Today I’m sharing my second installment of 20 things I learned from blogging these past two years, by listing the next five things.
This time round, #6 – #10 will focus on the technicalities of writing itself.
Here’s hoping you’ll find this list as helpful as last week’s.
#6 Know what I’m writing about
A great question I paste in front of me when I’m seated to write, or typing in front of my computer, is “What is this about?”
It may seem obvious, even silly. But the truth is, most of us dive into writing projects never really knowing what we’re doing! And even when we do, we somehow forget or are sidetracked along the way.
If you’re writing a literary piece, you might argue that you need to write until you get an answer to that all-important question.
The rest of us, however, are more likely to be writing stuff other than fiction. So it’s vital we answer this question from the onset. Or, at the very least, keep it always in front of us to stay focused.
It’s not hard to find bad writing examples, where the content feels like soft pudding in your hands, falling off in every direction! And we know what happens when pudding does that, don’t we?
Yep, it’s a gooey mess!
In this day and age, readers are impatient, have short attention spans, and lots of alternatives. They won’t look at my gooey mess and go: “Oh, I think I’ll just keep reading on until this writing gets better!”
Forget it! It’s not how readers work, and most definitely not how editors read (if I’m thinking of getting published elsewhere).
So even if I sound like a broken record, I have learned to chant aloud each time I approach a piece of writing: “What is this about?”
Now, speaking of readers….
#7 Know who I’m writing for
When writing, I learned to paste a picture of my desired audience in front of me. Or have that person so vividly in my mind he or she could very well be standing right before me!
In my case, and based on my purpose for starting this blog, that desired audience would actually be me!
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Such vanity and arrogance, right?
Incidentally, I’m not a big fan of this term, borrowed as it were from the often-ruthless world of business and marketing. It sounds like I’m lining readers up for a firing squad!
What I should do instead is enthrall my readers. Move them. Even shape their thinking and challenge preconceived notions. Bring dedication to my writing. A dedication stitched into every carefully designed phrase or line I create.
Learn about them and what they like to read. Not because I’m pandering, but because I have something to say that will resonate with them. That’ll benefit them. Take them by surprise. Fulfill expectations they never knew they had.
That they didn’t even know they needed.
Until they read my masterpiece!
Okay, egos aside, both of these insights address the “who, what and whys” of writing.
The next three will unpack the “hows”.
#8 K.I.S.S. or Keep It Short and Sweet
Over the past two years, I’ve learned I don’t always remember this important point about good writing.
Of course, there exists advanced editing software nowadays. They prompt me to tidy up my grammar, spelling, word choice, sentence structure, and punctuation. When “housed” in a single online writing platform, they make my job a breeze.
Still, nothing beats developing my own capability so I don’t rely on AI.
By always looking back at my work, scrutinizing each sentence, and asking the question: “Can I shorten that line without losing my intent?”
In effect, saying the same thing with as few words as possible.
Not that I must do so all the way through. I could risk churning out choppy lines that sound officious and dictatorial (unless I mean to!). But I learned that having shorter sentences will always help make the modern-day reader more inclined to stay with me all the way through.
For more on this, read the excellent book “Several Short Sentences About Writing” by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
Meanwhile, here are three helpful tips I picked up last year:
Write no more than
– 32 words in a sentence,
– 10 characters in a word,
– (on average) one or two syllables per word.
Go ahead. Give it a shot! (Oops, I better filter this post through these three tips too!)
#9 Write using more “active voice” than “passive”
This needs little explanation, although a good intro on it can be found here.
When I think back to my former life as a civil servant, I realize now it had unfortunately done a number on me!
Back in those days, I learned to write using long, convoluted sentences that employ indirect speech patterns. In short, the notorious “passive voice”.
That’s how to make me sound professional and important. Or so I was told. Yes, I was a greenhorn then, foolishly believing formal writing equals superior writing, the kind that impresses bosses and clients.
The truth is, using the active voice brings greater energy to a line and grabs attention so much more immediately. So a line like: “I chased my son all the way to the playground” trumps “My son was chased by me all the way to the playground.”
Of course, I have to be careful not to overdo it. Imagine if every other line I wrote started with “I…” Readers will likely get more jittery with too many such sentences! Plus, if the intent is not to focus on the subject of a sentence, then using the passive voice is still the best way to go, though not all the way through, please!
Not unless you’re planning on producing a long piece of writing, in which case please re-read #8 again alright?
#10 Build, build, build! Up and over, up and over, up and over!
The late James Lipton, who hosted “Inside the Actors Studio“, once invited the incomparable actor/comedian Mike Myers as his guest. At one point in the interview, before an audience of theatre students, Myers introduced the acting technique known as “heighten and add.”
I learned that this is where two actors engaged in dialogue ride on each other’s speech by adding a new detail on top of what the other said. An excellent way to develop a train of thought or build up a story. Like how my son builds his Star Wars model — one Lego piece on top of another.
Or when I am climbing the stairs; one step after another, up and over. Up and over.
Also affectionately referred to as “Yes, and…“, this powerful strategy to heighten and add is equally useful in writing. It reminds me that each time I write, I’m trying to build up my case or argument line by line, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. One act after another.
Until I reach the end, be it a short essay or a book-length memoir.
Readers will better appreciate the point of what I’m writing if I lead them gently but firmly from start to finish, one step at a time.
Speaking of which…