So I came across a set of writing tips I had written up back in my senior year of college for a friend, on whom, if I’m being perfectly honest, I had a rather sizable crush at the time. Re-reading them, I’m surprised at not only how greatly I still agree with them, but at how well I wrote them. I generally loathe reading anything I wrote a while ago, as all I can see are faults, but I still like these. Apparently my methods haven’t changed all that much. This is more for essays than stories, though, but I think a lot of the tips can be applied to both formats. Any thoughts?
My Writing Tips
- Don’t feel compelled to read sources cover-to-cover. Focus on what’s important. Use the table of contents to find useful chapters or narrow down the sections of the book you should read.
- Take short notes with page numbers for everything that could be useful, rather than long, detailed notes for the most important things in your sources. You can revisit the pages while writing your essay if necessary.
- Make a detailed outline. Time spent here will be more than made up for later on. It does not have to be intensely detailed, but it should give you an idea of where you’ve been and where you’re going with your essay, preventing repetition and allowing for better flow. (Present Day Author’s Note: Starting outlines was probably the single best change I made in my entire writing “career.” I can’t recommend it enough.)
- Keep track of interesting, enlightening, or entertaining anecdotes that you may be able to use in future essays. Make sure to keep track of citation information for them, too, so that you don’t have to try to find it later.
- Be specific with respect to time and space when citing facts or making assertions.
- Describe changes through time and space. Nothing stays the same forever.
- Don’t make assertions without evidence or reasoning. Having made assertions, explain and develop them. They cannot stand alone and your audience is not psychic. No matter how genius your arguments are, they require support and their logic should be explained.
- Admit your argument’s faults from the beginning and explain why they’re negligible. Don’t simply ignore them.
- Don’t feel like you can’t quote sources. If someone has written a thought better than you can, quote their sentence and cite it rather than rewording it into something worse. Let quotes work for you, but do not rely on them. Use them as a tool, not a crutch. You need to make your own argument supported by other authors, not regurgitate their work.
- Avoid being too wishy-washy with arguments. Words like “probably” and “possibly” and concessive conjunctions can usually be left out. It’s understood that you don’t know the motivations of early modern monarchs; you’re simply making your argument. Be assertive, but don’t misrepresent facts or pretend there’s only one interpretation.
- When in doubt, cite. It’s better to overcite rather than undercite.
Diction and Tools
- When making references, make sure they’re fairly well-known. Classical, Biblical, and very famous references are good. References to the piscine practices of 17th century Versailles are not. Remember that which references are well-known depends upon the audience. A wonderfully applicable reference should be used even if obscure, just explain it if necessary.
- Don’t use acronyms without first writing out the entire full name and then using the acronym in such a context that it is obvious, or even better, using the acronym immediately afterwards in parentheses. For instance, “The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) controlled the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.” This can be safely ignored for the most common of acronyms, however, such as USA, CIA, UK, &c.
- Vary your vocabulary. Technical terms and proper nouns are hard to avoid repeating, but most words have plenty of synonyms. Use them.
- Unless no other adjective is applicable, avoid “good” and “bad.” If you must use them, make sure it’s clear why something should be considered good or bad. A “good” woman could be intelligent, attractive, nice, polite, or funny to different people, and any of those adjectives or a combination of them is preferable to just good.
- Avoid the verbs “to be” and “to become” whenever possible. Stronger verbs are nearly always available.
- Use the passive voice rarely. Only use it to emphasize the object of an action strongly or when there is no known subject for an action.
- Always italicize and define foreign words unless they are so common that they can be considered to have been assimilated into English, such as “sushi” or “jihad.” Never leave entire sentences in other languages without any translation unless it is known with absolute certainty that your entire audience knows both languages. Otherwise, it’s not classy or educated, just irritating and pretentious. (Present Day Author’s Note: I still believe this firmly. There is nothing more annoying than reading an essay in English only to discover entire paragraphs have been left in another language. As M said, “This isn’t the Berlitz School of Languages.”)
- Obscure and obsolete words are not necessarily a bad thing. Don’t use them for their own sake, but if they fit, don’t avoid them.
- No lone demonstratives. “This” and “that” should always modify a noun, not stand alone.
- Adverb-adjective pairs provide a large amount of meaning in just two words. For instance, using “temptingly beautiful” to describe someone gives more information than “tempting” or “beautiful” do either alone or together.
- Replacing “the” with demonstrative adjectives can emphasize the noun and strengthen a sentence. For instance, compare “The man walked across the road,” and “That man walked across the road.”
- German words are strong and forceful. Latin words are intelligent and softer. For instance, compare “smart” and “intelligent,” “hard” and “difficult,” and “speak” and “converse.” Generally, German words are preferable. (Present Day Author’s Note: I would probably say “tend to be” rather than “are” nowadays. But perhaps I was following earlier advice about avoiding quaffling about your positions.)
- Words have meanings. Make sure you know what “objective,” and “contradiction” mean before you use them lightly. “Objective” does not mean modern, nor does it mean correct. A “contradiction” is not necessarily when someone says two things that don’t make sense together to you. They may have their own logic. Try to discover it.
- Asyndeton (no conjunctions) conveys impatience, haste, passion, excitement, and in general a loss of full control of one’s faculties. Hypersyndeton (excessive conjunctions) conveys youth, excitement, and immaturity. For instance, compare “I want to hug you, kiss you, love you,” and “I want to hug you and kiss you and love you.” The former is an impatient, breathless, and eager lover. The second is an overactive and affectionate child.
- Don’t revise on the same day as when the essay was written unless unavoidable. If you’re in the same state of mind, you won’t make many useful changes. Conversely, a sentence you approve of three days in a row is probably one you should keep.
- Print out your essay before starting to revise. It’s easier and more productive to revise on paper than on a computer screen.
- If you’re unsure about a sentence, read it aloud. This will help you better grasp its sound and rhythm, and easier find where changes need to be made.
- Revise in a bold, vibrant color that will stand out against the ink. Revisions are worthless if you can’t see them.
- Don’t try to do everything in one revision. Spend one revision improving grammar and diction, and reserve another for the argument and ideas.
- Reduce word count as much as possible and then use the most appropriate synonym for the remaining words.
- Absorb an eloquent style by reading good writings if possible before one of your revisions. It can help you improve your style in ways that otherwise might not have occurred to you.