Seeing the tools of language handled deftly by others is one of the great pleasures of my life; for a writer, honing those tools is a process that lasts a lifetime.
Some people have better ears for music than others (my mother, a normally tolerant woman, emphatically dissuaded my tone-challenged father from singing in the house). Some have more natural athletic talent (one of my highly accomplished college buddies can still relive the trauma of having come perilously close to failing our college phys ed requirement). Some seem to know instinctively how to draw pictures that look like what they are meant to represent (in 4th grade, I marveled at how one of my classmates produced beautiful portrayals of everything from giraffes to geraniums). And some individuals have greater natural facility with written language. Still, writing clearly and thoughtfully is a skill that can be learned.
Everyone works differently, but you might find some of these pointers helpful.
- You cannot be a successful writer or editor without loving language, and paying exquisite attention to words. This does not mean throwing around lots of big words; in fact it often means just the opposite — don’t mistake grandiosity for precision.
- Good writers tend to be avid readers. You can’t figure out how the written language works without spending some serious time with it. When I was teaching high school English in the previous century, I found that even weak writers were capable of impressive prose when assigned to compose letters reflecting the writing of authors with highly distinctive styles. Jane Austen worked particularly well with 10th grade boys. Go figure.
- When the blank page taunts you, remember that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to say before you start writing. The process of writing is often a process of uncovering. You might surprise yourself.
- Don’t edit while you write. Although working styles vary greatly, professional writers rarely drop perfectly formed sentences and perfectly organized paragraphs onto pristine pages. When I write my 700-word New Haven Register columns, for instance, I usually find myself working from 2500-3000 words of notes, from which I eventually carve out the essays. Because of the space constraints, I must be ruthless, often discarding phrases that I’ve become attached to. Sometimes I can tuck them away for future use. Sometimes I just have to say goodbye.
- Every word in whatever you’re writing — a resume, a short story, a research paper, an editorial — should be there for a reason. If a word does not provide information, clarify a point, help to set a mood, or produce an emotion, out it goes.
- Expand your repertoire of verbs, and focus on using just the right ones for your purposes instead of loading sentences with adverbs. Think of all the options for describing how people walk: amble, creep, march, meander, plod, saunter, stride, stroll, tread, wander, and on and on. “She strode down the hall” tells a very different story from “She plodded down the hall.”
- A tip for checking your own work: You can determine a lot about something you’ve written by having someone else read it out loud to you, slowly, word for word. If it doesn’t make sense when you hear it, it won’t make sense on the page.
And, because I am determined to rid the world of this particular assault against the English language, I’m including one grammar note:
- People, people: Please learn how to use the pronouns “I,” “me,” and “myself.” Otherwise intelligent adults who would ordinarily write “She gave the goldfish to me” become all squirrely when goldfish are being given to more than one person, and commit grievous syntactical sins with sentences such as, “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and I” or “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and myself.” The rules of grammar do not change just because others are receiving goldfish, too. The correct construction remains “She gave the goldfish to Zelda and me.”
There. I feel better now. As always, questions and comments welcome.
© Rhea Hirshman 2015