Someone once asked what pieces of advice have helped me most with my writing. After contemplating the question for a while, I think I’d have to give the following answer.
“Make Every Word Count.”
This piece of advice emphasizes the need for precision in writing, choosing the exact word for the intended meaning and effect. Mark Twain’s comment comes to mind: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Use a thesaurus to help with this task. It will show you that even broad synonyms have various shades of meaning. Choose the exact word.
2. “When In Doubt, Cut It Out.”
Another version of this is “write tight.” This statement emphasizes the need for concision, brevity, and it amplifies the previous advice. If something can be said clearly in three paragraphs, why waste three pages to say it? If it can be communicated just as well in seven words, why pile on twenty? Work at not being verbose.
But be forewarned: writing tight is hard work. The shorter the text must be, the harder it is to write. But your writing will benefit from the effort.
3. “Finish the job.”
How many would-be authors produce worthy writing only to let it sit, unfinished, in a box somewhere? Either fear of rejection or perfectionism prevent them from letting their writing fly away in the act of submitting it for consideration. That’s the sure way never to be rejected–or published! This curt advice brings the writer to the point of decision.
Acknowledge that no piece of writing will ever be perfect. Just do your best and send it out into the world of publishers and see what happens. Then get busy working on another project. If it is returned, rejected, send it out again. And again and again if necessary. Be persistent.
4. Finally, “Ignore the Critics.”
And, believe me, everyone is a critic! People are always willing to offer advice and criticism. People who can’t write a simple, grammatically correct declarative sentence will offer all sorts of advice on how you should write or about what is wrong with your writing. Others will offer nothing more substantial than flattery. Ignore them both.
Just do the best you can, and let the chips fall where they will. That doesn’t mean you don’t learn and try to improve. It simply means that one shouldn’t obsess unduly over what others think.
This is why Jesse Stuart thought so little of his critics. His biographer, James Gifford, wrote, “He did not concern himself with ‘what the sophisticated think’ and neglected most notions of symbolism, conscious style, literary flair, and sometimes even grammar. For him, the most important aspect of communication was telling a good story, not tricks of phrasing or surprise endings.”
One criticism his critics often leveled at Stuart was that his works were “written without effort or economy.” In reality, that is not a liability but a benefit, a sign of good writing. Writing that seems just to flow effortlessly from a writer is actually the result of arduous work.
Looking back over these words of writing wisdom, I realized that each of the terms used (precision, concision, decision, and criticism) have the same root: cis. They all involve cutting. I’ll let you determine for yourself what that might mean for your own writing.
Now it’s your turn. What has been the best advice you’ve ever received for improving your own writing? Share it in the comments block.