The 4 Pillars of Good Writing

How to “deschool” your writing.

Which hard skill do recent college grads lack the most? In 2016, PayScale.com asked employers this question. The top response was “writing proficiency.”

Wow. Our education system teaches few practical skills, but it does emphasize writing. So what gives? Incompetent teachers? Unteachable students?

Actually, the problem for many college graduates is having absorbed their academic training all too well. The challenge for them is to unlearn the bad writing habits picked up from 16-plus years of school.

Doing so takes the right approach, but it also takes work. An article can’t teach you good writing. At best, it can teach you how to teach yourself to write well. So, I won’t offer much style advice. Instead, I’ll explain the mentalities and practices that are most fundamental for becoming a good writer, and that are also most missing among young writers, as I’ve found as an editor and writing coach.

As a student writer, your job was to perform according to specifications. A successful essay was one that jumped through the right hoops as defined by the assignment requirements and grading rubrics. It also demonstrated that you had done the reading and attended the lectures.

Real-world audiences are looking for a good experience, not a “correct” performance.

But as a real-world writer, you’re now in the experience business. Your job is to show your readers a good time: to intrigue and inspire, to enlighten and engross, to please and provoke. You’re a dealer in fascinating ideas and satisfying arguments, a purveyor of a-ha moments and epiphanies.

Now you’re writing for readers, not graders. Real-world audiences are looking for a good experience, not a “correct” performance.

But to offer a good experience, you must be able to recognize one. Every good chef is to some extent a connoisseur. Similarly, to be a good writer, you need to be a discriminating reader. To produce quality writing, you must be able to appreciate it when you read it and to distinguish it from mediocre or poor writing.

How does one become a connoisseur of food? Through practice: eating a lot of dishes, especially delicious ones. How does one become a connoisseur of words? Again, through practice: reading a lot of books and articles, especially ones you love. To be a good writer, you need to be an avid reader.

I myself only blossomed as a writer after I rediscovered my long-lost love of reading.

College students read a lot. Why doesn’t that make them good writers? The problem here is that it is mostly compulsory. There is no space to seek and discover what kind of reading experiences you love if all your reading time is taken up with stuff you are assigned. You cannot make someone a connoisseur by force-feeding them.

Your reading diet needs to be voluntary if it is going to help you figure out the kind of writing you love. Find a topic you are curious about, look for some well-reviewed titles on Amazon, and dive in.

I myself only blossomed as a writer after I rediscovered my long-lost love of reading. And that only happened after I graduated from college and was no longer tied down to a syllabus.

It was only after being able to recognize excellent history writing that I was able to produce it myself.

My first post-grad reading love affair was with books about history. I became obsessed with learning the story of human civilization, from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Through pursuing this passion, I developed a discriminating taste for history writing.

Later, I started writing historical vignettes of my own. These were published on a major website and garnered admiring comments from readers. This was my debut as a published writer.

It was only after being able to recognize excellent history writing that I was able to produce it myself.

In your first draft, when you are initially hammering out your sentences, good taste will be of some help. But where it really makes a difference is in self-editing.

Be picky with your own prose. Demand quality. Now that you know what you like, go back and edit your own writing until you enjoy reading it: ideally until you love it.

Take as many editing passes as needed to carve the piece into something you’re proud of.

Rearrange sections to ensure a logical flow. Reword awkward phrases. Add creative flourishes, like a vivid metaphor or a delightful turn of phrase. Make the wording musical to your mind’s ear. Tweak and fine-tune. Take as many editing passes as needed to carve the piece into something you’re proud of.

Above all, prune. If you’ve recently graduated from college, your writing is probably way too wordy. Minimum word counts have trained you to pad your prose.

Here’s a worthwhile exercise: next time you write something, try cutting its word count in half. Comb through every passage and ruthlessly delete anything that doesn’t clearly contribute value to the piece.

Is that paragraph a digression? Remove it. Would your meaning be clear without that adverb? Zap it. All that verbal foliage will only drag the reading experience down. Once you trim it away, your piece will be much more brisk and enjoyable.

The more frequently you write, the faster you’ll improve as a writer.

No amount of tips and tricks will make you a good writer. It is not a matter of adopting the right formula or following an expert’s dos and don’ts. Ultimately, it’s up to you to teach yourself how to write well through experience and self-evaluation. Most best practices can only be learned through actual practice.

And as with any form of training, you have to get your reps in. The more frequently you write, the faster you’ll improve as a writer. Start a blog with Medium.com or WordPress.com. Challenge yourself to write and click publish every day for a month.

Share your posts on social media. Occasionally review your older posts and notice how your writing has evolved. Identify flaws that seem to be persisting or virtues that seem to be missing. Push yourself to improve every week. If you do that for a month, you are certain to be a much better writer than when you began.

Why not start today?

Reprinted from the Praxis blog.

Dan Sanchez
Dan Sanchez

Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor of FEE.org.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

40 Ways to Exploit Facial Expressions in Your Writing

writing facial expressions

You’ve finally finished your first draft of the next magnificent, ground breaking novel. Give yourself some credit and congratulate yourself. Authoring a book isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it’s a task most people never achieve.

Unfortunately, getting the story down on the proverbial piece of paper is only half the battle. Your first draft will be crap—there’s no getting around it. And that’s okay. But it means your WIP requires a lot of editing, much re-reading, and a lot of dust collecting as it sits in a drawer for weeks to bake—you need to do this for a fresh editorial perspective.

If you’re doing the right thing by your work (and yourself as a writer), the time spent away from your completed draft is time you’ll spend researching. You’ll need to research basics like do I really capitalize that noun or not; what makes a verb an adverb; the oxford comma placement; and general narrative structure.

But most of all, you’ll want to scrutinize your writing faults.

THE EYES/BROWSMOUTH GESTURESFACIAL EXPRESSIONSTHE SKIN
He winkedHer jaw droppedHer expression dulledHer face flushed
Lines etched his browHis smile fadedHe scowledHe paled
Tears filled her eyesHis jaw clenchedShe cocked her headExcessive makeup
The lack of eye contactShe smiled half-heartedlyThe smile reached his eyesBeads of sweat formed on his face
He closed his eyes and sighedHe gave a Cheshire Cat grinHer puffy faceThe smile dimpled his skin

More common than not is the writer’s habit of conveying dull facial expressions for their characters. “He looked/she looked” isn’t satisfactory, I’m afraid. The odd raise of the eyebrow is okay, but it’s not telling me a lot about yourself other than you’re reading this with a slight pang of curiosity.

I want to read about scepticism, vindictiveness or anger, and have it used as a solid dialogue tag or descriptor for a larger scene. Show me the traits, their temperament, and their fears.

Make your characters human.

To catch and hold a reader’s attention, your characters need to experience the life you’ve placed them in. Show their embarrassment with the crimson colour of their skin. Did their face harden as a result? Did recognition dawn on their face as terror overtook their fleeting glance, while their side-kick’s face contorted and twisted in terror?

Or maybe their face simply went blank. [insert crickets chirping].

HAPPINESSHOSTILITYFEARSHAME
Broad smileVein throbbed in neckShaky smileBiting of lip
WhistlingSnarlingBlinking rapidlySwallowing hard
Sparkling eyesSideways glanceDarting glanceSweating
WinkingFlared nostrilsPale featuresGlancing away
LaughterSneeringTrembling featuresDownward gaze

Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King are masters of character expression (and great reads). Study the greats while you distance yourself from your draft. Get a fresh perspective for when you do your first line-by-line edit.

And remember, context is crucial for conveying expression; and writing is far from easy.

So, if you want your audience’s nose to flare with anticipation and not bore them with two-dimensional nonsense, then clench your jaw, nibble on your bottom lip and look heavenward as you contemplate the descriptors for your editing kick start.

A Beautiful Mess

The world of words is a scary place when laid on a platter for everyone to feast upon. Not only that, it’s unglamorous, lonely, and equates to a low level of pay for the rate of hours put in. Too much coffee is consumed, marriages end in divorce, and your kids end up in a strange haze of detesting you as they honestly sing your praises.

Sitting here at my desk, late at night, a single kind of co-parent – the kids are in bed and I’ve just hit the 31 thousand word limit I’ve set for myself this month – I’m contemplating a crossroad.

I’m surrounded in a chaos of books, strewn papers and incense; I love what I see. There’s a world map angled on the wall, two cats curled by the fire, and the candlelight flickers as I write. For two months I have confined myself to my desk, tasting for the first time the life of an uninterrupted writer. It is bliss.

In around 56 hours that two-month bliss will abruptly end. I am to return to the mundane; and although I can afford to live off my writing alone, I choose for the moment to return. I’ve never been good with uncertainty – growing up in poverty has that effect – but really, if I’m honest, it’s only in the last two weeks, you see, that I’ve accepted myself as a writer.

For three years I have been a paid writer, and technically if you count my first royalty cheque from Amazon, that takes me back seven years. But it’s only now that I can accept it as truth. And I ask why?

At the newly hit age of 40, maybe I’m having a midlife crisis. Or maybe I’ve just realised that if I’m on a good wicket, judging by maternal genetics, I’m already halfway through my ‘young’ life. That I’ve only realised it’s okay to be a ‘paid’ writer may have something to do with me opting for the misery that is ‘real’ and stressful work.

I’ve given myself a set deadline to resign from the ‘other’ soul-draining job. I think by then I can come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I beg myself, I will always . . . be . . . a writer.

Copyright © 2019

Diary of a Dystopian Writer

Dear Diary,

We’re strange creatures. We lock ourselves away, isolated from the real world, yet go a million miles per hour, delving into the pretend one. Rarely does the wordsmith receive understanding from the outside; only acceptance, tolerance . . . and the obligatory: but they’re a writer, as though it explains the obvious.

Writers, I think, are inherently hyperactive. Hyperactive with a splash of the neurotics. Those who aren’t writers will disagree. We resemble that of a sloth in the mornings, hunting out our first caffeine hit with the grace of a moss-covered creature. We then retreat to our cave, slowly experiencing the ritual metamorphosis, until we resemble something closer to a primate. By nightfall, the writer is a standoffish human form – a sight to behold; it’s a remarkable transformation—or so I’ve been told.

Let’s face it: writing, as a career, is one of the more mentally dystopian, draining, contemptuous acts a single person will ever embark on. It isn’t an easy career, and by all means not an easy choice. Much like our fellow tortured artists—painters, musicians, photographers—we’re outsiders looking into a world, desperate to understand the cogs and wheels turning beneath the madness. We clutch at what we know, with it sometimes slipping through our fingers. (Notebook, anyone?)

From this desperation we search every corner and every nook of our mind, trying to determine what it is to be human. Facial expressions, traits, environmental settings, secrets, how one speaks, mannerisms, stressors and reactions, suffering, misery, pain, excruciating death . . . to write is to be human. To create is divine.

And then the lone writer will constantly haggle with their inner being, nag at, doubt, accuse, and often hold such ridicule for oneself: Are we good enough? Are our thoughts worthy? Do we matter? The furball-so-called-writing companion on the desk is staring at me again . . . Am I talking out loud?! Am I paranoid? You examine the pros and cons, ins and outs of the world and then you doubt yourself even more.

And then there are those writers who routinely sit for 8 hours, produce their word count and sip iced water . . . really? [enter crickets chirping]

Then you edit, you censor, you rewrite—only to decide the original is more fitting—you pace your study, you publish, you retract, you publish again; you drink more coffee, pat the cat, and go to bed.

But you don’t sleep. Your mind wanders to your characters, your writing, your words, your day, and whether Good Charlotte will break up when they’re in their 70s? What moisturiser does Gerard Butler use and can I have some? Incessant randoms continue to haunt your Z’s until the alarm clock yells ‘Wake Up!’ only for the writer to start their day again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

A lot of writers are divorced, are hermits or have married other writers (or musicians—a strange co-existence in itself). Their children usually go on to other artistic ventures, only because they were forced in childhood to befriend their make believe worlds out of loneliness; rejected for the wordcount. That, or they practice accounting.

It is what it is, folks. But before you poke fun at the writer next time, spare a thought for their poor soul. The writer didn’t choose this wretched path. It chose them.

Now, do I hit publish or pat the cat instead?

Copyright © 2019