon confuse the reader. Likewise, “in vogue" terms date your manuscript and may appear ridiculous three years hence.
Guard against cliches. These are the overused, trite bits and pieces of speech that are part of everyone's conversations. “Money hungry, " “sly as a fox, " and “grows by leaps and bounds" are all cliches. When we write, it's important to pare away worn phrases; replace them with more original phraseology. Cliches are a sign of lazy writing. Think of a fresh, new way of saying it.
Delete redundancies and needless words. Why say: He stood up to make the announcement? (Have you ever seen anyone stand down?) Early pioneers should be simply pioneers; in the not too distant future = soon; due to the fact that = because; until such time as = until; combined together = combined. Get the idea? Watch your writing for conciseness. Have you pared away all unnecessary words? Eliminated repetition? Abolish words like “very, " “really, " “just, " and other qualifiers that don't serve a definite purpose. And trim unnecessary “that's" like you would prune an overgrown tree.
Inject your writing with liveliness. Use similes or metaphors to show comparisons. A simile uses “like" or “as": “His personality is as bland as oatmeal. " A metaphor suggests resemblance. “Her face blossomed with affection. " Such additions help readers relate to what you've written.
Analogies also put zip in a manuscript. They help make or illustrate a point. An example of an analogy would be “Life is a hundred-yard dash, with birth the starting gun and death the tape. "
Anecdotes are another important facet of nonfiction writing. They are little stories or examples that illustrate the points you wish to make and humanize your material.
Use the “active" voice to achieve readability. In the active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action, rather than receiving it. Here's an example:
The active voice says: The wind slammed the door shut.
The passive voice says: The door was slammed shut by the wind.
How much more powerful is the active version. Here's a hint for spotting the passive voice: Look at the verb phrase. It will always include a form of the “to be" verb, such as “is, " “are, " “was, " or “is being. "
For additional horsepower, be specific! Look for ways to support general statements with details. Think of your writing as a funnel. At the top is the general statement; then it narrows down to a specific incident. This targets the reader's attention toward one given example. Rather than saying the woods are full of trees, say the woods are full of aspen, spruce, and pine.
Smooth transitions are another hallmark of good writing. Are there graceful bridges between sentences, paragraphs, and chapters? Some words and phrases that serve as transitional bridges are: still, on the other hand, another, next, however, of course, then, finally, but, yet, unfortunately, in short, once again.
Avoid sexism and bad taste. Be careful not to use discriminatory pronouns, such as “he" or “his, " when referring to both genders. One easy way around this is to use the plural form of “they" or “their. " Or alternate “she" and “he. " When dealing with work titles, there are many options: “Policeman" is “police officer"; “mailman" becomes “mail carrier"; “salesman" becomes “salesperson. " “Mankind" can be expressed as “humankind. " What is important is to maintain the dignity of all people by avoiding stereotypes, racist statements, gory photographs, *** overtones, and other undesirable material.
© Copyright 2005 Marilyn Ross
Marilyn and Tom Ross are the coauthors of 13 books including the best-selling Complete Guide to Self-Publishing and the award-winning Jump Start Your Book Sales. Through phone consultations and ongoing coaching/mentoring, Marilyn empowers authors and self-publishers to realize their dreams. She can be reached at 719-395-8659 or Marilyn@MarilynRoss.com.
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