As I mentioned in a recent post, “From Travel Writer to Editor Extraordinaire” I’ve moved up (or laterally, depending on your perspective) from writing to editing. Every week, I read dozens of pieces by dozens of different authors — each with their own style, voice, and expertise, and each with varying experience in writing. With almost all of the articles passing through my inbox, they have imperfections. Obviously, that’s not a problem, and I fully expect it. After all, that’s the whole point of an editor, right?
However, no matter how much they make me laugh or impress me with some well thought out advice, I can’t wholly love a piece that includes sentences like: “One should really travel to Ireland in the spring. It is very green and picturesque.” When I read stuff like that, I’ll imagine all the red marks my high school English teacher would scrawl over it. This particular teacher challenged us and all of his students to write better by with his own set of writing rules. Though I found following them obnoxious at times, even 16-year-old me had to admit those rules helped strengthen my writing. So, readers — and especially those of you who write, for Go Overseas or otherwise — pay attention to these 10 incredibly useful writing tips from my high school teacher. I still use them to this day, and if used right, they’ll make your writing stronger as well.
1. Don’t use the verb “to be”
This writing rule gave myself and my classmates the most trouble. I mean, have you ever tried to write an essay without the verb “to be”? Try it sometime and you’ll see it always seems to sneak in there without anyone noticing, and even when you do find yourself typing out that sneaky little “was”, you’ll then spend a good minute or two thinking of an apt replacement. However annoyed we initially felt about this rule, after he returned a few essays littered with red circles around every little “were” “been” “are” and “am” and asked us to rewrite the piece without them, we saw our writing grow significantly stronger. We replaced those wimpy, non-specific to-be derivatives with better, more specific verbs and as a bonus, just about eliminated the passive voice from our writing.
Of course, I will now use the verb “to be” when writing, but I try my best to avoid it when I can. Overall, it forces us to be more specific (oh look, there’s that sneaky little “be” now…) and less vague about the who-did-what details in our stories.
2. Leave “that” and “which” out of your writing
I like using “that” and “which” every once in awhile for flow, but this particular English teacher had a point. Most of the time when you insert “that” or “which” into a sentence, you don’t actually need it there. Think about the title of this blog post. I could have written “10 writing tips from high school that I still use” but I didn’t. The title works fine without it. So, use these little words, but use them sparingly. Especially when you’re editing an overly wordy sentence (that) one of these two words snuck into, cut them out.
3. Words like “very” and “really” are weak
I hate the word very. I hate the word really, but just a little less. Why? They’re weak.
Think about it, what sounds better? And what captures the true emotion of what you want to describe better? “He was very angry” or “He was furious”?
Exactly. If any of my writers ever inserts the word “very” into their piece, I will highlight it, delete it, and sigh a sigh of relief. So make my life easier and your writing stronger — throw those little words into the storage room of your mental vocabulary and only ever use it if you’re talking to a child or teaching ESL.
4. Speak with authority
Again, sentences like “South Africa is probably the best destination to view the ‘Big Five'” sound weak. If you’re writing about a topic, your audience will assume that you either have experience with this topic, or have done your research — thereby making you an expert. So write like an expert! Leave that “probably” out and say with total certainty: South Africa IS the best destination to view the ‘Big Five’ — dammit!
If you don’t feel confident you just wrote a 100% true statement, then you should question whether you want to say it at all. In that scenario, it’s likely that you didn’t research it well enough (so go back and double check your facts), or it doesn’t add anything to your piece.
5. Avoid using the pronoun “one” if you’re speaking casually
If you’re writing in French, go ahead, use “on” as much as you’d like, but in English, saying “One’s academics will benefit greatly from spending a semester abroad” sounds weird in the travel writing / online context. It sounds weird because you would never phrase this particular thought this way when speaking to a friend. In casual contexts, leave pronounces like “one” for the poets and academics, and write how you would speak. It will make your voice sound more natural, and less forced.
6. Don’t use “a lot”
Again, the word “a lot” is boring, weak, and often accompanies vague statements. Saying “Paris has a lot of museums” won’t capture my attention. However, if I want to portray that same idea, but by taking “a lot” out, I’ll have to get creative and come up with a more engaging and specific way of phrasing the same idea. For example, “With all the museums Paris has to offer, you will never see it all,” still lets the reader know Paris has “a lot of museums” but it relates it to the context (things to do in Paris) and just sounds more intelligent.
7. Kill your babies
Okay, my high school teacher didn’t give me this rule — Steven King did, in his book “On Writing“. It’s a brilliant book every writer should read, by the way.
Essentially, he says “kill your babies,” in reference to all of those wonderfully witty and fantastically written sentences that, in the end, sound great but don’t add anything to your piece. You know the ones: the sly remark or inside joke most people won’t understand; the detail about how beautiful the weather was in Venice in a story about a culinary discovery; those facts that stand out strongly in your memory when you recount a story, but your audience doesn’t actually need to know. So, take Mr.King’s advice and kill them. Cry a little, move them to a “dead babies” doc, whatever, but whatever you do, take them out.
8. Get to the point quickly
For example, if I ask you, the ever talented and dedicated writer, to give me a piece on “The 10 Best Volunteer Abroad Destinations for Summer 2014”, you’re wasting our audience’s time by giving me an introduction paragraph like the following:
Volunteering abroad is a wonderful and life-changing opportunity every person should experience. In addition to helping out communities in need, volunteers get to experience a new culture and learn about themselves…
So far, you haven’t mentioned anything about summer 2014 or what makes a great volunteer abroad destination. Considering how short the average person’s attention span has become, you may have already lost them. If not, you’re misleading them. And in any case, it’s terribly generic and not useful to our precious cohort of readers who return to our site and read multiple articles on volunteering abroad. Instead, I’d prefer:
Congratulations — you’ve looked at your calendar, scheduled some time off, and decided to take the plunge and volunteer abroad this summer 2014. Still don’t know where though? No worries, we’ve got a list of 10 great volunteer abroad destinations best explored in the summertime.
Now our readers know exactly what they’re about to read.
9. Your conclusion may work better as an introduction
I wrote several essays in college where I had a hard time figuring out what point I wanted to make, and how to express it. Often, after writing a so-so introduction, and then spending time thinking through my argument by writing the body, I would write a bangin’ conclusion that got right to the point and succinctly said what I had initially struggled to express in my introduction. So I swapped them. I’ve done this a couple of times when editing as well — it’s as though in the writing process we’re still trying to gather our thoughts together when we write our introduction, but when we slam out a conclusion, we know exactly what we’re talking about. If you see that happening, don’t shy away from scratching that original introduction and moving your conclusion up to the beginning of your piece.
For this reason, this particular English teacher suggested we even consider writing the introduction in the last part of the writing process.
10. Please, no cliches
Come on, you’re more creative than that. Just. Don’t. Use. Them.
*Phew* okay, that piece ended up longer than I expected — but if you made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. Now, get out there, start typing, and for the love of good writing, resist those terrible, terrible urges to ruin your piece by ignoring these simple writing tips from my high school teacher (and Steven King.)