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Improve your writing with these 5 priceless tips

Whether you want to be a writer and are currently working on a fiction or non-fiction manuscript, or a student or scholar who needs to write essays, articles and papers, great writing is invaluable for your success. Luckily, it’s a skill that can be learned – although it will need dedication and perseverance.

Along with the challenge of writing any type of document is the opportunity to make yourself look good (or very bad). Great writing speaks for itself and automatically bestows grace, good fortune and success upon its author; although we live in a world with very high literacy, the sad fact is that very few people can write well, and very many write atrocious garbage that is painful to bear. Follow the following tips religiously to go from mediocre to master.

1) Get educated! READ MORE

Humans are natural mimics: the easiest way to improve your writing is to read authors whose style you appreciate; read for at least 10 minutes and then write – your writing will automatically improve. But don’t read garbage. Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Franklin, C.S. Lewis, (his letters, not Narnia), and Plato are some amazing writers for non-fiction. For fiction, read Kafka, Dostoevsky, Isabel Allende…or even Tom Clancy and Dan Brown if that’s the style you hope to imitate.  Reading great writing will not only improve your own writing, but also give you reference material to name drop. “As Ben Franklin said in his Autobiography” or “As Plato described in The Symposium” makes you sound smart and well-read, and adds interest to your writing.

If you’re an author with a non-fiction book, step one is extremely important! As an editor, I often get non-fiction books on a subject that have clearly not read relevant literature (self-help genre is the worst offender). If you haven’t read the top 100 – or even top 10 – books on the subject your are writing about, what makes you think anybody cares what you have to say? There are hundreds of thousands of books in print, and some of them are fantastic; they don’t need you to sum them up or dumb them down or recycle them. Reading a lot will help you to formulate an actually new idea or opinion and avoid becoming the pale shadow of better writers.

2) Practice makes perfect! WRITE MORE

A blog is a good way to get started. Write your opinions, emotions, short conversations you had, and post them on a blog. It doesn’t matter if anybody read it; it only matters that it is in the public and thus you should feel self-conscious enough to clean it up and make it better than it would otherwise be. It’s easy to write in 1st person “I think, I feel…” Shake it up by writing short stories (about yourself if you want) in 3rd person, writing essays,  dialogs, poems…. practice makes perfect. Too many authors decided to write a book and that book is the first real writing they’ve ever done!

3) Simplicity is beautiful! TONE IT DOWN

Teenagers and aspiring authors love to use big, flowery words, run-on sentences, and a mashup of allegory, metaphor and allusion. Great writers don’t. Yes, English is fun, and there are lots of things you can do with it. It’s fun to feel clever and throw a lot of great words around and push and pull them… but picture this kind of writing like finger painting. Sure it’s vibrant and colorful, but also messy and amateurish. Learning to write is the same as learning to paint – you focus on your skill, you paint a picture that says something, and captures more than momentary interest.

If a reader may have to use a dictionary to look up your word – delete it! Use words that people know. Nothing is worse than reading an other who likes to use the same, little used phrase or word repeatedly. It draws attention and by the 50th time it’s physical painful to see that word or phrase again. Simple words disappear so that readers can see what you’re saying.

The other huge mark of a terrible writer is mixing metaphors. References to sports, to economic terms, sea-faring terms, cliches etc all jumbled into the same paragraph is just ugly. Remember your purpose as a writer is to explain (an idea, or a story). You are telling readers what is happening. You are telling them how to react, how to feel. They are in your hands. Be clear, consistent, organized.

As a rule, always explain first and explain early. Show what is going on. Make your main points. Explain your concept (without a bunch of references or allusions to other things)! Examples or metaphors come after you’ve already explained as clearly as you can, and even then there should be two at most.

(I’m editing a book right now, where the author makes one unclear statement without defining his terms, and then supports it with about 15 examples, allusions, quotes by other people and metaphors. I never know what he’s really talking about or what he’s trying to say; and worse his examples are all contradictory or taken out of context.)

4) Readers hate to be confused! ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS

Don’t be random, don’t mix metaphors, don’t give examples that don’t fit, or quotes that don’t fit. Don’t allegorize without first explaining. Have a purpose for everything you do and say; an order your readers can figure out.

The easy way to do this is with an outline; an outline is equally important for both fiction and non-fiction writers. What happens first, next, and last? How does the first effect the second and so on? Have a strong beginning and conclusion to every topic, aim, goal, scene or chapter. Finish your outline in as much detail as possible. How does this paragraph fit within the chapter? How does this chapter relate to the whole manuscript?

Everything you include must have a reason for being where it is, or for being there at all. If it doesn’t fit the theme, doesn’t forward the plot, doesn’t help readers to understand what you’re trying to get them to understand, then it’s a waste of space.

Readers are interested only in what you’ve promised to provide (the plot/story or the topic of the book). Extra information is distracting; readers won’t willingly just go along – they aren’t hungry for just any random text. Keep it strong, sharp and focused.

5) There’s no excuse for ‘dirty’ writing! EDIT

Yes, you can edit yourself (although it’s hard). Take some time and space first, work on some other writing projects or read a lot of books, so you can come to it with a relatively clear mind.

How to self-edit? Look for long, winding sentences that cloud the point, end abruptly, don’t make sense. Read things out loud; you should always be able to clearly and easily understand the flow of the language, like tossing a ball in the air. If you get stuck, confused, or stumble, the ball is dropped. (Read it out loud and when you stumble or slow down, there’s a problem with the text).

Read your quotes and dialogs. They should be clear and natural – as if they were really spoken. If they sound like “writing” rather than speech (something somebody would actually say) then change them.

Look for repetition, especially repeating the same uncommon words or phrases that you like but which draw attention; even 2 is 1 too many.  You can repeat ‘great’ a thousand times, although it’s boring. But say “AWESOME” twice in the text and you’ve defined yourself as a writer and a person.

Less is more: cut out 3 plain adjectives or adverbs and replace it with one perfect one. Yes, you can use a thesaurus. Yes, uncommon words are fine if they really fit and if you don’t overuse them. Keep your sentences short and clean.

Derek Murphy is a writer, editor and fine artist (http://www.derekmurphyart.com). He’s currently an editor with Paper Perfect editing company (http://www.paper-perfect-editing.com).

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