A while back, I asked my meager but mighty Instagram following what they'd like to read about on my blog. One response was, "Give us some writing tips!" I meant to write this blog sooner, but I was honestly stumped. What are my tips? I've absorbed writing methods from so many places that it's somewhat difficult to distill my learning into a few bullet points. Each book I've read, I've learned from. Each teacher, peer, client, or coworker who has critiqued my writing or given me feedback, I've learned from. With that said, here are my top 10 writing tips:
1. Pay Attention to Detail/Be Observant
It is impossible to write with clarity or detail if you are not paying attention to the world around you. Th written word lasts forever, so be sure whatever you're writing is what you actually want to say. By paying attention to the details, you will leave little room for interpretation; this is especially important in business communications when people don't have time to wade through the mire of long, complex sentences. Attention to detail is also important in creative writing. A book, short story, or poem are nothing more than the accumulation of details.
2. Be Concise/Don't Write Like You Talk
Do not capitalize random words for emphasis. Do not use acronyms or write, "right?!" at the end of your sentences. Please, please, please, do not write, "like" unless making a valid and sensible comparison.
"The sky looked like an orange peel" is a good sentence.
"The sky like, resembled an orange peel," is not.
Being concise is an undervalued talent. Nobody wants or needs to read a page-long sentence when a bullet-point would suffice. Be direct and get to the point. This will hold your reader's interest and you won't look like you're trying too hard.
3. Describe Common Experiences or Feelings in New and Interesting Ways.
A great tool for this is a thesaurus. How many times have you heard the sky described as "soft" or the color of someone's eyes compared to the ocean? Old, tired comparisons do not add value to your writing and will make the reader tune out. I recently wrote a poem with a line, "the green, acid ghost of stagnant fear punches my throat." Weird, a little unexpected, and most of all interesting.
4. Write Often
Practice makes perfect. If you write every day, you're bound to become a better writer, especially if you write on days you don't particularly feel like it.
5. Ask for Feedback and Proofread
It is horrendously obvious when someone doesn't take the time to look over an email, letter, poem, or story before sending it. Proofreading your own work will not only hone your editing eye, but it will help you "cut the fat" and delete unnecessary words, phrases, or paragraphs. See point #2.
6. Learn the Rules of Grammar
Learning the rules of grammar is a non-negotiable. We have all read communications that are written poorly because the author doesn't seem to know the correct form of "there/they're/their." Of course, everyone makes these mistakes but if you proofread your work (see point #5) you'll catch them before anyone else does.
7. Be Okay With Writing Bad Things
This can be tricky. Once you've honed an eye for good writing, you may self-sabotage by editing preemptively. My writing process looks like this: write with utter abandon. Purge all the things. Then pick through the purge with a fine-toothed comb, often multiple times. The end result is often very good, but sometimes, it's very bad. Know that writing bad things is part of the process and better things are coming.
8. Learn to Cite Things Correctly
This is another highly underrated skill, but citing things incorrectly is incredibly lazy. You can find any citation guidance within seconds using the handy-dandy internet. If you don't know or can't remember the correct way to cite an online newspaper, Google knows. I promise.
9. Know Your Audience
Back to my second point: maybe you have a blog where it's okay to write like you talk. Maybe your audience likes it. But if you're writing an email to your boss, or an academic paper, or just about anything else, this writing style won't cut it. If your audience is a professor, use academic, formal language. If your audience is a boss or business colleague, concise language (perhaps in bullet points) might be appreciated. If you don't know who your audience is, you wont' be able to communicate with them effectively.
Finally, my favorite tip is to read. Think how difficult it would be to do algebra if you never learned addition or subtraction. The same holds true for writing. If you don't read, you have no point of reference. The more you read, the more ideas you'll have when you're writing. You'll pick up new words and grammar will become more intuitive. Read things you like and you'll write things you like.
P.S. Some additional resources for writing well include:
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.