How to be a better writer

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

As a newspaper editor for over 22 years, a newspaper columnist for over 28, and having written two books (more on that in a future column), I've been contemplating the craft of late. During the last two decades, I've read a lot of writing that … could be better — including, maybe especially, my own.

Not everyone will become a good writer, but everyone can be a better writer.

Most good writers seem to agree that an essential element of good writing is re-writing. So if you only have time for one draft, don't get your hopes up. Most first drafts suck. That's the bad news. The good news is, it removes the terror of staring at the blank screen. The first version is going to suck, so just get it written — then start crafting.

Many intelligent people, and Oak Park and River Forest have more than their share, are extremely articulate when they speak but get gummed up when they write. I'm not sure why.

Conversely, I'm not particularly articulate when I speak. I need more than one try to get at what I'm trying to say. In fact, I usually need several drafts. By the time you read this particular column, I will have read through it at least five times (some weeks more), revising all the way before finally letting it go. Given all the time I put into it, my column should be better than it is. Then again, without the revisions, it would be worse. Being a better writer can be as simple as putting more time into it.

Many books have been written about writing better, most of which, I'm sure, could have been written better. But I only have this 800-word space, so here's some of what I've learned:

The inexperienced writer uses too many words — sometimes too few, but usually too many. Average writing is like a patch of dense prairie. You can admire its bio-diversity, but meaning gets obscured in the jungle. Readers just can't process all the verbiage. Better writing involves weeding out the excess.

Take the word "that." Take it and strangle it. The word is only occasionally useful. That (there you go) brings up my life's mission: eliminating "that" and replacing it with "who" when it refers to people. "That" (or "which") refers to things. "Who" accords human beings some small measure of respect, an acknowledgement of the dignity we all deserve. Are you the kind of person who uses "that" or the kind who uses "who"? Resolve not to reify. We're dehumanized too much as it is. Don't make "things" worse.

Whenever possible, eliminate "there is," "there are," "there was," and "there were" from the beginning of your sentences. Consider:

1) There is something about sentences that begin with "there is" that make them less effective (not to mention wordy).

2) Sentences beginning with "there is" are not as effective.

Fifteen words vs. nine. Which is the sentence that you think is cleaner? More to the point: Which sentence is cleaner? Most average writing contains good sentences yearning to breathe free. Start weeding.

Variety is a writer's best friend. Monotony is the reader's worst enemy. Vary the lengths of your sentences. If you find four short sentences in a row, combine the middle two and you'll end up with short, long and short. Or, as with the four previous sentences in this paragraph, three short, one long.

Repetition induces monotony. Some writers fall in love with certain words and expressions. English is rich in synonyms. Avail yourself.

Resist sameness. Play with sentence structure and word order. The impact of the song "One Day More" from Les Miserables was greatly enhanced by alternating "one more day" and "one day more," especially when they fuse in the climax of the final two lines.

The secret to better writing can be as simple as changing the order of three words.

Sameness deadens the reading experience. If you're bored writing it, they'll be bored reading it. You don't want the reader to feel like he or she is driving down a washboard dirt road. Instead, they should slide through your prose on greased skids.

Speaking of which, avoid clichés like the plague (or use them ironically).

And unless it's an acronym, NEVER USE ALL CAPS!!!!!!!!!! (and ditch the exclamation points). Emphasis should be … subtle.

Most inexperienced writers make similar mistakes. The good news: it doesn't take much to separate your writing from the pack.

Daniel Okrent, a good writer in his own right (unnecessary, overused expression), recently wrote about his new book, American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith, a collection of columns by one of our greatest sportswriters. As a student at Notre Dame, Smith learned to write a sentence "so definite that it would cast a shadow." As a young reporter, he was assigned to cover the 1945 World Series, so he asked his editor what to look for. The editor replied, "Write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway."

Most of us have no idea how to write a sentence that casts a shadow. And we may not quite know how to write about the smell of cabbage in the hallway, but if you keep both of those notions close, I'm betting you'll eventually become a better writer.

So there you have it – only 100 words over my limit.


Reader Comments

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Dave Coulter  

Posted: May 27th, 2013 11:48 AM

This is the second time cabbages came up in conversation this weekend. Could be a trend?

John Hubbuch from Oak Park  

Posted: May 27th, 2013 8:28 AM

I am grateful that Ken Trainor has edited my column for more than 15 years. He has saved me from embarrassment, if not litigation, on more than one occasion. (spelling?)

Brent from Oak Park  

Posted: May 22nd, 2013 10:22 PM

"If you reread and reread your work and reread it again you will weed out the weeds of repetition" Lifted from: Eats, Shites and Leaves (Crap English and How to Use It)

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