October 2012

The other night I helped my son proofread his U.S. History research paper (the teacher required that at least one person proof the paper before turning it in). And a couple of days before that, I was working with my daughter on some plotting issues for a story she’s writing (non-school related). As I worked with them and explained various writing techniques, word choices, usage issues, and so forth, I started thinking about how so many of us writers stray from the fundamentals of writing over time.

There are certain elements that, no matter what, will make or break your writing if omitted or not done properly. And, there are others that will strengthen any writing if done correctly. I think that too often, in trying to make our writing more sophisticated or clever, we instead only make it complicated and confusing to the reader. I’d like to advocate for returning to a more simple writing style. Now, this certainly doesn’t mean you have to lose your creativity or your “voice,” but we also can’t ignore the basic building blocks of good writing in the process.

Here are some of the things I had discussed with my kids that I believe will help all of us write better if we become conscience about putting them into action:

1. Exchange adjectives and adverbs for strong verbs. I’ve discovered that kids love using adjectives and adverbs when they write! But when you replace those modifiers with precise verbs that say just what you mean, you’ll create a much stronger word picture for your readers. Compare: “He walked quickly across the street” with “He scurried across the street.” More precision, less clutter.

2. Don’t lose sight of the big picture you’re creating. Sometimes we can get so bogged down with every little word choice and punctuation mark that we take our eyes off the overall organization and premise of what we’re writing. When working with my son, I kept asking, “How does this sentence relate to your overall theme?” Because if it doesn’t, it needs to be cut. We often like to get fancy with our details and descriptions (for which there is a place), but we must keep asking ourselves throughout our writing, “Is this a necessary part of my story?” or “Am I enhancing my point or theme with what I’m saying here?” Be sure to cut off any rabbit trails that will not take your reader to the ultimate destination of your story.

3. Stick with simplicity. A writing teacher of mine used to say “KISS your paper!” (Keep It Simple Stupid!). When I was working with my daughter, I’d come across these advanced words she used and asked her why she used them. She’d say because they sounded “smart.” Problem was, for the most part she had used them incorrectly because she didn’t completely understand their meaning.

It’s always tempting to use the bigger, more complicated word, but it’s seldom wise. We must remember that our number-one job as writers is to make sure our readers understand what we write. Simplicity and clarity should always be our goal. If there’s a simpler, more-straightforward word you can use, use it! Sometimes you do need the complex word to get your point across, but often we choose these words for the wrong reasons (such as, because they sound “smart”).

4. Eliminate verboseness. Cut the clutter. Write tight. These are all ways of saying don’t use 15 words when you can say what you need to in 5! Kids are also famous for this when they write, especially if they have a minimum page requirement! Things to look for to help tighten your writing include redundancies (usually appears as saying the same thing but in different ways),  unnecessary prepositions or articles, and those ever-so-popular modifiers I discussed earlier.

5. Stay organized. Regardless of how you choose to organize your writing (chronologically, problem/solution, steps for a how-to, etc.) be sure to stick with that organizational style. Resist the urge to add in stray details that are only going to cause confusion if put in the wrong place. Even if you’re writing a story with flashbacks or adding bits of information as you go as to not give too much away at once, your overall story (or nonfiction piece) should flawlessly flow from one idea or section to the next.

This is achieved upfront through the use of outlines (At my kids’ school they are required to write outlines for everything–even fiction–for which I am thrilled!), and throughout your story by using effective transitional sentences. I think that the longer we’ve been writing, the more apt we are to throw the outline out the window. But it is so crucial for keeping us on the right path and making sure our thoughts stay organized.

Don’t stray from these basic building blocks of writing. Many of these things have probably become second nature to you by now, but it’s always good to check from time to time to make sure you haven’t lost sight of them.

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve explored the topic of niche writing, so I thought I’d venture down this path again and add some ideas to fuel both sides of the debate many new writers have with themselves: Should I find a writing niche and stick to it? I’ve heard cases for both sides, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve heard and add my own two cents.

First the advantages to having a writing niche as opposed to writing in various genres or in several writing outlets (magazines, online, business media, etc.)

1. You will learn to hone your skill in one area, which means you will ultimately get better at it

2. You will become “known” for a certain type of writing

3. You can make more effective industry connections if you stick to one area of writing (the logic here is that you won’t spread yourself thin at industry events but rather meet people who write or publish only what you write, thus more effective networking)

4. You will have a better chance of selling yourself and your work to a publisher or agent because they will see you as a long-term prospect in your niche (meaning more predictable), as opposed to someone who continually jumps around trying different things

5. You will have an easier time branding yourself so that you become the product along with your work, which helps with future projects and promotions

Now, the disadvantages of having a niche vs. not:

1. You will miss out on any writing opportunities that don’t fall within your niche

2. You won’t learn to expand as a writer unless you take on different roles or attempt several outlets for your writing

3. You can make more money as a freelancer if you have multiple revenue streams from various forms of writing

4. You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself if your niche sees a decline in popularity

5. Having the same niche for too long can cause you to become stale as a writer

Many of you have probably heard these or similar arguments–you may have even had this debate with yourself. So, which side is correct? Here’s my two cents:

If you are a new writer, still trying to figure out what you want to do, my advice is to spread yourself out. Try various genres. Write for whoever wants to hire you or where you think you can land a publishing credit (within reason, of course!). If you are trying to make writing your sole income, then I would suggest creating as many possible revenue streams with it as possible. Then…

Once you gain some real experience as a writer and begin to find your voice, start narrowing the field. Try to hone in on one or two areas that you’ve received good feedback in or that you believe is both a strength of yours and an interest. Begin to perfect your craft in these or one two areas, but still try to seek as many outlets for these specific areas as possible.

I think it’s important to write what you have a passion for, or your writing career will probably not last long. If you’re in it to simply make some money or follow the latest greatest writing trend, then you will most likely not succeed long term. Or, if you do, I doubt that you will feel good about yourself.

In a nutshell, my belief (and I’m sure there are some out there who can prove me wrong) is that for the short term, expand your horizons and don’t lock yourself into a niche until you can decide what exactly that niche should be. As your writing career progresses, begin looking to define yourself in some unique or at least narrow way. In the long term I believe this is where you will find the most success and the most satisfaction as a writer.

But, also remember, writing is a journey, so don’t rush this process. Take the necessary time to discover who you are and who you really want to be as a writer. And don’t let anyone or any market define that for you. After all is said and done, you are the one who has to live with yourself!

I concluded last week’s post by saying that the best way to become a better writer is to learn how to read like a writer. So let’s take a look at that statement and determine how to really do that.

I don’t know about you, but once I started writing regularly I started reading much differently. Whereas I used to simply read for the story or to gather facts, I began reading with the intent of discovering why the writer did what he did, and probably more importantly, how he did it.

While I’m certain everyone has his or her own method of reading to learn more about the craft of writing, here are a few things that have helped me along the way:

1. One of the first things I look for when reading nonfiction is to determine what approach or angle the author used. In other words, what one aspect of the topic was used as the focal point? In training myself to look for this, I’ve learned to become more cognizant of the many creative angles I can use to make a subject more interesting. Some writers have a way of highlighting the obscure or overlooked angles, which can totally bring a topic to life.

2. One of the keys to great nonfiction writing is the masterful use of fiction techniques, such as quotations, setting, description, and story. When reading, I’ll think about which techniques the writer used to bring her nonfiction article or book to life. Instead of simply noticing the various techniques used, though, I try to take it one step further and determine how they were used in balance with one another as well as how the writer wove the facts and information into them. A good writer will do so in such a way that the nonfiction information reads like a story. When I read, I always try to look for new ways of presenting factual material in interesting ways.

2. For works of fiction I love to focus on points of conflict. As we know, without conflict there is no story. Some writers are masterful at creating conflict and drawing the reading in–and keeping her there. How do they do this? As I read, I try to discover the writer’s tricks. With good writing, conflict is not just spelled out. Pieces of information are slowly given up at just the right moment. I like to find out: How does the writer allow this information to be trickled out, and when? Is it during conversations…or narrative? Does the writer leave the reader to connect the dots for himself? If so, what’s his technique for doing that?

Internal conflict, which is even tougher to successfully create, presents new questions for the writer-reader to ask: Does the writer show internal conflict through inner dialogue? Does he use personality traits or quirks to emphasize this conflict? What actions does he use that are effective at showing conflict–and why are they effective?

3. Also for fiction, I always pay attention to how the writer develops his characters. Often, I’ll get half way through a book then go back and read in the beginning when a character was first introduced to pay close attention to how the writer unfolded the bits and pieces about the character. What did the writer not allow the reader to know in the beginning, and why? How might it have changed the story for us if we knew too much about the character all at once? But at the same time, what were the important pieces that we had to know up front?

Also, I look for how a character’s traits are presented. In some cases, it’s more effective to use narrative to describe a character. In other cases, it needs to be done through behavior and actions. I like to take notice of how writers do this and why it works. Character development can make or break a story. As writers, we can learn so much from other writers on how to effectively introduce and unfold a character to the reader.

5. For both fiction and nonfiction, there is the issue of point of view. To me, an effective use of POV is a great way to have a lot of fun with your story (nonfiction as well). One thing I do when reading is to think about the story from a different POV than what the writer used. In fiction, I’ll pick a scene and try to imagine it from the viewpoint of another character. I think this is great training in learning to write creatively. I’ve never done this, but I think it would be very helpful to even re-write a scene from a different POV.

Even with nonfiction, instead of the information being written from the writer’s POV, if the story is about a person, what if it was written from the subject’s POV? I once read a fun nonfiction piece about an animal written from the animal’s POV!

No matter what you read, so much can be learned if you constantly ask yourself why you think the writer did something the way he did it, and how might it have been different if he chose another way. Look closely at word choice–the strong verbs the writer uses to describe (instead of adjectives), how he makes a character jump off the page, how he creates conflict and suspense, and what fiction techniques he uses to make his nonfiction interesting.

It seems like a lot to look for, but once you start training your eye to see these things, it will soon become a natural part of your reading, and you’ll find yourself asking a lot of “how” and “why” questions of the writer along the way. Then, hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate those answers into your own writing.