Fast-tracking your writing skills

Posted on Sat 08 Apr 2017 @ 6.00am HKT




“HOW do I improve my writing skills?”

Or — “How do I improve my writing skills in a short time?”

Both are high-frequency questions on the minds of many people. They crop up all too repeatedly on various Internet Q&A sites.

Both are also a bit broad to answer in a few paragraphs. Indeed, there are whole books written about this topic.

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HOW THE PROS DO IT

(via Jono Hey: Sketchplantations)

Take a banana leaf from professional writers — their rules of thumb condensed here for you and ripe for the picking:—

Get your main point upfront and early!

People don’t like to read! Indeed, people don’t like to listen too much either.

This advice overrides any other advice. It nearly always help improve any kind of writing. Bottom line:— Stop driving around in circles. You don’t have a choice because people never had a long attention span whatever the age or generation.

Keep things straightforward

Keep things readable and understandable. Present the matter in some sort of sequence or chronological order as far as possible. In other words, don’t spread things all over the place and force the reader to double-back to various points to get at the overall picture.

Use straightforward language

Use simpler (not simple) sentences generally. Complex sentences with various internal clauses set off by commas are prone to grammatical and logical errors.

In this connection, remain in the world of reality about word meanings — “a good historian” is one who is good in history; “actionable” still means something suable in court, not something that we can act upon.

Keep similar things together

If the context allows, keep similar things together. A place for everything, and everything in their rightful place.

  • Keep issues and facts relatively together.
  • Keep counter-arguments relatively together.
  • Keep examples relatively together.
  • Keep opinions relatively together (and relatively neutral-sounding, if at all possible).

This may not be achievable or suitable for the matter at hand, but try.

Scrap it and restart if facing a grammar dilemma

Let’s not exaggerate. If you’re wondering whether to use ABC or XYZ in grammar, you might as well just restart by writing from a different angle. I do it as a professional writer, so should you too.

Don’t bother asking a native speaker about grammar. The non-native speaker wins 10 times over in grammar than the native. It’s the native who wins in actual usage that sounds right and natural. The non-native has learnt the wretched grammar from top to bottom. The native just grew up using the wretched language.

Native speakers who know enough formal grammar are like people who know how to fly a plane — they exist, but not many of them around.

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WORDSMITHING AT A GLANCE

(by street artist wrdsmth at In Heroes We Trust)

Writing ability is trained, not born with. Yet good writing ability is a talent. The good news is you can train yourself to have it. It’s done through correction and self-correction — by knowing some very basic routines.

Below are the protips from those who write for a living:—

Learn to self-correct — learn to recast

Recasting is rewriting — always look for another way to express things in a shorter way. In English, shorter is nearly always better.

Lots of people have this really bad habit or attitude of never wanting to alter anything the moment they wrote it down. They seem to think revising or editing is a kind of tampering, and that’s just sad. Nothing is carved in stone, as the saying goes, so nothing in your writing should be like that either.

Top protip

Draft the thing out to completeness or near-completeness first. And then revise. Stop agonising over spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on because those things can be sorted out later. Keep the writing momentum going.

Drafting protips

  1. Write short — 20 to 25 words per sentence.
  2. Write short — 2 to 4 sentences per paragraph (i.e. 40 to 100 words per paragraph).
  3. Draft mainly on just verbs and nouns, plus a few adjectives to retain your ‘sense.’
  4. Add in adjectives only when required.
  5. Remove as many adverbs as possible — adverbs tend to destroy the force of your verbs (and therefore writing).
  6. Add in those adverbs that are absolutely required.
  7. Avoid comma-delimited internal clauses as far as possible. Not always avoidable or suitable, but try. Recast the sentence to reduce their instances.
  8. Avoid using overly idiomatic phrases — they might not be understood well enough by the non-native language readers.
  9. Avoid using Latin or Greek phrases or terms, and outdated turns of expressions.

Attitude protips

  1. When drafting, make it easy for yourself first.
  2. When revising, make it easier for your reader.
  3. Remain in the world of reality about grammar. Good grammar helps, but it isn’t the deciding factor. Don’t go “deep hack mode” on following grammar rules (because most are only guidelines)
  4. If you cannot describe something in a straightforward way, then STOP DAYDREAMING about an elevated (‘educated’) style — you’ll fail and embarrass yourself.

You think, do you?

Resist the temptation of use “I think,” “in my opinion” and those sort of transitional phrases — they’re implied anyway because you’re the writer. Not always avoidable, I grant you that, but try.

FINAL WORD

The stuff that we see all over the Internet about making a plan, an outline, a thesis statement (whatever the hell that is), etc, etc, etc, are things already in the textbooks, so we need not explain them here.

It’s a broad question, and this is the short answer — which isn’t, but it is too. True fact, in my opinion.

It’s not easy, but it’s not hard either.

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QUESTION TIME

I absolutely disagree with your protip about 20 to 25 words per sentence and 2 to 4 sentences per paragraph. It is a basic tenet of good writing to vary your sentence lengths. Why do you recommend this false fact? — Angered

LEOS writes: Because it works in real life, and generations of journalists and creative writing professionals — including numerous linguistic studies — have demonstrated its efficacy. We all have to start at some point. And to start off with the protip for 20–25 words per sentence and 2–4 sentences per paragraph still gives a great deal of room for varying sentence lengths. They’re not fixed rules. A paragraph of 40 to 100 words gives enormous scope for different sentence lengths from a single word (“Go!”) to a 100-word sentence. They’re guidelines that can varied and adapted with increasing experience — a factor you have not considered.

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I am not a writer, nor claim to be. I just have a lot of ideas and don’t want to offend anyone with how I am ‘speaking,’ so to say. To reference your list, which I know, is a no-no … but as my sister (the actual writer) tells me, “Sometimes, you have to do what you’re comfortable with, until it makes sense.” So… — Jennifer C.

LEOS writes:— Your sister is quite right in most practical circumstances. The writer just needs to “get on with it.”

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How do you make a conscious stream of thought straightforward? When I have an idea, it references so many things … I use punctuation … as that, sometimes :), but other times :>> it turns into a formula < where once you factor in all the variable > (+x-)~ ax? = x ;-) It’s a formula, that I have lately, used my ‘abracadabra’ writing abilities, to solve. The writing style is simply a habit. How do you access it all for writing, but then turn it off for editing, without losing your work? — Anonymous

LEOS writes:— When you’re doing the first draft, it doesn’t matter what you do. A stream of thought (conscious or otherwise) has its benefits — it simply lays out the stuff on the table. Then you put it away for a little bit of time and come back to it later. The straightforwardness comes from reworking the draft. It’s easier when you have something near-complete sitting in front of your eyeballs. There’s a saying among writerly people that goes “Do your running repairs after switching off the engine.”

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I could write papers for days about similar things … how do you write to a broad audience, and still make it personal?  So that the main issue can be paralleled to each of their lives? — Anonymous

LEOS writes: There’s really no advice. It depends on the person and how well that person could identify who or what the broad audience is.

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The basics are the basics. I should abide by the rules more and am always a little shocked if someone perceives me as condescending. I have gotten use to the “how do you jump from A to Z and think it makes sense?” I take a punctuation shortcut, throw in some references and hope I’ll catch the ones I lost, on the next go round … hence, the need to ask for advice :) — Anonymous

LEOS writes: The basics are just that — basics. They’re guidelines on an operational level. You have to guide how the guidelines work for you for the particular piece you’re writing in the midst of the circumstances surrounding you. It’s not helpful advice, but it is helpful in an overall sort of way.

—◊—

I love to write by piecing together quotes — songs and music will always get an idea started — the news, magazines, papers … the world around me — that one always keeps me up at night. The key to me hitting ‘Send’ (which is where I notice a lot of you writers get caught up) is not getting caught up in the basics. If I edit, I will edit three versions, one for each audience I am trying to reach (so let’s say it starts with three edits). During the process, I realize what I am doing and the courage to hit this little button that makes communication possible, becomes verrrrrryyyyyy intimidating. Thank you if you took the time to read this … this is where I take that deep breath … look at the button … remind myself it is one button … nope, nope, no, no, no … but then there’s serendipity … so I’ll recite the quote that always makes me hit it … “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot? Nothing will change; it simply will not!” — Anonymous

LEOS writes: Your situation isn’t about basic wordsmithing skills. Yours is one of getting caught up in whether or not to write and publish something, and the potential dread or exhilaration from releasing it to the world.

Sorry, I know … but to circle back around. I have journals, I have spent years emailing myself (believe me, you can crack yourself up when you know no one will see it). Lately, due to this pesky thing called age and life, I have started thinking I can do something to help people. The language of the Internet is a little odd to me, kind of like a blackhole where you can throw stuff into it, then study what happens … However, I’ve noticed some incredible people out there … who are kind of awesome at it … so I thought, maybe? what if? You know, because my dogs are starting to bark and I need to take them for a walk, out here, in the real world. :)

The Internet isn’t a writing medium, even though it is predominantly text-based. We take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Overall, you come across as unselfconscious from just the way you wrote that comment, so I think you should be congratulated for sometimes breaking the ‘rules’ here and here. Do what you’re comfortable with first until things fall into place. Everything has their place, and a place for everything.


© Learn English or Starve, 8 April 2017. Original text 5 Jan 2015. (B17037)

Featured imageRagamuffin Ramblings via Joe Allenbeck.

Other images: Bad Attitude Pin via quotationof.com | others as indicated.

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