How to Use Words

Carol Tice

photodune-3217095-wooden-letters-colse-up-xs“Would you take a look at my writing and tell me if I’m good enough to do this professionally?”

I got this question last week, during my marathon 5-hour free mentoring call for my blog subscribers. (Sorry to the 100+ people who couldn’t get through!)

I always feel worried when people say this. First off, because I don’t feel qualified to tell anyone if their writing is good or not.

But also, because if you don’t have the feeling that you’re good at this, you’re in trouble as a freelancer. You’ll end up charging too little, and not putting yourself out there and getting the good gigs.

There are so many different kinds of writing, too. My general feeling is that there is a writing market out there somewhere, for most writers with the drive to do this for a living.

But we can all, always improve our writing.

Even after 12 years as a staffer writing 3-4 stories every week, I read great feature articles and think, “Dang. I am not even close to there.”

A writing professor’s 2 best tips

I recently had Ben Yagoda, a writing professor and author of the new book How to Not Write Bad, as a guest on one of my podcasts.

We talked a lot of real grammar-dork fine points, but Ben says if you only have a few moments to listen, his advice is:

Read (other people’s work). The more you read, the more you naturally absorb writing conventions and get a sense of how wordplay and style work.

Read it out loud (your own work). Often, this will help you quickly spot sentences or words that are too long or don’t belong.

As I think about how to make my own writing better, I have seven principles that help me improve my own writing.

How should you use words?

1. Sparingly

Every reader is short of time these days. Our attention spans are shrinking by the minute.

So as you write, think of the most concise way to express your thought. Your readers will thank you for it.

After you write a first draft, go back and shrink it. Could a paragraph or sentence be trimmed out without losing anything substantive? Chop it out.

Do you have a word or phrase you tend to overuse? Patrol and kill off repetitions of it.

Then, go phrase by phrase and word by word. Remove anything excess. Choose a shorter word if it gets the job done.

Less really is more here.

2. Thoughtfully

If we write while half-thinking about something else, or in a mad rush, we don’t do our best.

Yagoda and I talked about the art of writing mindfully — being fully present with the work we’re doing.

Strive to be fully present when you’re writing and to not write half-asleep or on auto-pilot or while also checking Facebook every other minute. The quality of what you produce will jump immediately.

3. Creatively

There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve read it all before. That’s why it’s up to you to put a little extra sweat into your writing and find a fresh way to say it. That’s how all great writers make a name for themselves, with their unique approach to the language.

I know I most admire the writers who can astonish me with their creative turns of phrase.

I think these often happen in the final draft. Squeeze out just a bit more effort and think of a new twist, an enlightening metaphor, an unusual observation to add. That finishing touch makes the work uniquely your own — and gets freelance clients saying, “We just have to have you for this assignment.”

4. Frequently

Writing is a muscle like any other in your body. Exercise it a lot, and it gets into fine shape.

I know the writing ability I have was honed by the hundreds of articles I wrote as a staff writer. The quality of my writing at the beginning of that long stretch was flat-out embarrassing in comparison to what I produced at the end.

Find your own way to do a large volume of writing, whether it’s blogging, keeping a journal, or volunteering to write a newsletter. Or all of those and more.

Writing flows better and gets easier, the more you play with words.

5. Correctly

Are you unclear on whether to use theirs or there’s, or if you should write Pittsburgh, PA or Pittsburgh, Penn.? Is it Web site or website, ten million dollars, or $10 million?

When in doubt, look it up. Grab a dictionary, thesaurus, Ben’s book, The Elements of Style, or the AP Stylebook and find out what’s considered appropriate for your situation.

This is particularly critical if you are writing in English as a second language. Small grammar and word-usage missteps signal editors that you don’t have the proficiency they want.

So take a moment and make sure you’ve got these fine points right.

6. Conversationally

Stiff, old-fashioned language is a major problem in writing today. Many writers are still creating Web pages and marketing emails that read like a business letter from the early 1960s.

The tone of business today is conversational. On blogs, the tone is extremely conversational.

Read your writing and see if it sounds like you’re talking to people. If it doesn’t, loosen it up. Read it out loud.

Put your personality and speech rhythms into it. Use sentence fragments — those work on blogs.

Consider carefully who your reader is, and make sure you’re speaking their language.

7. Respectfully

Write with an awareness that your words have great power.

Think: Will my words hurt someone? Are they thoughtless, careless, crude, unnecessarily disrespectful? If so, make a change.

If you are writing something intentionally provoking, consider how it will make people feel. Is that what you want? Be very sure before you press “publish” or “send.”

How to succeed

A writer emailed me recently to say she was having trouble putting it out there because she felt so intimidated by “all the other writers out there.”

Don’t worry about the competition. Instead, commit yourself to improving your writing. It’s the sure-fire way to move up as a freelancer and get better assignments and better pay.

There is always call for writers who are in command of their craft.

What do you do to improve your writing? Leave a comment and add some new tips.

51 Comments

  1. Erik H.

    I loved the suggestion made by Ben Yagoda to read your work out loud. The very idea terrifies me so much that I know it’s the one practical method I can use right now to begin improving my writing. Deeper improvements will follow as I spend more time writing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stand in front of a mirror and read my latest post to myself. *Gulp*

    • Carol Tice

      In his book, he relates that Flaubert (believe it was) used to go into the woods and shout the piece to see if it worked. 😉

  2. Francy Judge

    I discovered a fun way to improve my writing a few years ago. Faithwriters.com holds contests based on a new topic each week for stories written under 750 words. Writers can give and receive feedback on their stories or poems until the judges post the winners for each level. This motivates the writer to improve to compete with other talented writers. I’m sure there must be other similar websites to suit individual preferences. This one worked for me, helping me write about 120 short stories and poems. Nothing like a little competition to get me going.

    Thanks for your helpful tips.

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