What makes a piece of writing “good”? Is it entirely subjective? After all, every writer has his or her fans so you can’t please everyone, can you?
Of course not, but when it comes to captivating readers and crafting prose that makes sense there are a few guidelines that simply cannot be ignored. Whether you typically play by the rules or not, to become a truly great writer you will want to take heed of these five pieces of advice.
1) Be Specific…
When trying to create an entirely new world in your readers’ minds, it is better to err on the side of specificity than be too vague. For example, when describing a particular character’s hairstyle it is far more engaging to read “she had wild flame-coloured locks” than “she had hair.”
2) But Know When to Let Imagination Take Over
Of course, you need to let your readers’ imaginations do some work, too. If you have to scour the thesaurus for another adjective to describe your character’s hair, then you have probably described it fully enough. Just ask yourself, when reading your description, “Have I created the character as I see her in my head?” If so, that is probably enough. Why use five words when two will do? Just make sure you choose the best two words possible.
3) Kill Your Darlings (Don’t Get Attached)
Not getting attached can lead to a lonely personal life, but also to really great writing. If you have ever composed a sentence you really, truly love and find yourself trying to rework entire paragraphs (pages even!) to fit it in, then you have become too attached to your own words. Just because words sound great together doesn’t mean they will work with the rest of the piece of writing. If you really can’t delete these nice-sounding but ill-fitting sentences, try creating a separate document in which to store your favourite turns of phrase in case you find a better spot for them later. Ideally, though, you will delete those words and move on to figuring out what really works!
4) Read (Or Better Yet – Own) The Elements of Style
If you have wondered what it takes to be a really great writer, in the sense of grammar and sentence construction, then pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as soon as possible. In fewer than 100 pages this tiny guide will whip your writing into shape by giving you positive and negative examples of all the most common literary mistakes writers make. Be warned: reading this will likely make you view your old writing with a mix of horror and shame (it’s worth it, we promise).
5) Make It Your Own
In the age of computers, don’t just think that plagiarism might be caught – count on it. Even if you don’t intend to steal another writer’s ideas or words, relying too heavily on your influences or source material can cause you to do just that. Avoid the possibility of accidentally copying someone’s else’s work by removing all unnecessary written material (you can hang on to The Elements of Style) from your writing area. If you find yourself needing to look up some information, take a break to do so rather than bringing your research material back to your draft. This will help to ensure that you truly do work out your own way of saying something, even if you are writing about an already established theory or actual fact. Not only will you avoid being called out (or even sued) by a fellow writer, you will craft a unique piece of writing that will inspire your readers with a story or argument they haven’t read before.
Good writing is concise, elaborate, well researched and entirely original – no sweat, right? The most important part is to try all of the above and, when it comes to the final draft, listen to your instincts. After all, if you can’t (or won’t) trust your gut as a writer, then why have you chosen this field as your vocation or hobby?
Oh, and, read Elements!
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