Getting It Write
For some of us—maybe you’re one—writing is just about as necessary as breathing. We eavesdrop at restaurants and imagine stories about the people we hear. We carry notebooks everywhere and jot down ideas and phrases we might (or might not) be able to use later. We wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect plot twist, the dynamite first line for a poem.
But even if writing comes naturally to you, it makes sense to internalize a few best practices. I’ve been in this game longer than I like to admit, starting as a feature writer and working my way up to editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine. Along the way I’ve dabbled in fiction, essay, and, my true love, poetry. And I’ve taken a few writing courses, though not at the MFA level.
Like me, you’ve probably heard the old rules “show, don’t tell” and “appeal to the five senses.” No argument there, but these rules are pretty simplistic. There’s no shortage of good advice for writers, of course, but let’s start small with a dozen tips that work for me and other writers I know:
- Think before you write. Consider the 5 W’s of journalism: who, what, when, where, and why. What do you want to write about? What genre—poem, story, article, book? Who’s your intended audience? Where do you want your writing published? Most important why—why this topic? why you? why now?
- Do your research. I’m not talking about academic research—that’s a different ballgame. But other kinds of writing also need to be, well, right. Even a personal essay will fail to ring true if you blow your description of a place, for example, or a fancy restaurant dish. So dig into your subject online or in print. Talk to experts and enthusiasts. Check your facts—even fantasy and sci fi have to get at least a few things right about our universe if they’re aimed at readers here on Earth.
- Jump right into your topic. Inexperienced writers often spend paragraphs warming up before they say anything important. As an old boss of mine put it, “It’s like a dog who turns around in the same place three times before he lies down.” So lie down already and get on with it. And bear in mind, your opening sentence has to be strong, intriguing, amusing—whatever it takes to draw the reader in.
- Write like you’re talking to a friend. One magazine editor I know tells her writers, “Put your arm around the reader.” She’s talking figuratively, of course, but it makes sense. Imagine someone who embodies all the qualities of your intended audience—40-something professional, young mother, struggling artist, whatever—and direct your words to that person.
- Follow the “3 S” rule. Keep it short, straight to the point, and simple enough to understand without resorting to Google. A note on short: Don’t use strings of adjectives. “I smoothed my long, thick, wavy, blonde hair …” Really? Often, you don’t need any adjectives at all. But if you must, use no more than two at a time. One is better.
- Break the “3 S” rule. Rules are made to be broken, so don’t be afraid to use a puzzling phrase, a meandering sentence, or a bit of misdirection when it counts. When does it count? Read on.
- Vary the pace and tone. Short and straight is one thing, but choppy is another. When Hemingway-esque subject-verb-object sentences start getting monotonous, vary the word order. Start with a clause, throw in a compound sentence, and so on. Forget what your teachers said—go ahead and split that infinitive, end with a preposition, even switch tense and point of view if you’ve got a good reason. (Make that a really good reason.) Pique the reader’s interest with unexpected turns of phrase or plot twists or short, insightful digressions. Think of them like spices: Use just enough to make the dish tasty and no more.
- Tantalize, delight. Even prose can stand a little poetry, so don’t shy way from figurative language. As long as you don’t clutter your manuscript with clichés, a few well-placed, inventive similes and metaphors can enliven your writing. Don’t worry if these grace notes don’t come automatically. They’re more likely to occur to you as you rewrite (see No. 11).
- Proofread more than once. You know what you meant when you typed “pubic school,” but look again. Those pesky l’s and i’s are so skinny your mind skates right over them. Ask a friend to proofread, too—a new set of eyes often catches errors you missed. And don’t depend on spellcheck, which will catch words when they’re spelled incorrectly but not when there—whoops, they’re—the wrong words altogether.
- Read your work aloud. Tune in to the rhythm and sound of your words and listen for their music. You don’t have to write in iambic pentameter, but all words have cadence and sound, both of which should be appropriate for the content. The Gilbert and Sullivan phrase “short, sharp shock” works in comic opera, but you probably wouldn’t want that hissing alliteration and chopping-block stress in a romantic essay.
- Cut, cut, and cut again. Start with extra adjectives (you knew I was going to say that), then unnecessary adverbs. But look for bigger cuts, too. Do you really need three paragraphs to describe the décor in the room where the murder takes place? Does the description advance the plot or add depth and character to the story? Maybe one paragraph will do, or one sentence. Or maybe you don’t need a description at all.
- Let it rest. Think your work is finished? Think again. Set your manuscript aside for a few days, then come back and take another look. You’ll be amazed how many edits and tweaks and cuts you’ll want to make. You’ll have to stop rewriting eventually, of course, but you’ll be glad you didn’t send your baby out into the cruel world before that last buff and polish.
Do you have a tip that would add to the dozen? We’d love to hear it.—Sally Zakariya
Our columnist: Sally Zakariya’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Tishman Review, Apeiron Review, Broadkill Review, Edge, Emerge, Third Wednesday, and Evening Street Review, and has won prizes from Poetry Virginia and the Virginia Writers Club. She is the author of Insectomania (2013) and Arithmetic and other verses (2011) and the editor of Joys of the Table, an anthology of poems about food and eating. Zakariya lives in Arlington, Virginia, and blogs at www.butdoesitrhyme.com.