From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

As a writer, editor, and translator, I spend my days (and nights) surrounded by words.

I’m lucky: I love what I do and I’m regularly reminded why I love writing and why I think it’s important. Just today, for instance, I received a submission for Matador Travel from a writer whose opening lines read: “As the rooster announces the arrival of morning, Grandmaster Dai Kang’s slippers hit the concrete. It is 4am.”

It’s a perfect opening: the details are plentiful, yet the phrasing is tight. There’s an economy of language that confirms the writer’s skillfulness while successfully putting the reader in a specific place and time. The writer also introduces a character and provides just enough intrigue to engage the reader.

I knew the piece “worked”, but I sent it to a couple of other editors for their input. “Amazing,” one e-mailed. “I actually read it twice.” Another editor responded, “Fantastic.” Everything about the piece was well-crafted, and we look forward to publishing the piece so that other readers can enjoy it as much as we did.

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For every moving, entertaining, or informative piece I read, though, there are many that fail to impress, that fall flat and leave me wondering what can be salvaged and reworked. As an editor, I view my job as including the tasks of determining whether the piece is thematically and stylistically consistent with the format, vision, and interests of the publication for which it has been submitted; asking the question: Will this be meaningful to a large readership?; and nurturing the writer’s own voice and style while making sure the piece meets the preceding two criteria.

It’s not always an easy task, or a fun one–many writers are notoriously sensitive to criticism and rejection. But it’s through my own experiences as a writer that I’ve come to understand my work as an editor. It’s in that spirit, then, that I offer the following observations and tips for writers who are hoping to be published:

1. Trim the fat. I once heard a writer refer to revising and editing as “killing my babies.” As someone who writes long, Saramago-esque sentences myself, the metaphor resonated with me… it can be painful to cut the words we’ve worked so hard to birth onto the page. It’s true that some stories and subjects warrant 3,000 words. Many, however, do not. And in either case, even the most devoted, enthusiastic reader has a limited attention span.

When I say “trim the fat,” I don’t mean that you should force your piece into a word count (unless the publication requires that). Don’t kill rich details. Don’t omit a crucial character. But read through your piece before submitting it and ask yourself: Is every word absolutely necessary? Does every word advance the narrative? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, start trimming.

2. Read with a critical eye. So how do you separate the lean from the fat? Simple. Get rid of filler words. So many words we use in everyday speech are unnecessarily imported into our writing: this, that, these, those, them, there are, there is, it, and etc. are just a few examples. Take a sentence with filler words and look at it critically: what can be eliminated without sacrificing detail? Try this tip consistently. I promise you’ll be surprised by how many words are simply unnecessary.

3. Write with precision…and passion. I recently landed a contract to write a guide to Mexico City for an online travel planning company. I was given a style guide to follow; though it was strict, it was not constraining. I was confident about my subject–I know my second home well–and I completed the guide with passion. I was satisfied with what I’d written and sent it off to the editor, sure it would be accepted immediately with praise and no requests for revisions.

I was wrong. “I just have a few revision requests,” the editor wrote. When I opened the document, I could see red marks all over my draft, the editor’s frustrated notes electronically penned into the margins. “WHY IS THIS PLACE GREAT?!!” she wrote with evident exasperation. “WHY IS THIS RESTAURANT ‘CELEBRATED’?!” I could almost see her, sighing and rolling her eyes, and I felt chastised by her feedback.

As I sat with the draft and reviewed it with fresh eyes and an open mind, I realized she was absolutely right. Words like “good,” “great,” “must-see,” and “celebrated” have no meaning for a reader who has never been to Mexico City. I knew the places I’d included in the guide were good, great, celebrated must-sees, but I hadn’t taken the reader there. I had to be more precise. The second draft–and the final product–were better because the editor pushed me to get rid of vague adjectives, forcing me to be precise.

So here’s the tip: Avoid “good,” “great,” and all other vague adjectives that mean nothing. Remember the 5 “Ws” of writing: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. WHY is the place great? Pushing yourself to be precise won’t just benefit the reader; you’ll become a better writer and you’ll fall in love with your subject all over again as you struggle (and succeed!) to articulate precisely why it’s so important to you.

If you find precision challenging, ask a trusted friend to read your draft. Can he or she understand the place or experience you want to convey? If not, what would the reader like to know that’s currently missing?

4. Be yourself. Recently, I had the painful experience of working with a writer who was simply trying too hard to channel her voice to fit the vibe of our publication. I could sense the talent underneath her words, but so much of her writing felt stilted. Something simply didn’t ring true, though it was difficult to express this to her.

Writers are constantly trying to fit their resumes and themselves into the varied visions and expectations of editors and the publications they represent. Don’t. Be yourself and always channel your authentic voice. When you force your writing to be something it’s not, the reader can sense the inauthenticity. And besides, you’ll be left with the yucky feeling of defeat and compromise. If the piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it. You’ll find your place. In the meantime, keep writing.

What tips do YOU have about improving as a writer? Please share your comments and experiences below!

Photo: thorinside (Flickr creative commons)

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Julie Schwietert Collazo

Julie Schwietert Collazo and Francisco Collazo. For more information, please contact us: e-mail: collazoprojects@gmail.com

26 thoughts on “From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer”

  1. Wow. I love your writing style Julie. Instructional/Advisory writing can be a pain in the ass, but you have a friendly/confident/reassuring voice that makes it easy to read.

    I just re-read a blog posting of my own with the intent of trimming the fat! Hilarious how much b.s. could come out. I knew some of the sentences were clunky, but published it anyway. I am so much happier now that I’ve trimmed away!

  2. Hi Julie, thanks for this post. I agree with Jack, you made it so easy to read. I recently started freelance writing and learning how to pitch etc. It’s so hard! Am learning to trim as well…

  3. Lily- I’m glad you found the post useful! And don’t worry… getting comfortable with trimming is a long (ongoing!) process! 😉

    Peace,
    Julie

  4. Great tips, Julie. And the best part–your writing teaches them by example! Very smooth, a pleasure to read.

    One thing I always try to do is put at least a night’s sleep between first and final drafts, no matter how short or insignificant the piece. Even when I feel I’ve got something nailed on the first day, I always come back the next morning with loads of improvements that never would have occurred to me the day before. A fresh eye does wonders.

  5. Thanks, Hal! As a writer, reader, and editor, one of my profound pleasures is reading YOUR writing. You have a gift for words, and your tip of letting the piece (and yourself!) rest is a useful one.

  6. I love to read your writing and strive to attain to your level of skill. Reading good writing sets the example and definitely helps. I’m a mediocre writer that would like to improve and appreciate your clear advice.

  7. Echoing everyone else – excellent tips for aspiring writers!.

    I agree with everything you’ve highlighted, and also had a very similar experience when I wrote an online guide to Sweden.

    The editor wanted me to explain why I thought the places were “great” or “must-sees”, weaving in culture, local norms, and such in more intricate detail.

    I occasionally fall victim to “haste writing”. Due to current workload, I try to bust things out so quickly that I send them in after just 2-3 once-overs without a thorough scan.

  8. I am the queen of unnecessary words and phrases…I think I’m clarifying and instead I’m actually muddying the waters. Great reminders here.

    I’m currently trying to teach my high school orchestra students to critique performances. Over and over again they say music is ‘boring’ or ‘great’ or ‘strange.’ Your #3 explanation might help me get the point across–they don’t get it when I tell them they’re being vague. “You can include you’re opinion, but you’ve gotta back it up!”

  9. Thanks for all the kinds comments; I’m glad that the post was useful. And DES: I’m thrilled that your message didn’t get stuck in the spam filter this time! :)

    Sarah- you’re providing your students with an important exercise in precision and description. If they can master the art of precision now, they will be served well throughout their lives.

  10. Hi Julie, an excellent article with much food for thought. I appreciate your sharing your insight and expertise, and I’m grateful to have Stumbled Upon your site.
    Blessings,
    RH

  11. Hi, ResilientHeart- Glad you found us! Thanks for your kind comment; I’m happy you found the article useful. We just visited your blog; you have an inspiring, important story. Peace, Julie & Francisco

  12. Thanks for sharing useful information. I’m always looking out for stuff like this. Here’s some useful info right back at you. In high school, one of my teachers stressed the importance of ‘show, don’t tell.’ Don’t just explain what happened – describe it and let the description speak for itself. Also useful are Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for writing fiction.
    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
    4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
    5. Start as close to the end as possible.
    6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
    I hope you find a use for these!

  13. I know what you mean. Linda and I edit several articles a week…our own included!

    Recently we commissioned a piece from a writer and her clips seemed great. What we ended up with needed around two hours editing to make publishable. Hard work when you’re paying someone else!

  14. Craig and Skeelojo:

    Thanks for your comments and sharing your experiences. And thanks, Skeelojo, for the classic Vonnegut tips, which are just as useful for non-fiction as they are for fiction.

  15. Great article. Thank you for the wonderful reminders. I’m a talker. My business and creative writing often reflect that. I’ve been working at writing tighter copy and surprisingly it’s been easier to kill off my darlings. :-)

  16. Hi, Roxanne-

    Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you found the article a useful reminder… and I’m still practicing killing my darlings, too! 😉

  17. And then there is the tale of a public speaker who gave a long speech because he did not take the time to write a short one.

  18. Wow, I really found this article helpful. I posted it to my corkboard on wonderhowto so that others can come to this address and find it. I have been struggling with my writing as of late and I think that this is something that can breath new life into my creative endeavors.

    Josh

    Writers.wonderhowto.com

  19. Thank you Julie, I really appreciate this post, especially your personal account in #3. I am so bad about telling instead of showing. I even come up with interesting, never-used-before adjectives to describe something, instead of just answering the W questions. Ugh! I’ve been told it’s my need to control the situation that I don’t allow the reader to have an imagination. Instead, I hold it tightly and give the reader a step by step of the story to ensure that they get my viewpoint. Even after painful editing, it seems that I still have so many mistakes. I’m not giving up though! Thanks again!

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