After writing intensively for about the past 20 years, I feel like I’ve come to a point where I’m qualified to share some writing wisdom. I’m by no means a master of my craft, there’s definitely room for improvement, but I think I can help a person who has good, decent writing take things to the next level where their writing becomes great. Whether you’re a novelist or writing an important email or even a Facebook post, I believe I have some valuable writing advice I can impart.
Ok, so you have your good piece of writing in front of you. The grammar is good. The style is good. Syntax, whatever that is…also good. Your voice is unique. The content is interesting etc. Where do you go from here if you want to take your writing to the next level? Well, there’s a few key things that you can do:
First, read through your writing slowly in your head, focusing on each and every word and silently sounding out each word in your mind. Do not do this out loud (not yet, anyway). You can listen to music when you do this, as it may give you a boost of energy and inspiration. Your goal here is to make sure every word is as perfect and necessary as you can get it.
When you’re done with that, turn off the music and read the piece of writing OUT LOUD to yourself. This is hands-down the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever gotten. It seems so obvious, but for many years I never did this, mainly because I never thought it made a difference. Trust me: IT MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE. You pick up on so many errors when you read your writing aloud and you also pick up on words that are used too often (such as ‘very’, ‘just’, ‘some’, ‘but’, ‘really’, ‘pretty’, but I’ll get to all those in a moment). You also get a good sense of whether the rhythm in your writing works well and whether you’re communicating your ideas clearly enough. Generally speaking, if your writing sounds good when you read it aloud, then it IS good. But you’ll only know this if you READ IT ALOUD TO YOURSELF.
All right, so after you read your writing aloud, there’s one of two things you should do. You can either have somebody read the writing aloud to you (which is often inconvenient or impractical, especially if it’s a longer piece of writing) or you can use the “Read Aloud” feature on your writing software. In Microsoft Word, for example, you will find this feature under the “Review” tab and then you click on “Read Aloud”. The computer then reads your writing back to you as if it’s a living person. Technology has advanced in such a way so that this feature is actually quite good and the computer knows how to pronounce (most) words. The reason why this is so useful is that having your work read out loud to you by a second party is much different than reading it aloud to yourself. You will undoubtedly pick up on even more errors you did not pick up on when you read it aloud to yourself and I mean small things like saying ‘lighting’ (i.e. illumination) instead of ‘lightning’ (as in the bolt of lightning) or ‘form’ instead of ‘from’. Or you may notice that you had read things too quickly and missed a simple preposition like ‘to’ or ‘on’ or sometimes you even miss a word you take for granted like ‘is’. If done at a reasonably slow enough speed, the computer is careful about enunciating and articulating each word and you will notice sneaky typos that otherwise may have slipped under the radar.
Nice work so far. Now is the point when you can say BOOM, baby, because after doing those three things (i.e. reading your writing silently, reading it aloud, and then having your writing read back to you), you will find that your good writing has become all the greater.
But, wait, you’re not done yet, folks.
Now it’s time to take your almost perfect writing and make it super-perfect, insanely perfect or as perfect as heavenly possible. This is what will take you to the level of Hemingway, folks. What you need to do is use the “Search in Document” tool in your word processing software (Microsoft Word has this tool in the top-right corner) and search for these words or phrases:
And any other word or phrase you have previously determined that you use WAY too much in your writing.
Now, this doesn’t mean you must delete every single one of these words. No, it doesn’t mean that, silly. However, you must go through your entire document, see when you use these words or phrases, and then think long and hard about whether using these words is absolutely necessary. Seventy-five-percent of the time they are likely filler words that are completely unnecessary. You will find that if you go through your entire document with laser focus and omit every word except those that are absolutely essential, then your writing will become super clean, razor sharp, direct and to the point. Indeed, your near-perfect writing will become almost flawless.
I once heard a story that Hunter S. Thompson used to take his typewriter and type out Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He did this because he wanted to literally know what it felt like to write such great works of literature. But I think such an exercise also taught him how to write like a master. If you read through the works of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, especially Hemingway, you will see that this dude went through his writing with a laser-focused eye and made sure that EVERY…SINGLE…WORD in his writing was absolutely necessary. No fluff. No filler. Direct and to the point. So clean. Sparkling clean. Tight. Sharp as anything. If you read Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you will see something similar. His writing is so clean. So tight. Of course, so funny, too. But every single word has a purpose. Thompson clearly learned from the best and it shows.
|Hunter on his typewriter.|
Ok, now that you’ve gone through your document and made sure every single word is necessary, there’s just one more thing I need you to do:
Go through your writing and see how you begin each paragraph in your document. Do you constantly use transitional words like ‘however’, ‘anyway’, ‘so’, ‘but’, ‘furthermore’, ‘moreover’ or some other go-to word? If you want to be a REAL writing master, you will rarely use the same word to begin two different paragraphs, especially when these paragraphs are close to each other. Of course, sometimes you can’t avoid this, so don’t make a religion out of it or anything. I’m simply suggesting that you be consciously aware of how you start your paragraphs and whether you tend to use the same word every time. Switch it up, folks.
On a related note, I recommend you go through your document and make sure you don’t use ellipses too often, especially at the end of paragraphs. Personally, I used to use ellipses at the end of paragraphs waaaay too much until I became conscious of this bad habit and now I only use them when I feel they are absolutely necessary…
There you go, folks. That’s what you need to know to make your good writing great. Doing everything I mention above is tedious as anything, but again, this is what separates the so-so’s from the literary greats. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this process more or less drives you insane, which I suppose is the price writers pay for literary perfection. Seriously, if you spend enough time going through your writing looking for, say, the word ‘just’, you will eventually see nothing but the word ‘just’…everywhere…leering at you. You will hear it on the TV…you will hear it on the news…you will hear it in everyday conversation…you will hear it EVERYWHERE…and then you will see the word in your head when you try to sleep…you know, like when you play that game Tetris and all you see is puzzle blocks floating down in front of your mind’s eye while your head is on the pillow! This is why many writers either become alcoholics (like Fitzgerald or Faulkner) or go mental (Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf come to mind) or get to a point where they just can’t handle consciousness anymore and snuff themselves out (like Hemingway and Hunter Thompson). Producing great writing is truly a maddening process.
|Hunter shooting his typewriter.|
So, yes, I’d be lying if I said it’s easy taking your good writing and making it great. Tread carefully. And try not to drink too much. Being a “great” writer isn’t for everyone. Can you handle it? Do you dare become great? Or maybe it’s best to remain good. Too big of a price to pay for greatness. Yes, forget I said anything. Being great just isn’t for you. Wait, the word JUST! Right there! I just saw it. Wait, another JUST! Where else is the word JUST?! JUST!!! You evil son of a bitch! Just kidding, you’re not that bad. Another JUST! Just leave me alone!!!!!! O yet another JUST! Seems, some, really, pretty, just, a bit, starts to! A little! Very! Agh!!!! Agh!!!!! Aggggggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!
MATT BURNS is the author of several novels, including Weird Monster, Supermarket Zombies!and Johnny Cruise. He’s also written numerous memoirs, including GARAGE MOVIE: My Adventures Making Weird Films, MY RAGING CASE OF BEASTIE FEVER, JUNGLE F’NG FEVER: MY 30-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR W/ GUNS N’ ROSES and I TURNED INTO A MISFIT! Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
NEVER FORGET the Fun-O-Rama (a traveling carnival memoir)
A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)