Top 5 writing tips

Over the years, I’ve taken classes, read numerous writing books, and had editors and readers comment on my work.

From various sources, these are the top five tips for writing well that I’ve come across.

a woman in a dark room typing on what looks like an old fashioned typewriter

1. You can usually get rid of “that.”

This is a new tip for me, from my editor at the newspaper I’ve been freelancing for. It was a light bulb over the head moment. Yes…yes I can get rid of that!

Before: “Sam told himself that there was someone else out there.”

After: “Sam told himself there was someone else out there.”

In fact, get rid of any words that you can. “Very” is usually unnecessary, too. Only allow words in that really need to be there, and your writing will be nice and tight.

2. Vary sentence lengths.

Why? Because it’s easier to read and flows better.

Before: “It was a hot summer day. My throat was drying up. It felt like I had swallowed sandpaper. Then cotton balls after the sandpaper. I yearned for water. It was so far away. I didn’t have the energy. I couldn’t get up.”

After: “It was a hot summer day. My throat was drying up, like I had swallowed sandpaper and chased it with cotton balls. I yearned for the faraway water. I didn’t have the energy – I couldn’t get up.”

3. Don’t repeat any one word too often.

Before: “I knew deceiving my parents would have serious consequences. I understood what was at stake here. They would see me, and they would know what I had done. Consequently, they would punish me. I would never get to play outside again with my friends. I would never get to see Derek or Maria or Chip. I would be inside. On my computer. Consequently, I would become addicted to computer games, eat too much, and get really fat.”

After: “I knew deceiving my parents would have serious consequences. I understood what was at stake here. They would see me, and they would know what I had done. Accordingly, I would be punished. I would not get to play outside again with my friends. I would not get to see Derek or Maria or Chip. I would be inside. On my computer. Inevitably, I would become addicted to computer games, eat too much, and get really fat.”

For this one, it’s easy to check yourself with a word search for a particular word you often lean on. 

4. Avoid cliches.

There are more of them than you think.

When proofreading your work, you really have to consciously be on the lookout for cliches. (Or I do anyway, this is one I struggle with.)

I entered a flash fiction contest sometime back, and after I sent in my entry, the cliche was so obvious to me I’m not surprised I didn’t win. It went something like this:

“The others don’t like it when I help the people of the house, but sometimes I do, especially the little girl. Late at night I hold her hand in the dark. I must be cold to the touch, but she sleeps like the dead.”

Sleeps like the dead?! What the hell was I thinking.

One of a million other was I could have said there: “I must be cold to the touch, but she sleeps like one of us.”

5. Break up long paragraphs.

I’m a stickler about this one. I *hate* long paragraphs. Just don’t use them.  Long paragraphs make me want to stop reading and start skimming so I can get through their longness and boringness.

Often I’ll see a super long, one paragraph comment on a blog or a forum and I’m like, well, that’s a shame. I’m never going to know what your opinion was because I’m not reading through all that crap.

Short paragraphs – like shorter chapters in novels – keep the action moving.

It somehow satisfies the ADHD in all of us, holding onto those precious attention spans. Long paragraphs = attention span drifting.

2 thoughts on “Top 5 writing tips

  1. These tips are good. I do know the more one writes, the better one gets. (Notice no “that” after the word “know.” Is that correct?

  2. Thank you, Erin, for these great tips. Even though many of us write for a living, or did before retirement, we call can fall into bad habits. Reading your columns shakes us up and makes us think about how we can make our writing better.

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