During lockdown in the autumn of 2020, when we were teaching online, I posted a writing tip to our students every week. I thought I would post them here now in case anyone else finds them useful.
Tip 1: Start writing earlier
When you’re working on an essay or piece of coursework, start writing early on in the process. Don’t spend all your time on the reading and research and leave the writing until the last minute. As an English student, writing is your laboratory, your way of thinking – how you find out what you really want to say. Make sure you leave enough time for it.
Students sometimes get discouraged when they have written a first draft of their essay and it feels awkward or stilted. But that’s like saying your cake tastes awful when all you have done is mix some butter, eggs, flour and sugar in a bowl. You haven’t finished making it yet. Only when you have hacked your sentences into a basic shape can you see the many other things wrong with them. Only by putting the words into a semblance of order can you see how muddled they still are. An essay is too big and complex to hold entirely in your head, so you need to have the words in front of you to really think it through.
A defining quality of writing, as opposed to speaking, is that it can be redone. You can keep working on it until it’s ready. Writing is rewriting. ‘Writing,’ the American author Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘allows mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.’ Not that I’m saying you’re mediocre. I’m just saying that the great thing about writing is that you can keep reworking it until you sound like the best, most perceptive and insightful version of yourself. And who wouldn’t want to spend time doing that?
Tip 2: Trust your ear
The best way to iron out mistakes and awkwardness in your writing is to read your work aloud. Trust your ear. Language is innately rhythmic and musical. Even the way you say your phone number to someone else has a rhythm, as you split it into two or three phrases. That is why we find the automated voices of satnavs and public address systems, with their random rise and fall, so alien. They don’t sound human because they don’t speak with human rhythms.
If you get the rhythm of your writing right, the other things tend to fall into place. Most people know the grammatical rules of writing more than they think they do. You probably know where the subject and verb should go in a sentence, even if you can’t identify them. (Most people can’t.) You know the subject and verb go at that point in the sentence, and in that order, because it sounds right. If it sounds right, it’s probably grammatically right; if it sounds wrong, it’s probably grammatically wrong. You should certainly trust your ear more than the grammar check on MS Word, which is pretty useless.
You can test the flow and sense of your writing when you read your work aloud, because the ear is very sensitive to dissonance, in the same way that you can tell if a singer has hit a bum note, even if you don’t know what the note should be. Reading your work aloud slows you down (you read much quicker when you’re reading silently) so you’re more likely to notice if something sounds wrong. Reading aloud forces you to renotice what you have written.
There is an even better way. When you read your own writing aloud you already know what you meant, and you augment that meaning by accenting and stressing, speaking faster or slower, higher or lower – all ways of making your meaning clearer and reducing ambiguity. Better, if you can bear it, to get a friend to read out your sentences for you. If they stumble over a word or phrase, it might be a clue to revisit it.
Tip 3: Cut all unnecessary words
Which of these sentences sounds better to you?
- When I was a child, I used to have a terrible temper.
- As a child, I used to have a terrible temper.
- As a child I had a terrible temper.
I say the second is better than the first, and the third is best. You don’t need both when and used to, because they convey the same thing. And, come to think to think of it, you don’t need both as and used to either, because they too convey the same thing. The third sentence takes the least time and effort to read. Cutting unnecessary words always makes your writing cleaner and more elegant.
For instance, repeating a word in a sentence can sound clunky:
By choosing to narrate the novel in the first person the author makes the novel more vivid.
Better version: The use of the first person makes the novel more vivid.
The story of Cinderella is a well-known story.
Better: The story of Cinderella is well-known.
The book’s title establishes the theme of the book; the book’s first paragraph establishes the voice of the book.
The book’s title establishes its theme; the first paragraph establishes its tone.
Also, do you really need all those vague qualifiers like very and rather, and do you need two vague adjectives when one would do?
This piece of writing is a very poignant and heartfelt one.
The writing is heartfelt.
It’s easier for the reader to quickly grasp the meaning of your sentence if you cut all needless words:
Portraying the nature of people to be driven by violent instinct is present in many other novels.
People driven by violent instinct appear in many other novels.
Most memoirs choose to mirror the strict chronological nature of life itself within the structure of their works, although this is not always the case. Some memoir writers choose to employ non-chronological structures.
Most memoirs mirror the chronological nature of life in their structure, but not all.
So: write more words than you need and then go through your draft cutting the ones you don’t need. Just as your speech is full of ums and ers and repetitions, your first go at any piece of writing will be full of unnecessary verbiage.
A writer makes meaning not just by adding words but by taking them away. The playwright David Mamet said that ‘Omission is a form of creation.’ Cutting words is as creative an act as writing them. It often makes your meaning clearer to yourself. It’s a bit like being a sculptor, looking for the beautiful form hidden in that rough block of marble by chipping away at all the superfluous stone. Cutting words has this same creative quality. Sometimes it can liberate a meaning that you weren’t quite aware of but that was waiting there to be found.
Tip 4: Learn the power of the full stop
In the age of texting and social media, full stops are going out of fashion. The dialogic visual language of texting speech bubbles, pinging left and right on your phone, has little use for full stops. A single-line text needs no punctuation to show that it has ended. Instead of a full stop, you press send. Studies have shown that young people tend to interpret full stops in texts as curt or passive-aggressive.
But writing is not a speech-balloon text waiting on a response. The point of writing is to communicate in a way that does not require you to explain it any further. A sentence gives words a finished form that should need no clarification. It is its own small island of sense. So, with any kind of semi-formal writing addressed to people you don’t know well (such as the tutor marking your essay), the full stop, and where you decide to put it, are crucial.
Only when the full stop arrives can the meaning of a sentence be fulfilled. The full stop should be like a satisfying little click that moves your prose along slightly so that the next sentence can pick up where it left off. If you want to write well, learn to love the full stop. Love it above all other punctuation marks, and see it as the goal towards which all your words move. It is the most powerful punctuation mark: don’t forget to use it.
Tip 5: Don’t make your sentences any longer than they need to be
Last time, I wrote about full stops. Here is another reason why full stops are important: every sentence places a burden on the reader’s short-term memory. A sentence throws a thought into the air and leaves the reader vaguely dissatisfied or confused until that thought has come in to land. The reader has to hold all the sentence’s words in their head until the full stop arrives to close the circle of meaning. The full stop provides relief, allowing them to take a mental breath.
The longer your sentence is, the more the reader has to hold in their head and the more chance there is of something becoming mangled or unclear. This doesn’t mean you should avoid writing long sentences – I will discuss how useful they are in one of my later tips – but it probably means that, if in doubt, you should put a full stop in. A lot of student writing is full of sentences that are longer than they need to be.
When you’re writing a first draft, I suggest you start with short, simple sentences. If you start short like this, it’s easy to add detail and texture, and combine short sentences into longer, more complex ones. But if you start writing long, complicated sentences before you’ve worked out what you really think, then you will find them hard to take apart and simplify. Start simple and make it complex; don’t start convoluted and then have to unravel it all.
Tip 6: Vary your sentence length
The best way to make your writing sound fresh and musical is to vary the length of your sentences. Paragraphs tend to work well when they are a group of sentences of varied lengths. At the end of every sentence there is what’s called a cadence – a drop in pitch (whether you’re reading it aloud or silently) as the full stop arrives. This signals to the reader that the sentence, and the sentiment, are done. Varied sentence length makes for varied cadences. This makes writing breathe, move and sing.
Short and long sentences also do different things. Short sentences make key points or recap them, and trade in relatively straightforward statements about the world. Long ones take readers on a mental tour, list a whole series of things or stretch out a thought. Short sentences give the reader’s brain a bit of a rest; long ones give it an aerobic workout. Short sentences imply that the world is cut and dried; long ones restore its ragged edges. Short sentences are declarative and sure; long ones are conditional and conjectural. Vary your sentence length and you mirror the way the mind works, veering between conviction and nuance.
Vary the length of your sentences!
Tip 7: Put the important stuff at the end of the sentence
A good English sentence, however long it is, moves smoothly and easily towards its full stop. The best way to ensure this happens is to put the important stuff at the end. A sentence ordered like this feels more deliberate and memorable – just as, when you stop speaking, what sticks in your listener’s mind is the last thing you said.
Typically, the word or words at or near the start of a sentence are the subject. The words at the end of a sentence are typically the predicate: the main verb and its complements. The predicate adds new information that the next sentence may then comment on as a given. So the predicate often turns into the subject of the next sentence. Weak sentences break this given-new pattern. The subject is stronger than the predicate and the sentence ends with an unresounding phhtt.
If you write that something is an interesting factor to consider or should be borne in mind or is very relevant in today’s society, then your predicate is not saying much, because those things could be said about lots of things. I call these sentences pretending-to-care sentences. They turn up a lot in student essays, particularly in introductions, because you’ve essentially been given an assigned task and told to come up with something to say about it. Here are a few examples:
- Poems dealing with the theme of death include great works by many different authors.
- The issue of gender equality appears in thousands of texts from different writers all around the world.
- Each of these writers has something special and unique about them.
- These stories, written in different time frames, touch on many different subjects.
- Malcolm X produced potentially one of the most influential autobiographies to ever exist.
- Throughout my essay, I will use a wide range of secondary sources, making my argument more objective.
There’s nothing drastically wrong with any of these sentences. But there are two problems with all of them: they don’t say very much, and they end flatly. Look at the second half of all these sentences: the predicate (touch on many different subjects, have something special and unique about them, include great works by many different authors etc.) could apply to lots of things.
Let’s have a go at fixing a couple of pretending-to-care sentences.
Childhood is a stage in life that everyone has experienced.
Better version: All of us were children once.
The theme of love is one which has reoccurred throughout various texts in the literary tradition since its very beginning.
Better: Love is a recurring literary theme.
The italicized versions are better not just because they use fewer unnecessary words, but because they end strongly, with the key bit of information at the end of the sentence. If you do this, the full stop will arrive with a satisfying click.
Tip 8: Your writing must speak all on its own
First, some words from the author Verlyn Klinkenborg:
‘When called to the stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you. They’ll say exactly what their words say, and if that makes you look ridiculous or confused, guess what? Sentences are always literal, no matter how much some writers abhor the idea of being literal. In fact, nothing good can begin to happen in a writer’s education until that sinks in. Your opinion of what your sentence means is always overruled by what your sentence literally says.’
Klinkenborg captures here what makes writing so hard. You have to arrange the words in such a way that they can be deciphered in your absence. In writing, meaning derives from just four things: syntax (the grammatical order of the words), word choice, punctuation and typography (that’s things like capital letters and italics). Part of you thinks that you will be able to hover over the reader’s shoulder as they read what you’ve written, saying ‘That’s not what I meant. This is what I really meant!’. You won’t. The only thing the reader can use to access your wonderful ideas is your words. Writing is made of marks on the page and nothing else.
In their book The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White advise: ‘When you say something, make sure you have said it. The chances of your having said it are only fair.’ When you write a first draft, it is very unlikely that you will have said exactly what you think you have said. That’s why you need to read your work over, read it aloud, redraft it, proofread it. Then you find out if you have said what you wanted to say.
Writing is a strange, cumbersome, artificial process. It takes a lot of work to make your words clear to the reader. The comic singer Neil Innes used to start his act with this line: ‘I’ve suffered for my art. Now it’s your turn.’ Don’t be like that. Don’t show the reader how tedious you found writing your essay by making them suffer as well. Writing should be an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader. The gift is the work you’ve put in to make your meaning clear and your sentences a pleasure to read.
Tip 9: Avoid paragraphs of very different lengths
The paragraphs in your essay should not be of dramatically different lengths. That doesn’t mean they have to be exactly the same length. But if you have a two-page paragraph followed by one that is two sentences long, it’s a sign that you need to reshape your essay. There is no rule about how long a paragraph should be, although I don’t like to make mine longer than about 250 words.
A good, basic way of thinking about a paragraph is that it is a single idea, developed into an extended thought. You introduce your point at the start of the paragraph and spend the rest of it developing that point, using examples, supporting quotes, evidence, qualifications and counter-arguments. If your paragraph is only a sentence long, it either means that your idea needs to be developed further, or that it doesn’t merit a paragraph of its own. If your paragraph is two pages long, it means that it contains several ideas that each need their own smaller paragraph.
Paragraphs allow you to put similar material in your essay in the same place. A common phrase that occurs in student essays is ‘As previously mentioned’, or ‘As mentioned earlier’. In which case, why didn’t you also mention this point earlier, when you were talking about that subject? Put similar material in the same place in your essay.
The first and last sentences of each paragraph carry a lot of stress. They are a good way of nudging your argument along. Try making those sentences fairly short, so they can quickly introduce what’s to follow or wrap up a point.
Tip 10: Choose the right word
Be specific in your choice of words. It helps if you learn to be interested in word origins. Did you know that humility and humour are both linked etymologically to humus – the soil, the earth – and to a human, who is thus, linguistically, an earthling? Did you know capricious referred originally to the behaviour of a typical goat (Capricorn being the sign of the goat). Did you know that obscene originated in Greek drama as ob-skene, which means ‘offstage’? Did you know that immediately means ‘without any intervening medium’ – nothing comes between it?
If you know what a word’s origin is, you’re more likely to use that word appropriately. Try to avoid what I call ‘thesaurus words’, where you’re looking for an alternative to a word and find a synonym in the thesaurus facility on MS Word. No word means exactly the same as another one. The right word is rarely the longest, most complicated or most impressive-looking word. It’s just the word that perfectly fits what you want to say in that part of the sentence.
Be aware of what I call ‘crutch words’: the off-the-shelf words that you use a lot. For me, it is words like merely and simply. A common student crutch word is somewhat, often used wrongly. Another crutch word, to describe a book or fictional character, is relatable, an adjective that doesn’t mean much. Use the ‘find’ facility on MS Word to see if you use a particular word a lot. If you use lots of crutch words, your prose may sound muddy and dull.
Choosing the right words is hard, and our first efforts often sound slightly wrong or try-too-hard. The right word rarely comes to you immediately (‘without any intervening medium’). Go through your essay looking at every word, particularly the nouns and adjectives. Is that really the right word? Did I mean to say that? Can I come up with a more exact and informative way of describing this poem than emotional or poignant or relatable?
Good writers also tend to be interested in words themselves: their look, feel, shape and sound. ‘We must remember how wide the word “Iowa” is,’ the American writer William Gass once wrote. ‘We must bear in mind how some words are closed at both ends like “top” or are as open as “easy” or as huffed as “hush.” Some words click and others moan. Some grumble. Listen to the way the word “sister” is put together. Can you feel the blow which chops off the end of “clock”?’ Cultivate this kind of granular interest in words and they will – I promise – pay you back a hundredfold.