I THOUGHT THAT signing up with a personal trainer at the gym would involve lifting lots of big weights, but so far it’s mostly been about developing balance and control so that when I do get let loose I’ve got good form. Writing’s kind of the same way.
When people ask me for some ideas on how they might improve their writing, I recommend they concentrate first on reading. Here are my Six Reading Tips for Writers:
Read the rules. With a trend towards a more informal, conversational style of writing driven by the Internet, the need for grammarly precision is lessening, in some ways. But it’s like learning to drive; you have to know and understand the proper way of doing things before you can start to cut some corners safely. There’s a difference between being snappy and being sloppy.
Read it later. Whenever possible, build some downtime into your writing schedule. If your deadline is two weeks away, bring it forward a few days. That way you can finish your article, and then let it sit in a drawer for at least two days. Then go back and read it again with a more detached eye. What seemed brilliant written on a 3 a.m. cup of coffee may seem a bit overwrought when you reread it over an afternoon cup of tea.
Read it aloud. Nothing will pop your writing bubble pretensions like reciting the words written on the page. There’s something about speaking them out loud that exposes their frailty. You’ll notice where your turn of phrase is more purple than golden, and when the text simply doesn’t flow. You’ll hear and see where your words need more clarity or maybe some kind of a transition between ideas and points.
Read with finality. It’s been said, and is true, that good writing is rewriting, but there comes a point when you have to let go. Striving for excellence is commendable, but it’s possible to get too caught up in tinkering and second-guessing yourself. Deadlines have a “best-enough” aspect to them: as noted previously, build one into your schedule and then work backwards, plotting time for some revisions. But commit to hitting “send” or “publish” when you simply must, and not one minute later.
Read your audience. Don’t write something and then look around for somewhere to place it. You need to have your readers in mind before you start, as they will shape what and how you write. The outlet you have in mind probably has a particular house style to follow. Chances are the demographic group you are wanting to reach will require a unique tone or touch-point for you to really connect with them: teenage sexuality is of interest to parents and adolescents, but for different reasons.
Read the others. Good writers are great readers. They read widely—books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, cereal packets. They read broadly—people and publications they agree with, and those they don’t. They dissect why some pieces work and others don’t. They admire nice turns of phrase. They learn by osmosis.
Whether you’re laying back on the bench or sitting down at the desk, it pays to concentrate on posture and position before you do any heavy lifting.
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