If you want to make a living as a writer, you’ll need to break a lot of English 101 habits. Here are 10 concepts to break the shackles of academic writing – and make your prose more powerful than ever before.
All Killer, No Filler
Remember how your English teachers gave you a word count? Then you probably remember stuffing your essays full of filler (e.g. “one must,” “as a matter of fact,” “in order to”) to meet the minimum. Break that habit immediately. Write like you’re building a submarine: Every word, sentence or phrase should have a purpose and place. If it doesn’t, leave it ashore.
Fire Up the Word Whacker
You’ve jettisoned the filler. Now go back and look even harder. You’ll find literary lint creeping into overlooked places. If you can’t find it, ask a more experienced writer to help clean it out.
Short Paragraphs are Good
Build your paragraphs around one idea. Hammer it hard, get out, move to the next. Why? Modern readers skim. Separating ideas clearly helps them find concepts that interest them.You can even have paragraphs with one sentence – I’ve even seen effective paragraphs with one word.
Editing can be painful. But there’s no better friend than a seasoned writer who turns your copy red. It’s way easier to say “oh, this is great.” It takes time and care to show someone how to be a better writer. The editor you want to strangle now will be your hero five years from now.
Pump up the Volume
Want to root out ponderous phrases and stubborn errors? Read your writing aloud. If you’re turning blue, your sentences are too long. You’ll also find all the rhythmic hitches and typos.
Put Second Person in First Place
In academic writing, one must not use second person. Professional writers, though, will use “you” early and often. It builds a connection to the reader. It invites conversation. It’s also shorter.
Personality Can Go a Long Way, But …
A distinctive writing style (aka voice) helps. But voice is always a work in progress. Worrying about voice before you’ve mastered tight, concise writing is like a car designer dreaming of leather seats before designing a chassis. Your voice will grow the more you write.
Don’t Go Gently
Passive voice isn’t always wrong. But it does suck 95 percent of the time – and it appears 95 percent of the time because writers are lazy. You might have to re-write a sentence or a paragraph to make a phrase active. That’s more work, I know. But I’ll bet it makes your paragraph better (say it with me) 95 percent of the time.
Look to the Giants
The Associated Press Stylebook and On Writing Well are valuable additions to a writer’s toolbox. Mark Twain is also a great mentor – his writing is lively, tight and timeless. The Elements of Style is a bit old-fashioned.
Write with Style
Since I’m a former news reporter, I love Associated Press style. If you don’t like AP, that’s fine. Just choose one that’s commonly used and get to know it. Why? Sticking to a specific style adds consistency and professionalism to your writing. And publications use them, and you’ll need to adapt to them to get hired. It’s easier to adapt to a style if you already know one than it is to start from scratch.