As the world becomes increasingly digital, writing becomes more important. This is especially true for non-writers. If you work in an office, the majority of your communications are made with text by email or IM. Whether you like it or not, your ability to exchange ideas, collaborate with others, and ultimately succeed, hinges on the ability to write effectively.
Here are 10 timeless tips to help you improve style and substance, straight from the pens of humanity’s finest authors.
1. Cut the boring parts
I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard
Unless you’re writing for personal reasons alone, you need to consider the attention of your readers. There’s no point is publishing content that isn’t useful, interesting, or both.
2. Eliminate unnecessary words
Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain
I used to feel that using words like “really”, “actually”, or “extremely” made writing more forceful. It doesn’t. They only get in the way. Cut them and never look back.
3. Write with passion
Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth
It’s not hard to realize that unless you’re excited about your writing no one else will be.
4. Paint a picture
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~Anton Chekhov
Simply stating something is fine, but when you need to capture attention, using similes, metaphors, and vivid imagery to paint a picture creates a powerful emotional response.
5. Keep it simple
Vigorous writing is concise. ~William Strunk Jr.
Maybe it was all those late nights, struggling to fill out mandatory 10 page papers, but many people seem to think that worthwhile writing is long and drawn out. It’s more difficult (and effective) to express yourself in the simplest possible manner.
6. Do it for love
Write without pay until somebody offers to pay. ~Mark Twain
When you’re just starting out it’s hard to decide where to begin. So don’t. Just start writing. A blog is a good place to start. The most valuable benefit is the feedback.
7. Learn to thrive on criticism
You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance. ~Ray Bradbury
Writing means putting yourself at the mercy of anonymous hecklers and shameless sycophants. Learn to make the most of the insults and distrust the praise.
8. Write all the time
Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed. ~Ray BradburyThe way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute. If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything. ~John Irving
9. Write what you know … or what you want to know
If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul. ~Johann Wolfgang von GoetheLearn as much by writing as by reading. ~Lord Acton
Successful writing is all about trust and authority. It makes sense to write about your area of expertise. If you don’t have an expertise, reading and writing is the best way to develop one and put it on display.
10. Be unique and unpredictable
I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite. ~G.K. ChestertonConsistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. ~Oscar WildeZest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto. ~Ray Bradbury
Following what works will only get you so far. Experiment with new styles, even if it means taking criticism. Without moving forward, you’ll be left behind.
While I was still a boy, I came to the conclusion that there were three grades of thinking; and since I was later to claim thinking as my hobby, I came to an even stranger conclusion — namely, that I myself could not think at all. –William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies
Sometime back a reader pointed me to this fascinating essay by William Golding about the nature of critical thinking. Golding explains his intellectual development (including a personal encounter with Albert Einstein) and classifies critical thinking skill in three grades.
Grade-Three Critical Thinking
Grade-Three thought is often full of unconscious prejudice, ignorance and hypocrisy. It will lecture on disinterested purity while its neck is being remorselessly twisted towards a skirt. Technically, it is about as proficient as most businessmen’s golf, as honest as most politicians’ intentions, or –to come near my preoccupation — as coherent as most books that get written. It is what I came to call grade-three thinking, though more properly, it is feeling, and not thought.
Grade-Two Critical Thinking
Grade-two thinking is the detection of contradictions. Grade-two thinkers do not stampede easily, though often they fall into the other fault and lag behind. Grade-two thinking is a withdrawal, with eyes and ears open. It became my hobby and brought satisfaction and loneliness in either hand. For grade-two thinking destroys without having the power to create. It set me watching the crowds cheering His Majesty and King and asking myself what all the fuss was about, without giving me anything positive to put in the place of that heady patriotism…Grade-two thinking, though it filled life with fun and excitement, did not make for content.
Grade-One Critical Thinking
I found that grade two was the power to point out contradictions. It took the swimmer some distance from the shore and left him there, out of his depth. I decided that Pontius Pilate was a typical grade-two thinker. “What is truth?” he said, a very common grade-two thought, “but one that is used always as the end of an argument instead of the beginning”. There is still a higher grade of thought which says, “What is truth?” and sets out to find it.
This essay illustrates the most important reason to read — to clarify your own thoughts.
We’ve all observed the three grades of thinking before, but Golding defines them perfectly. Having your thoughts confirmed by a renowned thinker builds confidence and strengthens the belief that nothing is truly original.
It also gives us perspective. I used to believe that the present was a terrible time to be born for creative thinkers. The more I read, the more I understand that grade-three thinkers always have and always will hold the majority. While this isn’t the cheeriest realization, it lead me to stop making excuses and start utilizing modern advantages like the internet.
Golding’s development is remarkably similar to my personal experience; starting at blind acceptance, moving to contradiction and cynicism, and finally reaching creative thought. I’m inclined to believe the development of all thoughtful people follows this pattern and I’d be curious to hear about other experiences.
For anyone interested I recommend reading the full essay. The quotes I’ve chosen fail to do justice to Golding’s elegant, humorous, and insightful writing.