Tips for Writing Better


Thou shalt do the following:

  1. Have something to say. It’s hard to emphasize this enough. If you’re bored while writing, your reader will be bored while reading. So, regardless of whether it’s a history assignment, an English composition assignment, an application essay, or a business profile, you’ve got to find an interesting way in. Sometimes this involves doing a little research, sometimes just thinking and freewriting to get your brain going.
  2. Chill out. If you’re writing a personal essay or application, consider this: most people find it easy to talk about themselves. Writing about themselves is a different matter. You could be yammering to your friend about some incident one moment, and then look at a blank Word document and dry up the next.

As my friend Oliver Miller so brilliantly says in his Thought Catalog article “How to Be a Writer,” which you can find here.

Chill out. Most people are a thousand times more interesting when they’re talking than when they’re writing. Why is this? Because people panic when they start writing. People instantly revert to memories of 10th grade English class, and memories of No. 2 pencils, and lined notebooks. And then they freak out and tense up. Don’t tense up. Just relax. Seriously.

So take Miller’s advice and chill out. You are much more interesting than you think you are.

  1. Find a lens. If you’re really struggling to find a way into a writing, consider using a lens. This is a little aspect of something through which you can view the whole. An example: imagine writing about your Thanksgiving. Ostensibly you are writing about the various foods, the location, and the participants in your Thanksgiving tradition. But, really, your Thanksgiving provides a lens through which your reader can view your family. Even if you are alone it’s a lens on your family! It’s a way in to all the love or the hate or the drama. Drilling down even further, you could describe one dish in your Thanksgiving meal. A traditional dish: who makes it, what does it represent in terms of culture or family dynamics?

The idea is to look at something small, like the discarded cigarette butts you notice on the way to class, or the converted Dairy Queen building (with the jolly little cupola) that now sells guns, or the guy in the convertible who cut you off, and use that to write about a bigger issue.

Many famous writers have used the lens technique. I suggest you read E. B. White’s essay “Once More to the Lake.” E. B. White will come up again in this blog – he’s that guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web. Or try George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Hey, Orwell is going to come up again too!

Both of these essays are available online.

  1. The “Little So What.” Once you have your way into your subject, you need to get your reader there. What I call the “Little So What” is the story your essay (or story or poem) tells. Your job as a writer is to make your story come alive.

Writing to evoke using the five senses is a great way to jump-start your Little So What.

What did it look like?

What did it sound like?

What did it smell like?

What did it feel like?

What did it taste like?

Incorporate these sensory details in your story, or happening. Even researched articles include sensory details.

  1. Show, Don’t Tell Using Vivid Concrete Detail. Besides writing to evoke, use vivid concrete examples in your writing. Instead of saying, “the lake is polluted,” show it’s polluted by saying, “between the layers of plastic cups and sodden diapers, the lake shone in iridescent colors.”
  2. The “Big So What.” What’s the point? You can talk in great detail about a visit to a lake or the shooting of an elephant, but why does it matter? Some people call this the thesis. I prefer to call it the Big So What. Your Big So What can be spread throughout your piece, or it could be the kicker at the end. It doesn’t have to be explicit if you’re Showing well enough. (An example of an essay where the Big So What is implicit is Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Before the Law” in The New Yorker magazine, available here.)

Imagine your reader disagreeing with you. You don’t want to bonk them over the head with your opinion. You must convince them by showing, evoking, presenting good examples. Earn your comments and your Big So What.

  1. Launch. The beginning is the most important part of your piece. Here’s where you get your reader’s attention and gain his trust (by not making mistakes). Why am I listing this as #7? Because you need to look at it last. Go back and revisit your beginning, including your title, after your essay is finished. Craft it carefully. You can win or lose your reader right there.
  2. Ending. Your ending is important too. You were probably taught (in high school) to tie your essay up in a neat little bow at the end. Don’t! You want your reader to walk away from your work thinking. Things are complicated; Embrace the Complexity!
  3. Read the experts. There are many writers out there who write about writing. Two of my favorites are E. B. White and George Orwell.

E.B. White had a Professor Strunk in college who had a handy style book. White edited this book and it’s been many a writer’s bible for decades. It’s short, it’s charming, and it’s the best advice I’ve ever read. It’s called The Elments of Style, but it’s usually referred to as “The Strunk & White.”

If you’re feeling ambitious, read Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” You can find it online. It’s a bit of a difficult read, but that’s because Orwell gives examples of really bad writing. Per Orwell, bad writing is not just annoying, it’s dangerous. Interesting factoid: Strunk & White quote the Orwell essay in The Elements of Style.

  1. There should be a #10, shouldn’t there? But there isn’t! Keeping it real.