Steps to Better Writing

The oldest and greatest poems, epics, and songs – the original roots and branches of all literature – are articulated visions. They are dreams, glimpses of other worlds (real or imagined), archetypes of clear seeing. This clarity of vision defines good literature, and is therefore the ultimate aim of practicing writers. Yet various impediments arise to obscure our sight, the way a bank of low-lying cloud hides a shoreline glistening with pebbles. As writers, sometimes we become disoriented by the many conflicting tools of our craft, by contrary examples and advice, by the spinning compasses of style and voice. Our path becomes uncertain, the shore distant, vision muddied.

And yet the shore is not far, and reaching it requires only a steadfast purpose; and, of course, awareness of the fog. To dispel that fog we must avoid its common traps, which are our own habits in disguise. Below are the most common. Find them in your work, excise them, clear your vision.

Tip 1: Use concrete imagery

The writer is a ruminative animal (like a cow, in fact). We chew over our lives and histories, we digest and express the stories to which we are drawn. This process requires a good deal of thought. Writers think – cogitate speculate, perambulate – and we write down our thoughts. Yet we forget, often, that the reader does not have access to our mind, does not perceive the interconnections and contexts which lead us to our conclusions. We must show the reader that context, the web of threads and images by which we derive our narratives. And this requires that we replace our inner ruminations with concrete imagery.

On its own, unaccompanied by imagery, I am sad is poor writing. The reader is offered no means by which to understand the cause or nature of the sadness. The writer must provide the path to understanding by way of imagery. Typically, the rule for this situation involves four or five concrete images for each internal rumination. Like so:

Sheets of rain strike the window. I gaze into the dark, searching for
the glimmer of proud trees across the field. Too dark to see
anything. The house, empty now, twists and groans in the sidelong
wind. Every whisper of its movement reminds me of the sad night ahead.

In the above passage, sad is embedded within imagery, layered, integrated. It is not a rumination but a concrete indication of feeling. And it comes in the last of five sentences, thus proving the rule. This rule also has another name: Show, Don’t Tell.

Tip 2: Use the present tense

Even when writing about the past, the present tense is usually the best route to clarity. Other tenses and moods require more words, encourage abstraction, and introduce a barrier between the immediacy of the reader and the distance of the text. These problems are most evident when writers use the subjunctive mood (or tense), which is defined as follows:

Subjunctive: a mood that represent an act or state (not as a fact but)
as contingent or possible.

Strictly speaking, the subjunctive mood uses words such as if, that, though, lest, unless, except, until and so on. But in a more general way, the subjunctive mood, or tense, might be described as any writing that removes the reader from the concrete and present tense:

I wish my dog were here.  If Dave were stronger, he would have been
able to lift the tree stump.  If I had paid more attention to my
instructor’s tips about creative writing, I would be a better writer.
I requested that John be present at the wedding.

The above examples illustrate various ways in which subjunctive approaches to writing introduce extra words and awkward phrases. Replacing these with concrete phrases in the present tense improves the writing:

My dog is here.  Dave is not strong enough the lift the stump.  I
listen to my creative writing instructor.  My writing improves.  John
comes to the wedding.

Here is a short list of words and phrases that often accompany writing that meanders away from the present tense and from concrete imagery. Avoid these words and phrases whenever possible:

there would/could, were/was, has/had, those/these, that/this

Tip 3: Avoid adverbs and gerunds

A gerund is a noun formed from a verb: walking, for example. Gerunds usually end in ing, and avoiding them is one of the single most positive changes a writer can make. Gerunds are problematic for two reasons: they encourage adverbs and they drift toward abstraction (see tips one and two).

For example, a writer may describe a scene of walking as follows:

I was walking down the street, quickly, not paying too much attention
to the hurtling traffic and the shop-keepers shouting stridently from
their stalls.

This vignette is neither in the present tense (and is therefore less concrete than it might be) nor is it crisp and clear enough. As soon as the writer begins with the gerund walking, all the other adverbs and gerunds in the sentence follow naturally; awkwardly and naturally. Gerunds, therefore, imply adverbs and abstraction. Also, gerunds require more words and tenses: was walking requires two words to state a simple verb. Here’s how to reduce the confusion:

I walk down the street. My steps are quick, my attention wanders. I do
not notice the hurtling traffic, nor the shouts of strident
shop-keepers as I pass their stalls.

The revised passage is more immediate, possesses an air of expectation (of suspense, almost), is constructed with precision, and contains no extra words. The revision begins with a present tense action: I walk down the street. The remainder of the passage builds naturally, preserves the original clarity. Better. Stronger.

Like gerunds, adverbs – typically words that end in ly – introduce abstraction and encourage awkward phrasings. An adverb qualifies a verb, limits or augments the verbal meaning. As such, an adverb serves the same function as a bank of fog laid across a shoreline. The fog obscures, mediates, filters. Almost always, adverbs may be replaced with more accurate verbs and fewer words; as in the example above, with the adverb quickly replaced by the verb quick and a concrete image of the steps of the walker.

Gerunds and adverbs are not always avoidable. They are necessary at times, and need not be shunned entirely. But often they are lazy solutions. Avoid them whenever feasible.

Tip 4: Tune your vocabulary

Writing is not speech. And yet the habits of speech tend to infiltrate writing. Resist this whenever possible: look for these infiltrations, replace them with narrative structures, preserve the clarity of your vision. For example, I am not a farmer, and I do not eat broccoli is better than I’m not a farmer, and I don’t eat broccoli. Apostrophes derive from speech, and are usually to be avoided in writing (except in the case of possessives, obviously). In similar fashion, it is best to limit the use, in writing, of the following common and conversational words:

really, very, it, quite, real, some, somehow, someone, something,
everything, thing, anyone, maybe, little, been, your, never, always,
only, just, deep, people, about, being, guess

The vocabulary of a writer need not be coruscating or arcane or hermetic. Small and common words will do, and in most cases should do. Small words encourage precision and clarity. The order of such words, the manner in which they are structured as narrative and not as speech, determines much of the quality of writing.

Tip 5: Know your habits

In addition to the various strategies outlined above, writers also need to be aware of their individual proclivities: their habits of laziness, their favorite and over-used words, the ways in which they sacrifice clarity for muddiness. The following are the most common secondary errors:

  • Awkward phrase order in compound sentences
  • Awkward shifts of scene or tense
  • Awkward use of vocabulary
  • Lack of clear narrative direction
  • Stating the obvious rather than showing through imagery

These habits and their kin – the many pitfalls and hurdles that lie along the path of writing – are avoided only through practice. Go slow, review each sentence as you write, make a list of your common errors and search for each error as you compose. Remember the primary goal: clarity.

Tip 6: Build Sentences Step by Step

Sometimes it’s easier to break things into manageable steps. Here are some steps to consider in starting your compositions.

  • Sit comfortably. Turn down thoughts. Relax. Enter into a contemplative mood.

  • Consider what you are trying to express in the sentence you are about to write.

  • Write the sentence. At this stage, don’t worry about details. Simply write.

  • Review the sentence. Look for obvious problems, and find what you like most.

  • Make sure your sentence contains the best words for what you are trying to say.

  • Examine the phrase order. Look for a tighter order, more spare or visceral or elegant.

  • Speak the sentence aloud. Find its rhythm and sonority. Tweak as required. Don’t rush.

  • Take out all extra words and lazy phrasings, especially those that are habitual. Excise adverbs, gerunds, and verb phrases (“there is…”, “I’ve done…”, “We’re going…”) whenever possible.

  • Shorten the sentence if you can (without diminishing its meaning).

  • Take a short break, gaze out the window, return to the sentence, and review it once more.

  • Leave it alone. Build your next sentence.