November 22, 2014

15 Posts to Help Turbocharge Your Writing

Here at The Urban Muse, we spend a lot of time swapping tips on how to make more money, improve relationships with editors, and other aspects of running a freelance business. But let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about craft.

After all, without a solid grasp of language and an ability to wow with words, there isn’t much of a writing business to begin with, as one commenter pointed out recently.
So, I’ve combed the blogosphere in search of posts that will help you become a better writer, whether your genre is fiction, journalism, or marketing copy. Here are my picks (as well as one post of my own):
Writers: do you agree or disagree with the advice above? Anything else you’d add?
Flickr photo courtesy of Phinzup

Book Review: Naked, Drunk, and Writing

With a headline like that, I shudder to think of the people who will find this post through a keyword search and expect to find something completely different. (Sorry, dude, it’s not that kind of blog.) Still, I read plenty of books on the craft and business of writing, and this one was so darn good it demanded its own blog post.

Since I have your attention … Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay (Ten Speed Press, 2010) is a must-read for anyone who wants to write from personal experience. Author Adair Lara teaches writing workshops in San Francisco, and it didn’t surprise me to read that most of her students get published within a year of taking the class (that is, the ones who actually submit their work, as she’s quick to point out). Reading Naked, Drunk, and Writing almost felt like I was sitting in Lara’s class having my own pieces workshopped.
With each excerpt from a student or published author, Lara shows readers how to pace a memoir or essay, balance scene with narration, handle revisions, and cut to the emotional core of the piece. She also includes tips on where and how to submit your personal essays and what to do if you get stuck or worry about offending someone in your piece.
The book references Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird in several places (in fact, Lamott even blurbed Lara), and it’s easy to see similarities. But where Bird by Bird focuses on the psychological challenges writers face, Naked, Drunk, and Writing also delves into the nitty-gritty details of word choice, tense, and syntax. Although I’ve published essays in two anthologies and two major newspapers, there were plenty of insights that were brand new to me, and I could scarcely wait to incorporate her tips and exercises into my own writing.
Interestingly, Naked, Drunk, and Writing was originally self-published and proved successful enough that a publisher snatched up the second edition. With so many tips on the practical and poetic sides of writing, it’s easy to see why.

5 Mistakes That Weaken Your Writing

I’ll be the first to say that being a successful freelance writer requires more marketing and business savvy than writing skill. Writing beautiful, flowing prose won’t make you much money unless you know how to market yourself, negotiate fee structures and contracts, and keep your editors happy. That’s why this blog usually focuses on business strategies for freelancers.
However, avoiding common writer’s pitfalls certainly helps. Here are several ways in which you may be weakening your writing.
  1. Incorrect word usage.
    I see this all the time in blog posts: the writer uses affect when she means effect or whether when she means weather. It’s even worse when someone mixes up words that don’t sound the same but share a few common letters. Guest blogger Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen wrote a piece on commonly misused words and phrases. Grammar Girl is another good resource for grammar and usage questions.
  2. Poor use of quotes.
    I used to insert lots of quotes into my articles even when it would be simpler to paraphrase the person’s insights. But too many quotes can interrupt the flow of your article, so I’ve since learned to focus on quotes that add color. Usually the writer should summarize background material instead of directly quoting a source for every statement (though you can use phrases like “According to Jane Smith” or “Smith says that …” to attribute this background information). Michelle Rafter offers more insights on the correct use of quotes.
  3. Lack of sentence variety.
    Are you using the same tired structure for every single sentence? Do you overwhelm the reader with too many long, detailed sentences in a row? Do you see the point I’m trying to make by using a series of rhetorical questions? I bet you do! Now I’m changing things up to show you how much more interesting that is. Although starting a sentence with a dependent clause can sound intelligent, this syntax shouldn’t be used too often or it can sound repetitive. Vary your sentence structure. Throw in a short, punchy sentence to break up a series of longer ones. Use rhetorical questions sparingly.
  4. Passive voice.
    I don’t agree with everything that English teachers say (“Never use sentence fragments!” “Never end a sentence with a preposition!”), but in most cases, passive voice does complicate and weaken your writing. Why say “this blog was updated by Susan” when you could say “Susan updated her blog”? Grammar Girl offers even more information on the passive voice.
  5. Over-writing.
    Lively language can keep the reader interested, but over-using alliteration or metaphor or other devices can fall as flat as a day-old pancake at a roadside diner. If a metaphor makes sense and supports the point you’re trying to make, go for it! But if you’re including a clever aside or an impressive SAT word to show off, that usually detracts from your writing and obscures your message. Ditto on the adverbs and adjectives. Often you can find a more interesting verb or noun to eliminate the need for modifiers.
What do you think? Are there other ways in which we undermine our writing? Do tell!
Flickr photo courtesy of Nic’s events