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A Beginner's Guide to Writing Well

August 6 2014 · Steve Benjamins

I published a lot of lame posts when I started this blog.

Posts like Facebook for Marketing (yawn) or The Importance of Mobile (does anyone need to be convinced of this?).

As you can probably guess, these posts generated no comments, no tweets and no likes.

Then, six months ago, I decided it was time to get serious about this blog. So I researched how to improve my writing and started practicing for an hour each day.

Once I did this, a few posts started to actually do well. People tweeted this one 1,300+ times and 75,000+ people read this one.

And while I still have much to learn about writing, I wanted to share with you the tips and practices I’ve found that have helped me as a beginner writer.


Write With Style

Avoid stale metaphors

The purpose of a metaphor is to evoke a visual image. But some metaphors have been overused and have become stale. Stale metaphors lack vividness and should be avoided.

Stale metaphors: Needle in the haystack, feeling blue, Achilles’ heel, you’re in the ball park, open a can of worms, pushed the envelope, fan the flames, mend the fences, break the ice, turn over a new leaf.

Your challenge is to create fresh metaphors that evoke something in the reader.

(From The Politics of Language)

Stay concrete

Prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague and the concrete to the abstract.

General: He was happy.
Specific: He grinned.

(From The Elements of Style)

Make definite statements

… And avoid being noncommittal by stating the negative.

Noncommittal: he wasn’t on time very often.
Definite: he usually came late.

Oftentimes noncommittal language is evasive language (we don’t want to explicitly say he usually came late). But definitive statements are more interesting and authoritative.

(From The Elements of Style)

Omit needless words

A sentence should contain no unnecessary words.

Needless words: He is a man who
Improved: He
Needless words: His story is a strange one
Improved: His story is strange

(From The Elements of Style)

Pretentious diction

Pretentious diction is used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality.

Pretentious: In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that
Clear: I think

Good writing does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, considerate writing.

(From An Interview with David Foster Wallace)

The active voice

In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In a sentence written in the passive voice the subject receives the action.

The active voice is always shorter and more energetic than the passive.

Active: I will always remember my first visit to Boston.
Passive: My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me.

(From University of Wisconsin Writers Handbook)

Have a title that grabs the reader

If your post or essay was a store on the side of a busy highway, the title’s job would be to capture attention and get people in the door.

Image from original article

Image from original article.

Titles disproportionately affect the success of your writing. Make sure you’ve put effort into your title. Try to brainstorm 15-20 titles before choosing one.

(From Are Your Titles Irresistibly Click Worthy & Viral?)

Exclamations

Don’t overuse them- try to reserve them for true exclamations or commands. Halt! or What a wonderful show!

(From The Elements of Style)

Avoid qualifiers

Rather, very, little pretty, much— these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

(From The Elements of Style)

Punctuation

This essay taught me how to think about punctuation:

“Yes, you can use punctuation in incorrect ways, but that does not mean there is only one way to use it …

If punctuation obscures or distorts the meaning of a sentence in an unintended way, it is wrong, but apart from that, punctuation is about rhythm …

Momentum, syncopation, rhythm and pattern make a sentence flow, because writers are trying to transfer the voices in their heads into yours. You can hear punctuation in speech: politicians talk in periods, Morgan Freeman is liberal with the commas, and Jon Stewart is a master of parentheses. Lewis Black made a career out of the exclamation point while Dennis Leary barely uses any punctuation at all."

(From Nobody Understands Punctuation)


Practice Writing

Writing is a practice. Books and blog posts alone will not make you a better writer. You need to spend time and quality attention practicing writing. Here’s some ideas on how to do that.

Be accountable to someone

Behind every great record is a great producer and behind every great book is an editor.

That’s why I hired Dan Shure, a content marketing specialist.

Dan is someone I can be accountable to. He reads my writing and pushes me when my posts need to improve.

When I sent Dan my first draft of Where Designers Go to Find Photos and Graphics, he replied with this:

I took Dan’s feedback and spent another 5-6 hours writing. And you know what? It paid off! Today, the post has been read by more than 75,000 people.

Remember though: whoever keeps you accountable should amplify your voice instead of criticizing it or shutting it down. Writing is hard and ideas are fragile. Make sure the person respects this.

Write in a (quiet) library

Most days, at 4:00pm, I leave the office and take a ten minute walk to the University of Toronto library where I’ll write for the last hour or two of the day.

Going to the library has become a ritual. And while it’s hard to explain the effect of ritual, I’m certain of it’s value to me.

The library is also deadly quiet and I need unbroken silence to focus. Jason Fried writes that getting into a productive [writing] zone is like getting into REM sleep because interruption forces you to start over. That feels true for me.

Read what you write out loud

Reading out loud will help you understand pacing, hear the dialogue and let you feel the punctuation.

Go for a walk

My mind wanders when I go for a walk. I start planning a new idea. I solve an elusive programming problem I had. I think of a better way I could have explained myself to a friend.

We all have these insights when we walk. Pay attention to these insights. If you have one, jot it down. Don’t worry about whether the insight is silly or not though; you’re brainstorming and you can always decide not to use the idea.

Then write about those insights.

Explain an idea to someone

Explain an idea to someone and you will find yourself modulating your arguments in interesting ways to suit the listener. Maybe you’ll start using different words. Maybe your tone will switch. Pay attention to those modulations, you may want to write in the same way.

As an added bonus, you might discover a perspective you hadn’t considered. See that as an opportunity. Try to understand the perspective and use it to reshape your idea into something stronger and more resilient. You’ll come away with a richer understanding of the idea.

Research your ideas

When you do have an idea, resist the temptation to believe the job is done. Instead, try researching the idea to develop it even further.

A few months ago I wrote a blog post on how websites could develop healthier communities. Then I did some research and found Joel Spolsky’s presentation on the Cultural Anthropology of Stack Overflow. His ideas were far more developed than mine. So I used his ideas to make my post richer and more compelling.

That post became How to Cultivate Culture in Online Communities, which has become one of my most popular posts. It was tweeted over 1,300 times (including a retweet from Joel).

Conclusion

I still have so much to learn about writing. It would be no surprise to me if this essay violates several of the rules it advocates for.

But I’m committed to keep on practicing writing. As Mark Twain said, “the secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

Let me know in the comments if you have any tips you think I should add.


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