31 August, 2012

Writing 101 ideas

You may recall this writing workshop I led in April, and here I mentioned that the participants wanted to have some basic writing training included in the workshop. That task has fallen on my shoulders and as our next workshop is only about six weeks away, I need to get working on it. So far I have a number of resources, lists of writing tips, and a variety of ideas floating around. I need to get organised.

So, here are some ideas I have to start with.

I start with the assumption that people know about basic writing from high school. I'm not going to teach things about spelling, verbs, sentence structure, dependent clauses, etc. Sorry!

But I am going to highlight things that we editors constantly struggle with in people's writing. These include:

  1. Unclear writing. I'm always asking writers, "What did you mean when you wrote XYZ?"
  2. Long sentences. Break it up. People will lose your train of thought, get bored or distracted and just turn the page to see if the next article will hold their attention better.
  3. Unnecessarily complicated words and sentences. Don't try to sound intellectual, sound natural, write plainly. This is challenging for those who are theologians or have done professional writing or research theses.
  4. Cliches are easy to write, but boring. Try not to include them, make your writing fresh.
  5. Flabby writing. Write tight and you'll keep your audience. Eliminate extra adjectives, adverbs, and other unnecessary words.
  6. Indirect writing. Don't be afraid to be direct. Use strong nouns and verbs. Say what you mean, don't fluff around.
  7. Preachy writing. Many of our writers are also preachers in their ministries. It is easy for anyone to slip into that style, but it isn't nice reading. Personal stories can help
And then there are structural issues
  1. Start well. Jump straight in, don't fool around saying what you are about to say or talk about where you were when you had the inspiration for this article. Just start.
  2. Finish well. Don't dribble off and leave the reader wondering what your real point was. 
  3. Stick to your topic. No rabbit trails. Make sure everything relates back to your one big idea for the article. A magazine article is too short for more than one big idea.
I've got some tips for self-editing too. Something I wish some people did more of before they sent their articles in.
  1. Don't just look for bad spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Look for the things I've mentioned above.
  2. Sleep on your article before editing it. It will be easier to see your mistakes in the morning.
  3. Don't be precious about your words. Sometimes your favourite phrase just has to go in order to make your meaning clear. Less words are often better.
  4. Don't edit until after you've written your first draft. Editing and creating are using different parts of your brain. You destroy your creativity if you let your editing self into the room while you write.
I've also found some tips about taking criticism. Some people find this harder than others and I need to remind myself that as I interact with authors. I'm wont to jump straight into an email and point out the bits that I didn't understand or think need rewriting, but I need to make sure I point out the good bits too and encourage the writers.

What do you think? Is this a good starting place? What suggestions do you have? What's helped you with your writing?


Helen said...

I am assuming that this is pertaining to a particular genre, ie writing magazine articles for JH?

Wendy said...

Yes, it would be in the context of writing for a JH audience, but many writers come with other projects in mind also, so I'd hope to keep it somewhat general. Tips for good writing goes across different types of writing (but for sure, I'm not talking about poetry and not really about fiction).

April said...

The first number 4: I think you mean cliches, not cliques.

Helen, these tips are very good no matter what kind of writing you do, whether they be magazine articles, novels, short stories, or even academic papers. These are standard good-writing guidelines.

Wendy said...

Oh, I always make that spelling error! Thanks April.

KarenKTeachCamb said...

Good stuff Wendy!

I'm not sure if you've heard of the 6+1 Traits of Writing, which is quite commonly used in schools to foster student writing. It could be a really useful model for your writers as well. I'd be pretty sure CAJ library would have some material on it.

It's definitely worth a second look at. The six traits are: Ideas, Sentence Fluency, Organisation, Word Choice, Voice, and Conventions. The +1 is Presentation. Obviously presentation isn't an issue for your writers - that's a the layout people's job, but I find the rest really helpful. Just an idea.

-J said...

I'd like to come to your workshop!

This is inherent in sleeping on it before you edit, but it really doesn't pay to procrastinate a writing assignment. And really, the only writing that has to be done immediately without time to think or time to sleep on it is news-reporting journalism or emergencies (e.g., post-tsunami reports). Writing can take time. If it's going to end up being good writing that achieves its purpose of mobilizing people to do something, then that time is worth it. (I'm preaching to the choir, but if your writers are primarily preachers or other workers, this point may not be assumed.)

Sarah said...

I've found having honest but tactful editors have really helped me with my writing. Unfortunately I know a few people who aren't professional editors but fancy themselves as editors because they like to criticise. This is really unhelpful and sometimes just an excuse to be a rude know-all literary critic. The best editors I've had are the ones who tell me what's good and what's bad in a loving way. I can tell that they really want my writing to be the best it can be.