on writing

4 Tips for the Craft of Writing

The majority of my papers and stories and poems have improved after dropping my initial lines.

The right words always elude me. No matter how detailed or stylishly or direct I might write my mother, no flourishes of language can substitute for meeting her. But the words can give a cursory introduction, or add layers to her clothing or highlight her taste in wine. The trick is to find the best ones.

Though certainly an amateur at this point, I’ve received much advice on how to find better words, and, if you’re interested, I’ll share some with you here. For example,

1. consider dropping your first paragraph or two. My graduate school Dante professor shared this advice while reviewing one of my papers. Most of us are still ramping up when we pen our initial sentences, and we tend to be more direct and hard-hitting after we’ve done so. The majority of my papers and stories and poems have improved after dropping my initial lines. Yours might, too.

2. Get rid of all the “being” verbs (am, is, are, were, was, be, being, etc.). Choose more direct verbs to highlight more interesting actions. Do this even when giving details (i.e. “he was six-feet-two and had blonde hair,” vs. “he towered over me at six-foot-two, so that I had to look up to see his blonde hair”). Rather than “being verbs,” “action verbs” give a sense of place, embedded context, and multilayered relationship. Every “action verb” has implicit within it a handful of “being verbs,” so why not just use the former?

3. Use the start and the finish. Put punchy details in short sentences at the beginning and/or end of paragraphs. I learned this one in law school. My professor taught us that, if we had “bad facts” in a legal case, we could “hide” them in long complex sentences in the middle of paragraphs, while “good facts” should come in brief sentences at the beginning and end. The mind, in an effort to keep moving, naturally skims long, complex sentences with multiple prepositional phrases, without us even knowing it. Short sentences capture us.

4. Edit, edit, edit. Apparently, Mary Karr’s bestselling memoir Lit changed tremendously from first draft to final publication (she cut 1200 pages and broke her computer’s delete button while editing). Though Lev Grossman says Karr seems incapable of penning a boring sentence, Karr reveals in Lit that her initial words come out flat and are filled out in the editing process. Likewise, Tracy Wigfield of The Mindy Projectgrew from the practice of reviewing a script line-by-line and looking for spots to add jokes. Magical writing rarely happens on the first try.

Of course, no tips and tricks can substitute for lyrical genius. But, like any art, writing can improve by learning technique. And even as you develop your own style, it can be helpful to see what has worked for others. For more on writing, I’d recommend:

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

The Art of Subtext, by Charles Baxter

The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White

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