Four (Difficult) Steps to Better Writing
Despite the glut of articles and on-line sites offering, “Tips for creating a bestselling series,” or, “How to write a bestseller in 30 days,” or, “Plot structures for building bestsellers,” there are no shortcuts, no secrets keeping any of us from being the next JK Rowling.
I’ve encountered four common problems while teaching college journalism courses, judging high school creative writing contests, and giving writing workshops for teens—poor grammar, passive narratives with weak verbs, a lack of creativity, and careless mistakes. There are no easy fixes, but I can offer solutions that take time, hard work, and a willingness to not only accept criticism, but to listen and learn from teachers and editors.
1. Go back to basics with your grammar
The first time I realized grammar was not a priority in schools, I was teaching my first college journalism course. I was stunned by the poor spelling, and the inability, for many students, to write tight, cohesive paragraphs. In a journalism program. Even more jarring, was how pervasive the errors were within the class. “Writing in high school/Writing in college: Research Trends and Future Directions,” a study published by the National Council of Teachers, in September 2010 (the most recent statistics I could find), reveals an intriguing (disturbing) paradox: while there is an increasing commitment to writing instruction, there has been a shift away from the focus on writing instruction from kindergarten to grade 12.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, who teaches at Illinois State University, has prepared an excellent resource to help with grammar: “Common Mistakes of English Grammar, Mechanics, and Punctuation,” based on papers written by college students. It can be found at www.my.ilstu.edu/~jhkahn/writing.html
2. Use strong verbs, avoid adverbs, and write in an active voice
Good writers avoid adverbs and use strong verbs to show characters and the setting. Instead of Molly running excitedly, for example, she could be charging or chasing, or dashing or galloping, or sprinting or racing. Do you see how descriptive verbs add to your image of Molly moving across the street?
In his 1983 ground-breaking book, (still one of the best for honing writing skills), John Gardner says, “…failures in the basic skills, include such mistakes as inappropriate or excessive use of the passive voice, inappropriate use of introductory phrases containing infinite verbs, shifts in diction level or the regular use of distracting diction, lack of sentence variety, lack of sentence focus, faulty rhythm, accidental rhyme, needless explanation, and careless shifts in psychic distance.” (I warned you this wouldn’t be easy!) If you’re not sure what Gardner means, read his book. I promise it will help you appreciate and understand good writing, and, if you do the exercises at the back of the book, your work will be cohesive and much more compelling.
3. Don’t be afraid to be creative
Albert Einstein’s definition of creativity, “seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought,” haunted me after university, when, as an aspiring writer, I was afraid of failure and intimidated by the many great authors and books already lining store and library shelves. How could I write anything different, a story that would transport readers to far-away places, with characters that stuck in people’s minds like the first taste of bittersweet chocolate? Fear of failure stopped me from trying, from letting go and seeing what I could do. It took years for me to feel ready to open up and say what was in my head. Creativity is essential if you want to succeed in writing books that resonate. The problem is, you can’t teach creativity, you can only nudge it forward, encourage writers to take risks. This may be the hardest step to overcome on your journey to growing as a writer.
4. Write multiple drafts and accept constructive criticism
This is where you sweat and bleed. My first novel, , took twelve drafts to complete before it was accepted by an agent. Then, there were more revisions from the publisher. In the end, I know the book was far better because of my editors’ critical eyes. You can’t write in a vacuum. You are too close to your words to see if they help or hinder your manuscript. Take a step back. Leave it for a few weeks and go back to it; I guarantee you will see flaws immediately. Then, when you can’t find anything else to fix, get a professional. That’s what I did with The Shark’s Wife. I hired a retired editor from a New York City publishing house, and her revisions brought my writing to a new level. It was money well spent, and the time and effort helped me attain my current agent, Amy Tipton. Yet I know that when The Shark’s Wife is sold, there will be more revisions. My path to becoming a better writer will never end. It is an evolution, not a destination. Though I don’t always welcome the changes, I know they’re an integral part of my journey, and (after consoling myself with chocolate and a Netflix binge), I embrace them and charge forward.