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.