“Hey Dad, I can’t see too good, is that Bill Shakespeare over there?” How might we encourage the aspiring writers among us, if we want to do better than Chris Farley in the famous “van down by the river” SNL skit?
Writing is a gift, a stewardship—a tool to be leveraged for the kingdom. Slipshod, grainy, bland writing generally accomplishes less for the kingdom than writing that is colorful, sonorous, and compact. And its less fun.
So here are the five biggest tips I would give to those wanting to improve the quality of their writing. See also my earlier comments on Bryan Garner’s helpful book.
1) Read widely and often.
There is no short cut here. Like all other valuable skills, good writing has no easy “how to” steps. The best is way is lots and lots of reading. In general, I think there is a fairly direct relationship from the depth of our reading to the quality of our writing. I don’t think its possible to read too much, or too widely. Read everything from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Nietzsche to obscure academic texts to Calvin and Hobbes. I have never read a quality piece of literature and then felt, “that was a waste of time.”
How do you decide what to read, amidst a busy schedule? Well, among other factors I think perhaps the most important is: what is fun? What do you enjoy? We tend to benefit much more from things we enjoy. Also, I’d say don’t let yourself get bogged down, keep moving onto new projects. Reading one chapter of 5 books is almost always better spent labor than reading one five-chapter book (though there are exceptions; and the discipline of finishing books has some value). Also, as a general rule, I’d recommend reading old classics more than reading contemporary, introductory type books. They are usually both easier and more valuable.
By the way, for some great suggestions of novels to read, check out Justin Taylor’s recent series.
So I say: the best way to be a good writer is simply to read a ton, read what you enjoy, read the classics, and keep on reading. That is more important than all the other things combined. Behind almost every great writer is a ravenous reader.
2) Prioritize editing
I tend to think of the actual labor of writing in three broad phases: 1. research/preparation, 2. initial drafting, and then 3. editing/reworking/getting feedback. People tend to think that phases 1 and 2 are most important and deserve the most time; in my experience it is actually phases 1 and 3.
The first article I ever published I had initially submitted to a contest. It didn’t win, but the judges suggested I try to publish it. So I sent it off, and it was accepted with the following condition: I shorten it from 50 pages to 25. Now mind you, I had already put a lot of labor and editing into this paper. So slashing off half the thing nearly killed me. It was like losing a limb. Then came the real crushing news after I resubmitted it: my 25-page paper, already a gaunt outline of its prior incarnation, needed to be slashed further to 21! Ouch. I almost just declined to publish it, but my wife wouldn’t let me, and I thought, “better to publish a truncated article than no article.”
I’m glad I went through that experience. The labor involved in chopping that paper down by over half its original length taught me how often I use 13 words when 6 would do; how often I ramble with a paragraph rather than strike with a sentence; how much can be collapsed down or altogether omitted that initially seems integral. So much writing never goes through this healthy, compressing phase (death-like though it feels). We can almost always make something more compact and lucid if we can keep at it; and our initial organization and flow is almost never as logical as after we’ve rearranged it with fresh eyes.
Now I put all my serious writing through a similar experience, though not as rigorous. I edit it thoroughly, then let it sit for a while, then edit it thoroughly again. I always have at least two distinct phases of editing; sometimes 3; sometimes more. It helps me to put it away for a while and then come back with fresh perspective. Maybe some people can write great stuff on the first or second try, but I find I have to just keep reconfiguring, tampering, adjusting until its finally just right. Its like a painting, which takes all kinds of finishing touches that seem to drag on and on.
One helpful option here: have a conversation with someone about your topic. Or read it at ETS. Strangely, I find getting written feedback from others one of the least helpful things, except for short blog posts—but I suppose it just depends on who you ask. Most people I would ask are just too busy to really give something a thorough critique. But having a conversation in person, or dialogue at a conference, always generates helpful feedback.
3) Seek a balance of flair and groundedness.
Boring writing is like a desert of sand. Same color, texture, scenery everywhere. Its choking. Sentences and period bombarding you repeatedly, with an occasional comma. Ugh. The worst combination: long sentences + abstract words. A recipe for disaster.
On the other hand, gifted writers often over-write. They try to spice things up with m-dashes instead of commas, lots of italics to bring about emphasis, creatives uses of colons and semi-colons, big vocabulary, and so forth. But the danger is the writing can start to draw attention to itself, rather than its actual content. Self-conscious writing, over-writing—this is like the Harlem Globetrotters instead of Michael Jordan. Its impressive, but it kind of misses the point, which is to score a basket, not impress everybody with your dribbling.
The best writers have an innate sense of when literary “flair” is natural and truly enhance the meaning, rather than draws attention to the writer.
The most under-rated way to give greater flair and pomp to your writing, in my opinion, is not big vocabulary or any unusual punctuation mark, but something simple yet often overlooked: varying sentence length. Varying the length of your sentences makes a world of difference, even if you do nothing else to make your writing more arresting.
If you are going to use all sentences of the same length, use short ones instead of long. Some writers use almost all short sentences, and it doesn’t make for great writing, but its acceptable, clear, gets the point across. But writers who only ever write long sentences—ugh. No better way to put your readers to sleep. Throw in an occasional three-word sentence, or two in a row: its like a preacher stopping and asking his congregation in the middle of the sermon, “you guys still with me?”
4) Write to be understood, not to impress.
Like every other aspect of life, ethical/relational rules apply to writing. Trying to come across as smart as will dramatically detract from the quality of your writing. And this happens more subtly, too, when people try to aim for a scholarly tone in a scholarly writing because they think they need to. I think that is a great contributing factor to the obscurity that runs rampant in scholarly writing. It is not always caused by pride, but sometimes simply by people feeling they need to act in a way that is not natural to them. Scholarly writing is really its own kind of writing, but we must still find our own authentic “voice” in it.
Two ways to fight for your own “voice:” (1) know your audience; (2) write about your passions.
Also beware of humor in writing—being funny in person or speaking to a crowd is a totally different skill set than humor in writing.
5) Pull the trigger!
To write well, you must work extremely hard. One eloquent, crunchy, transition paragraph might well consume an entire afternoon, from research to final appearance. But its also possible to be paralyzed with perfectionism. Nothing we write will ever be perfect—the task of rewording, reformulating, reconstructing, consulting the thesaurus, etc. could literally go on forever. At some point, we’ve got to pull the trigger. So my final encouragement is from Turabian’s classic A Manual for Writers:
“If one thing is harder than starting to write, it’s stopping. We all want another day to get the organization right, another hour to tweak the opening paragraph, another minute to … you get the idea. If experienced researchers know one more crucial thing about research and its reporting, it’s this: nothing you write will ever be perfect, and the benefit of getting the last 1 percent or even 5 percent right is rarely worth the cost. Dissertation students in particular agonize over reaching a standard of perfection that exists largely in their own minds. No thesis or dissertation has to be utterly perfect; what it has to be is done. At some point, enough is enough. Give it up and print it out (p. 121 of 8th edition, italics hers).