10 Writing Tips from the Masters

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.

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We Can Do Better – Dr. Seuss on Writing

Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904-1991)

In this article, we collect some grownup advice on writing from Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known to children and adults as Dr. Seuss.

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

In the spring of 1984, Ted Geisel was startled to find out that he’d been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. “It comes right out of left field, particularly after all these years,” the then 80-year-old author said. “I’m a writer who has to eat with the children before the adults eat” (quoted in Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography, by Judith and Neil Morgan, Da Capo Press, 1996).

Known to readers everywhere as Dr. Seuss, Geisel hadn’t always been a writer of children’s stories. Early in his career he published satirical articles, wrote advertising copy, and drew political cartoons. But even after gaining fame with books about Horton, the Grinch, and other comic characters, he kept his older readers in mind as well. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990) may have a reading level of ages four to eight, but it’s most popular as a graduation gift for high school and college students.

Geisel’s thoughts on writing may also be more appropriate for grownups than for kids. After all, the key to good writing, he once said, is “meticulosity”–a peculiarly Seussian quality that takes years to learn.

You can fool an adult into thinking he’s reading profundities by sprinkling your prose with purple passages. But with a kid you can’t get away with that. Two sentences in a children’s book is the equivalent of two chapters in an adult book.

For a 60-page book I’ll probably write 500 pages. I think that’s why it works. (quoted in “Dr. Seuss’s Green-Eggs-and-Ham World,” by Judith Frutig, The Christian Science Monitor, May 12, 1978)

Keep It Alive!

We throw in as many fresh words as we can get away with. Simple, short sentences don’t always work. You have to do tricks with pacing, alternate long sentences with short, to keep it alive and vital. Virtually every page is a cliff-hanger–you’ve got to force them to turn it. (quoted in A Writer Teaches Writing, by Donald Murray, Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

Learn by Yourself!

You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
(“On Becoming a Writer,” The New York Times, May 21, 1986)

Exaggerate!

I tend to basically exaggerate in life, and in writing, it’s fine to exaggerate. I really enjoy overstating for the purpose of getting a laugh. It’s very flattering, that laugh, and at the same time it gives pleasure to the audience and accomplishes more than writing very serious things. For another thing, writing is easier than digging ditches. Well, actually that’s an exaggeration. It isn’t.
(interview in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, 1976)

Do Better!

In late 1990, Ted’s biographers asked if, after all that he had said in his books, there was anything left unsaid. Several days later, Ted handed them a sheet of paper on which he had written: “Any message or slogan? Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.’

“The best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be: ‘We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this.'”

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