My best editor used to encourage me to strip my writing to “bare bones.”
I did this for weeks, confused why I needed to remove all flowery words and pithy turns of phrase.
Then it hit me: My writing was awful.
You might know how this feels. You question whether you’re cut out for this work.
Now at the time, I was pretty green. I was just a couple years out of college and previously wrote for a daily newspaper with little guidance on the writing front.
So what I’ve learned over the last 20 years really is the stuff that comes from experience – from writing and rewriting, making mistakes along the way, editing all kinds of writers, and reading as much good work as possible.
Here’s five things I’ve learned:
Keep your formatting consistent.
This might seem obvious, but it must be said. You likely have read and reread your story more times than you can count. So you no longer see the extra spaces, errant punctuation, and items that should be bold vs. not.
Use active verbs.
Unless you’re covering something that already happened, you can tighten your work simply by keeping your verbs active. Examples: “is thinking” can just be “thinks” or “is writing” can be “writes.” And while we’re tightening sentences, consider doing away with unnecessary words. Swap “a lot of” with “many.”
Stop with the lengthy sentences.
Here’s a tip: If you can’t diagram your sentence, you’ve probably gone too far. Very few eyeballs read long, text-only stories. Now, an exception to this is speech-writing, which can be longer form. But if you’re writing speeches, you’re probably not expecting the average reader to pore through the copy.
I find the best writing comes from those who aren’t afraid of writing the way they speak. If you’re in this camp, good for you. This kind of writing can be raw and incredibly rich.
I love talking with other writers and editors. Use every opportunity to connect and nerd out on grammar and style. The best newsroom banter can come from quizzing each other on the AP Stylebook. (And when AP comes out with a new Stylebook ruling that changes how you’ve always done things? It hurts. Badly.)
For more tips on writing and editing, check out this self-directed course by Poynter Institute called Get Me Rewrite: The Craft of Revision.
The seminar covers techniques to improve your writing — like removing unnecessary words, weak verbs, and other pesky and extraneous words and phrases that bog down your copy.
Writers will learn how to review their work with fresh eyes (and ears), Poynter says.