10 Tricks to Take Your Writing to the Next Level

by Patti Townley-Covert

While waiting for the literary agent to speak, my hands shook and my heart raced with nervous anticipation. It was my first writer’s conference, and since first grade I’d wanted to be a writer. With a stern face he looked down at my article, then at me.

“You have no style.” My heart sank as I sighed, and my shoulders drooped. Mr. Stobbe’s words killed the dream.

Wait. What? He wasn’t finished. “You have no style, but you can learn.”

Our meeting that day changed my life. For the next decade I attended writer’s conferences, read recommended books, and wrote, revising one article more than 30 times. But before being published in a magazine, it won an award. Then, my articles started appearing in national and international magazines. After editing numerous books by clients, this past year I finally published my own.

The tricks I’ve learned have not only made my writing better, they also make it more fun. These tips can do the same for you. Here’s ten ways to elevate your craft.

  1. With your first draft, just write. Do not edit as you go. Trying to do both simultaneously forces the creative right side of your brain to wrestle with the analytical left side. The result is torture. So, let your creativity fly unhindered while expressing your thoughts.
  2. Then, go back and replace passive voice with active wherever possible. Sometimes we need the vagueness of passive, but active verbs grab a reader’s attention.
  3. “Show” don’t “tell.” Weak: “she is walking this way carrying a gun.” Stronger: “she sauntered closer, a loaded pistol in her right hand.” Play with those verbs (and nouns, too!) to engage a reader in the scene. Think of a rough draft the way an artist might pencil sketch an image. Then, go put the color in making your writing as vibrant as possible while shading the nuances. For me, that’s when the fun begins.
  4. Eliminate wordiness. Tighten your prose by removing unnecessary words. Wherever possible use one word instead of two or more.  
  5. Use contractions. Instead of “I have” or “she will” using “I’ve” or “she’ll” makes writing less stilted, more conversational.
  6. Avoid redundancy. If you use a word like “coffin,” don’t repeat it in the next sentence or even the next paragraph. A good thesaurus offers a variation like “casket” instead.
  7. Eliminate clichés. Instead of “she ran faster than a speeding bullet,” think of something fresh. “She ran faster than a roadrunner chased by Wile E. Coyote.”
  8. Vary sentence and paragraph length. Short sentences or paragraphs increase tension. Longer ones slow a story down.
  9. Eliminate “I” as much as possible. Revise sentences that start with it. It’s easy to say “I this,” and “I that.” But even if it’s your story, readers want to know what’s in it for them. Avoiding “I” whenever possible strengthens your message.
  10. Always keep your reader in mind. Identify who you’re writing for and meet that target audience right where they are.

My best tip for life and writers is to never stop learning. Reading books, attending conferences, joining critique groups, and experimenting with words make the writing life one that can take us places beyond our wildest dreams.

Award-winning freelance writer and editor Patti Townley-Covert is the author of The Windblown Girl: A Memoir about Self, Sexuality, and Social Issues. Concern for young adults trying to escape life’s pain infused this page-turner with a message relevant for today. Patti has written numerous articles for publications such as Life Beautiful, Facts and Trends, and Decision.

Attribution Matters

by Carla Foote

Attribution is ascribing a work or remark to a particular person. With the popularity of pithy sayings on social media, it is tempting to quickly Google a list of quotes from a famous person, such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or even Jesus.

However, these quickly “sourced” quotes are not always accurate. Here I have placed “sourced” in quotation marks to show sarcasm. Careful sourcing involves finding the original speech, book or other setting for the actual words being quoted. Google “sourcing” can involve a few clicks to find another person who says that a quote is accurate, even if the sources are not reputable or research-based. Simply noticing that many people attribute a particular phrase to a famous person doesn’t mean that person actually made the statement. Volume isn’t veracity in sourcing.

There are several ways that sloppy attribution of quotes can go wrong: Either the person didn’t actually say what is being credited to them, or they might not have said it in the way that it is being used in the shortened version.

While the internet can contribute to questionable attribution, it also makes the words of famous people accessible for research. I can actually listen to the “I Have A Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963, to the people gathered for the March on Washington. Or I can read the text of Mahatma Gandhi’s “Quit India” speech from August 8, 1942.

The third Monday in January is a national holiday in the United States, honoring the January birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a civil rights leader who played a significant role in the fight for racial equality in the U.S. He was assassinated in 1968. As a preacher and a national leader, his writings and speeches are extensive. Quotes from Dr. King are indeed inspirational. But in the midst of sharing inspiration, accurate attributions are important.

In 2019, on the holiday celebrating Dr. King, I saw two instances of a quotation that I was curious about. The idea sounded good, but I hadn’t seen it attributed to Dr. King before, so I decided to dig in a little and verify the accuracy of this attribution.

The quote is: If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.

When I first read the quote, I have to admit that it sounded a bit like Mother Teresa to me. But that was based just on style, not any research. A quick Google search revealed several instances attributing this quote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (one in a speech by the President of an Ivy League University). But a number of attributions were to Napoleon Hill, a new name to me.

So who actually said this first?

In the 1928 book, The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons, Napoleon Hill said, “If you cannot do great things yourself, remember that you may do small things in a great way.” I found the actual book online and saw this quote on page 113.

It is possible that Dr. King quoted this phrase at some time during his many speeches and sermons. I did not do exhaustive research on all of his speeches and writing. Wikiquote is not a perfectly reliable source, however, it does catalog many specific quotes and their sources from books and speeches. Working backwards from Wikiquote, it is possible to find the actual source document for attribution. Searching the Wikiquote page for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not reveal the “small things” quote. But Wikiquote is not exhaustive.

Another good source of attributions is LibQuotes.com, whose motto is “Don’t quote it if you can’t source it.” In searching their site, they reference the “small things” quote as coming from Napoleon Hill. That’s how I found the name of Napoleon Hill’s book, and a few more clicks lead me to the actual text. Each quote on the website includes an “i” icon for more information and points to the original source. A writer or editor can then pursue the source document for verification.

Perhaps this work seems tedious, but attribution matters. And since the famous historical figures have plenty of strong, well-sourced material to choose from, if you want an inspirational meme for social media, pick something that is traceable to a reliable source!

Of course, beyond the issue of accuracy, there are a flurry of memes for particular holidays and events. In addition to considering the source for a quote, consider the context and your own voice. Are you pulling together a meme to join popular trends? Or is it core to your work and voice? But perhaps that’s another topic for a blog—to meme or not to meme?

In my research for this article, I found some interesting sources and articles on attribution and quotations.

  • Libquotes.com is a great site for finding sourced quotes. Start here when you are seeking attribution, or even just inspiration.
  • The Anatomy of a Fake Quotation – This article shows how on social media an introductory comment and a quote can start out as accurate, but when the words are reposted and blended together, the result can be inaccurate and spread quickly. 
  • 9 famous quotes that people get wrong – This is a humorous list of contexts that are often omitted when a short quote is pulled from a famous source. My disclaimer is that I am sharing this link but I did not research each of the particular examples given, although I am familiar with several of them.

Carla Foote is a freelance editor and writer based in Denver, Colorado. She is on the board of Magazine Training International and a member of the Evangelical Press Association. You can connect with her at fineprintedit.com.

Pen, Pencil, or Crayon?

by Stephen R. Clark

All writing is not equal. Nor should it be. Just as we can use various tools to write with, such as a pencil, ballpoint, fountain pen, crayon, or marker, these can also describe different types of writing to fit different needs.

Elements that play into defining need include your audience, the action you want them to take, the medium you will use, your budget, the timing involved, and the consequence of your message.

Before you start writing, be clear about what type of writing you need so you can pick the right style.

Pencil it in

We’ve all “penciled the date in” when making appointments. This implies the meeting is a throw-away or very tentative. It may or may not happen and the consequence either way is light.

The same is true for “pencil copy.” This is writing that needs to be done “quick and dirty.” The message needs to be shared, but it isn’t vital to national or your security, so you don’t need to sweat the style. Just write the facts in plain good English and be done with it.

For instance, a reminder notice of a meeting that includes a brief agenda. You want people to show up on time, at the right place, and have something to say. All they need are the basics; the rest they’ll get and contribute at the meeting.

Ink it with a Bic

When you put ink to paper, it’s time to get a bit more serious. But maybe not too serious. The writing in an informal company newsletter needs to be well done, but it’s not great literature. The same is true for meeting minutes, church bulletins, and sale flyers.

Write in a conversational style and make sure your facts and quotes are accurate. The information needs to be fresh and timely, not weighted with endless detail and complex sentences.

Wake up & smell the marker

When it’s time to get attention and make an impression, bring out the big fat stinky bold black marker! Be audacious and gutsy. Write in broad strokes and use outlandish, exciting language. Just like they do in those tacky, but effective, carpet and auto dealership commercials.

If there’s a critical deadline your audience needs to respond by, or truly urgent information they need to take to heart, don’t be timid. Write bold, write big, make some noise, and maybe even raise a little stink, but without being offensive.

Pass the crayons

Are you writing about something fun, inventive, or playful? Then get out the crayons! Keep the tone light and colorful. Draw your audience into the fun. Make them see and feel the joy. Write to the senses.

Your company has had a record sales month and it’s time to celebrate. Don’t send out stodgy engraved invitations. Tell them to come and enjoy a steamy hot cup of cocoa with marshmallows and freshly baked glazed donuts! Give them a taste of what to expect. Whet their curiosity.

Let the fountain pens flow

Weighty topics and momentous events call for fine writing. Put on the evening gown or the tux and pull out your best gold-nibbed fountain pen.

When it’s a speech to contributors, a sermon for Sunday morning, a book for the ages, or an article detailing the ethical lapses of a company, it’s time to take time and carefully craft your message.

You need to be attentive to each word and shape every phrase and paragraph with painstaking precision.

Here is where voice is most critical in writing. Your message must resonate and be sound not only in its logic, but also in its tone. Be memorable, lyrical, and quotable.

So, whaddya need?

You’ve got a message that needs delivering. Who is it for? What do you want them to do? How are you sending it? How much time and money do you have? How truly enduring is your message?

Answering these questions will help you determine how to craft the final product. Who knows? You may need a marker headline with a crayon opening followed by a finely written body. Mixing styles is fine if it meets your need and connects with your audience. When that happens, it’s all good.

Stop

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day. . . you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

Ernest Hemingway

Words of Wisdom

by William J. Petersen

When I was 20 years old, I decided to give freelance writing a try. Why not? I had been reading Sunday  school literature since I was six years old, and I understood that editors were crying out for children’s stories.

So I hastily compiled a list of six Sunday school papers aimed at kids 9 to 12 years old. Then I went to my typewriter (computers hadn’t been invented yet) and pounded out a story about a wanna-be baseball player named Herbie, who was afraid of getting hit by a baseball every time he came up to bat.

The story ended with Herbie coming up to bat in the last inning with the bases loaded. He got hit by a pitch to force in the winning run.

I decided to send the story to Scripture Press, because my church used Scripture Press materials. It was returned to me—rejected—within a week. I was disappointed, of course, and I thought the editor was stupid for turning down such a classic story for junior aged boys, but I had five other Sunday school papers on my list. If Scripture Press decided to turn down a classic, I would send it to one of their competitors!

I got my second rejection within a week, from the Free Methodists in Winona Lake, Indiana. So I sent my masterpiece to the Assemblies of   God in Springfield, Missouri—another rejection—and then on to the Nazarenes in Kansas City, and then to David C. Cook, at that time in Elgin, Illinois, and finally to a Baptist publisher.

Within six weeks, believe it or not, I had collected six rejection slips.

I was discouraged, yes, but I wasn’t quitting, though I had reached the end of my list. I thought of trying a few more denominational houses, but since I had written Herbie specifically  for the Scripture Press publication called My Counselor, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe the  editor had a quarrel with the boss the first time. Or maybe he had an upset stomach, or maybe . . .

Well, within another ten days I received a letter from the editor of My Counselor. When I saw the envelope, I was sure it was another rejection.

I was wrong.

The editors had accepted “Herbie, the Ball-shy Wildcat”  for publication. It appeared in print the following year. And amazingly, every three   years during the next dozen years, the publication reprinted Herbie, and of course each time they sent me a little check as well ($15 for the first publication and $10 for each reprint).

Word of Wisdom Number One: It’s always too soon to quit.

Years later, when I was editorial director of a book publisher, a very discouraged lawyer and wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript that had been rejected 27 times. We accepted it and A Time to Kill  became a bestseller. Its author, John Grisham, became one of the best-known novelists of the past 50 years.

It’s always too soon to quit.

Branch Out

I’m not especially gifted in any particular area of writing. The flip-side of that is, I never knew what I couldn’t do until I tried. So I have tried a lot of different things: Gospel tracts, movie scripts, TV commercials, missionary biographies, Bible study curricula, quizzes, fiction, personality sketches, how-to’s, poetry, interviews, radio writing, daily devotionals, fund-raising letters, humor, writing for kids, you name it.

I am no Bible scholar, but I have written some very successful books on the lives of biblical characters, as well as curriculum for adult Bible study classes.

By trial and error I’ve learned that, despite my success with “Herbie,” I  don’t do fiction very well. But I’ve been trying to learn that craft, and managed to self-publish several unpublishable novels in my eighties.

While serving as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I introduced students to all genres of writing. One writer was especially interested in fiction, but she had to go through the lessons on writing newspaper articles, how-to articles, devotionals and all kinds of things. She finally got the chance to develop her novel, but by then she’d had two non-fiction articles accepted by national publications and one magazine had invited her to do a regular column.

So you never know what doors the Lord might open for you.

Word of Wisdom Number Two: Take some risks. Branch out into new areas. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t limit yourself to one writing genre.

Edit yourself

I’ll never forget Miss Fackler. She was my freshman writing teacher in college, and I was scared to death of her. No frog had ever  been dissected the way she cut apart my writing.

Oh, I had been accustomed to seeing red marks on my papers, showing  me where I had misspelled a word or used the wrong punctuation. But she asked questions: Why did you say this? Is that the best word to use?  Do you really need that paragraph? Can’t you say this in fewer words?

I dreaded her favorite expression: Superfluous.

But before long, I was asking some of those questions myself before I turned in my paper. In the process, I learned the importance of self-editing.

Now writing and editing are two different skills. I doubt if Miss Fackler ever had anything published, but in her role as teacher, she was a fine editor. And she taught me both skills.

You will be a better writer if you learn to edit your own work effectively.

Don’t edit as you write. Get your first draft down on paper or on the computer, and then you can edit.

Sometimes it helps to wait a few days before editing. Then, does it still make sense? Can you outline it now? One of the first things I do in self-editing is to look at the verbs and eliminate all the forms of “to be” that I can, replacing those dead verbs with action verbs. Then I look at sentences beginning with “There” and “It.”

Then I look at word-length, sentence length, paragraph length. I look at “ly” adverbs, impersonal pronouns. Use Anglo-Saxon words, not Latin compounds, wherever possible.

These cautions might paralyze you during the writing process. Write freely. But then go back later and prune your work to make it stronger.

Word of Wisdom Number three: Learn to be self-critical, to be your own editor. When you write, be warmly involved in your story. When you edit, be coolly detached.

William J. Petersen, father of CFWN editor Randy Petersen, passed away in January, 2021, at the age of 91. An editor at Eternity Magazine for thirty years, he also authored more than twenty books. These were notes for a talk at a writer’s conference a few years ago.

On Being Original

The most original authors are not so because they advance what is new, but because they put what they have to say as if it had never been said before.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

C.S. Lewis

Eliminate Weak Writing

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In my February 16 post, Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy, I suggested not doing any copy editing until a first draft is completely written. Once you’ve got all your material and have checked all your facts, you’re ready to go through your manuscript more slowly and carefully, checking for basic punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but also looking for less obvious but common problems writers often trip over.

Hunt down and eliminate words or phrases that are. . .

Meaningless

Instead of “At this point in time,” say “now.” You can almost always delete these words: really, very, actually, suddenly, and currently.

I’ve started to reduce my use of the word “that” but be careful about omitting it completely. Sometimes the word  is necessary for the rhythm or logic of a sentence.

Redundant and superfluous (see what I did there?)

This should be, you know, blatantly obvious but, sadly, it isn’t. Avoid overstatements such as “catastrophic disaster,” “close proximity,” and “plan in advance.” Another cringe-worthy example is “free gift.” Isn’t a gift, by definition, free? All novels are fiction. All surprises are unexpected.

Also be careful when phrasing actions. For example, “He shrugged his shoulders” or “He nodded his head.” Only shoulders can shrug and only heads can nod.

Ambiguous

“Child killers should be locked up.” Are you talking about children who kill or people who kill children? Reading your work back to yourself s-l-o-w-l-y will help you catch phrasing that might be awkward or easily misinterpreted.

Lacklustre (particularly verbs)

In Words Fail Me, Patricia T. O’Connor writes: “Find an interesting verb and the rest of the sentence will practically take care of itself.” Avoid these:

  • Passive verbs – Instead of “That car was bought by Janice,” write “Janice bought that car.”
  • Equating verbs – Instead of “This action is a denial of human rights,” write “This action denies human rights.”
  • “Making” verbs – Instead of “That experience made me a stronger person,” write “That experience strengthened me.”
  • Verbs that need nouns – Instead of “He gained entrance,” write “He entered.”
  • Verbs that need adverbs – Instead of “He ran quickly,” write “He sprinted.”
  • Verbs that make dialogue awkward – It’s not a rule that you can’t replace “said” with a verb that encapsulates a character’s full response (for example: “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled.) but don’t overdo it. Use “said” whenever possible because it fades into the background and doesn’t jar the reader.

Descriptive instead of declarative

Every writer has heard it: Show, don’t tell. Sometimes a reminder helps. Show a character’s emotions by his actions instead of telling the reader how he feels or relying on adjectives. Instead of “Roger was very, very angry,” say, “Roger slammed his palm onto the table. The coffee mug fell off the edge and shattered. He didn’t notice.”

Good writing is as much about the words you take out as the words you put in.

What are some other tips you’d add to this list? Please comment below!

Point at Things

When you write, you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, that you are directing the attention of your reader to that thing in the world, and that you are doing so by means of conversation.

Steven Pinker

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

Point at things, say, “whoa,” and elaborate.

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Five (Plus One) Tips for Flawless Copy

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

If you want to play the trombone professionally, you need to work at it. If you want to cut hair, make furniture, or sell insurance, you need to learn how.

Writing is a craft that, like any other, you must learn well and get better at. Yes, natural talent and creativity play a part, but if you want people to take your writing seriously, pursue excellence.

Here are my top tips for submitting a polished manuscript every time.

1. Get it on the page.

When you bake a cake, you dump all the ingredients in first. You don’t start to decorate the cake until it’s baked and cooled down.

In the same way, resist the urge to copy edit until after your piece is completely written. You may need to refine the content as you go, but don’t waste time correcting sentences or paragraphs you might later delete. (In fact, if you aren’t close to deadline, let your writing sit for a while. Putting some distance between yourself and what you just wrote can give you perspective.)

You can’t edit what you haven’t written, so put your first burst of energy into writing. Get it all down, as much as possible, even if it sounds lousy. Once it’s all on the page, you can start to clean it up.

2. Relax your grip.

When you’re ready to edit, put aside any affection you have for your manuscript. Don’t keep a sentence or paragraph just because you think it’s brilliant or it took you hours to write. If it doesn’t fit in, take it out. Read your work with the eyes and ears of a stranger.

3. Fact-check.

Fact check and then double-check your fact-checking. Editors don’t like finding out they published wrong information. Save everyone embarrassment and frustration by checking numbers, geography, name spellings, titles, dates, and references.

4. Watch sentence and paragraph lengths.

The energy of a written piece is often directly related to the length of its sentences and paragraphs.  So if you’re dozing off while proofreading, consider those factors.

If a sentence takes up more than two lines of type, shorten it. It should not contain more than one idea. Express the central idea first. If necessary, use separate sentences to include other significant points. Same thing with paragraphs: Make your most important point at the beginning of the paragraph.

The traditional approach is one theme per paragraph. That’s generally a good idea but sometimes a new paragraph can emphasize a point in the previous one, it can indicate a change in time or place, or simply break up text that is getting too dense.

Paragraphs are visual punctuation. Your paragraphs should not look bigger than a hamburger. On average, look at 100 to 200 words, but sprinkle in shorter or longer ones as necessary, which helps avoid monotony and making the reader’s eyes glaze over. For example, opening and concluding paragraphs might be shorter, and topics that need serious and in-depth discussion might be longer.

5. Crosscheck before take-off.

Read through your story one last time while comparing it to the details laid out in your assignment or contract. Tie up loose ends, submit your manuscript to God and then submit it to your editor. (On time!)

Remember that these five tips won’t make up for copy that’s shoddy. I’ll talk about eliminating weak writing (that’s the “plus one” promised in the title) in my next post (on March 2).

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash