As an English teacher, I have a strategy that usually works for struggling and reluctant writers. If they claim to not be able to write something, I ask them to tell me the story or response to address the prompt. Then, after they tell me a sentence or two, I repeat it back to a student and tell him to write it down.
Kid says, “So, when my parents got divorced I was really upset for a long time.” I say, “Okay. Write down ‘when...my…parents…got…divorced…’”
It gives them enough of a boost to put something on the paper, and as we know sometimes just getting words on the page is enough to motivate you to pull something together for an assignment. Generally speaking, if you can tell a story – which most young people can do exceptionally well – you can write a story.
The trouble with this strategy is that is appropriate for struggling writers. It is not appropriate for experienced writers. Our speech patterns are usually horrible. Our stories can be shallow and wander like thieves in the night. We fill our sentences up with fluff and non-words. In writing, that divorce sentence above sounds pretty good. Transcribed from real life it might be more like:
“So. I was like…well…when my parents got divorced. I was mad. YouknowwhatImean? I was mad, like, forever. F-word.”
Nobody wants to read all of that. The trick to advancing from a struggling writer to a basic writer is taking that messy nonsense that we call story-telling and making it into complete sentences on the page. Presumably we are all more advanced than that if we claim to make a living in this business, however.
It is the next step, taking your writing from basic to good, or from good to excellent, that can be more elusive. Here are some of the common mistakes that may be holding you back from the next level.
Too Much Fluff
We've all read pieces where you start to skim because you already know what the author is saying. After all, he’s said it once before. How many ways can he go on and say the same thing that he just said? Maybe he’ll say it as a rhetorical question next? Or perhaps he’ll say the same thing over and over again as a profound statement. But the bottom line is this – no matter how many times he says the same information, it’s the same information. Every time.
Did you really read every word of that paragraph? It was about 90 percent crap. It was fluffy filler material. If you’re a slave to word counts you may have sacrificed at the altar of filler fluff before. Stop. Fluffy material is boring material and it smacks of that struggling writer painstakingly putting every thought into complete sentences. If you must write everything that springs to mind, do us all a favor – edit it out again after the fact.
Poor Sentence Variety
It’s an insidious problem that is often hard to recognize. If your sentences are about the same length, they are boring. Especially if they are all declarative sentences saying similar things. You may never have considered your sentence variety before. But you should.
Long sentences can lull us into complacency. They can impress us with information or stimulate profound thoughts. They can also bore us to tears. So we break up longer sentences with shorter ones to create drama and impact. BAM! The short sentence strikes again!
If you've never consciously considered your sentences as you write, start today. As you write look for your patterns. After a long sentence, add a short one. If you’re using all short or medium sentences, go ahead and put in a long one. The variety makes your writing more lyrical and adds depth as well.
By now we all know that grammar can sink your writing ship faster than just about anything else style-wise. Pay attention to your usage – is it ‘it’s’ or ‘its’? Did you mean ‘then’ or ‘than’? Is it ‘past’ or ‘passed’? Review these rules from time to time and train yourself to notice the words as you write them and spot check in your mind in the moment and again as you review your finished document.
A few other things worth checking are your verbs. If some sentences use verbs like “have” and “has”, the next sentence should not include “had happened”. Stick with one tense as you write, preferably the present. Also, unless you’re being ironic, avoid definitive phrases. Words like ‘literally’ and ‘definitely’ can make your sentences seem foolish – even though we use them all the time in our speech. It’s just one more reason advanced writers should never write the way they, um, speak.