Six Tips for Strong Writing That Have Nothing to Do With Word Choice

Some of my notebooks from the last few years.
Some of my notebooks from the last few years.

You’ve heard them all, right? Ban adverbs. Show, don’t tell. Be concise. Avoid the passive voice.

After last week’s Freshly Pressed bonanza on my tips for building your freelance writing career, I thought I should follow up with some practical, non-threadbare tips on the actual writing – without telling you how you should put your words together.

(A warm welcome, by the way, to all the new subscribers. I loved your comments. It’s great to have you on board.)

1)   Mingle with the Mortals.

Enjoying life up there in your ivory tower?

I didn’t think so. Because real writers are collaborators.

Of course writing will always require a lot of focused solo work: my long-suffering husband knows I’m checking out for a few hours whenever I say, “Babe, I have to write.”

The writer protagonists in Stephen King novels are always departing for deserted cabins in Maine or secluded hotels to pen their works with no distractions – but look what happens to them.

Good writing needs good cooperation.

A quality editor is not trouncing all over your toils when he or she requests changes. They are working with you to bring your piece in line with the publication’s needs.

Collaboration over ego is also essential when you’re working as a copywriter – not only must you tailor the content to the client’s often unpredictable feedback, you are just one member of a team that may include other writers, designers, and creative directors.

As an added bonus, you can enjoy controversies like the one that came up last month, while I was writing copy about a ritzy farmers market and became embroiled in a discussion with a designer and an account executive about the correct spelling of “pierogi.”

Whenever you see your words as the sole province of your own mind, you’re not working as well as you could be. Don’t see others’ suggestions as infringements. See it as playtime for the brain and an opportunity for you to strengthen your work.

It’s not criticism. It’s a brain park.

Holier-than-thou Example:

Last spring, I wrote about a production of “The Island,” an Athol Fugard play. Because my in-laws are from South Africa, I added a hint of their experience to my perspective on the production, but not too much – a review shouldn’t be about the critic.  However, when I turned the piece in, my editor made an unusual request.  He wanted me to increase the personal perspective.  So I re-worked the piece, adding in some of my in-laws’ experiences to demonstrate real life under Apartheid. The final article was much better for my editor’s suggestion.

2)  Get good at gab.

You might think putting together a first-class story or profile is all about your writing skills.

Wrong.

If you want to write a good story, you need to do a good interview.

This is especially true if you’re dealing with someone who’s already a public figure, or who is used to giving media interviews. Be prepared to get past responses that have been vetted or canned by PR handlers, or just ossified in lots of other interviews – unless you want to write a story with the same stuff that every other writer got.

But your interpersonal skills also apply to the other end of the spectrum – ordinary folks who are not accustomed to talking to press. It’s nerve-wracking, giving your words to a stranger and trusting her to understand your story and tell it with accuracy and professionalism.

When I have time, I start with small talk in the interest of tuning into my subjects and mirroring their mood and demeanor. If they’re effervescent and friendly, I match their energy. If they razz me, I zing them right back. If they’re formal and serious, I take a similar tone. When the subject feels comfortable with me, they’re more likely to share.

If you can’t strike up an engaging conversation with a stranger, how can you get the information that will make a great story?  And the beauty of this skill is that you don’t have to wait until you have an assignment to practice it. Go out of your way to speak with strangers at parties or events, because everyone has a story. Practice asking questions and listening in a way that draws others out.

I don’t care what kind of writer you are. Any time life gives you an opportunity to practice interacting effectively with other people, you are building the skills that make you a good communicator on the page as well as off.

Holier-than-thou Example:

It might sound strange, but a lot of my interview skills were actually built during my years at my former day job, as a tour guide at a large historic site. Interacting with hundreds of people every day, and giving tours with the goal of having an hour-long conversation with tour groups, instead of talking at them, was the best possible practice for building quick and effective rapport with strangers, and encouraging them to speak up.

If you want an example of an interview that I particularly enjoyed doing and that I think turned out well, check out my chat with Christopher Ryan, author of the controversial bestseller Sex at Dawn.

3)  Bury “yes” and “no.”

Part of giving a good interview (and therefore writing a good story) is adequate research and preparation of your questions in advance.

But don’t just bombard your subject with concrete questions. In most interviews I do, just as the person thinks we’re finishing, I make a completely open-ended inquiry.

I ask if there is anything important we haven’t talked about, or anything extra they want to tell me. For people accustomed to speaking with the press, I ask if there’s something reporters never ask about.

Be patient and don’t be afraid of a few moments of dead air while your subjects think. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you can get when you open the floor like that, including great anecdotes for your lede.

Holier-than-thou Example:

Earlier this year, I worked on a feature about the growth of entrepreneurship in my home state of Pennsylvania. I went into my interviews assuming that a lot of that growth has to do with the visibility of icons like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, but a flexible approach in my questions let one expert give me a whole other perspective on the topic that turned out to be the uniting theme of the whole piece.

4)  Quit Writing.

You heard me. Knock it off.

How many times have I been slogging through a complicated feature telling myself that the world is going to end if I don’t finish this @#$%er today?

When you can’t seem to tap those ideas, tell a good story or integrate your research with your interviews, and you’re considering telling your editor that you were insane to accept this assignment, walk away for awhile. Preferably overnight.

Often, the key to writing a good piece is knowing when to give yourself a break.

Holier-than-thou Example:

Last winter I sat down to write a magazine feature about Canadian innovations in helicopter safety. But it was all too much. I couldn’t tell the pilots’ stories, describe my flights, incorporate the statistics and explain the regulations. No writer alive could do it. It was ridiculous.

So I put the horrible thing aside and messed around for the rest of the day, cooking and blogging.

Then I got up the next morning and wrote it easily.

That’s why I almost always work at least one day ahead of my deadlines on major features. I am amazed at the number of times a story has seemed impossible to finish one day, and a breeze the next.

5)  Listen to what you’ve written.

If you want to see if you’ve written a good piece, make sure to experience it with your ears instead of just your eyes.

Some of my writer pals love to work in coffee shops. I can’t do it, because before I send a piece in to an editor, any editor, I read it aloud to myself beforehand, and damned if I’m going to do that in a crowded Starbucks.

Hearing the words, instead of simply reading them, will do wonders for catching repetitive phrases, choppy transitions and awkward sentences that slide right past your brain when you don’t try your work out on your vocal cords.

Holier-than-thou Example:

Since I do this to every single piece I publish, I have nothing for you except the assurance that reading my pieces out loud to myself has caught truckloads of groan-inducing missteps. Of course the work still isn’t perfect. But it’s a hell of a lot better.

6)  Polish Your Armor.

Keep your attitude strong and your writing will follow suit.

Did you think being a published writer would be all warm fuzzies for your genius? If so, feel free to leave something snippy in the comments and bounce.

Put on your thick skin.

I’m not just talking about the inevitable rejection slips from literary magazines (maybe your work has been accepted – if so, you have my grudging congratulations).

I’ve had a cornucopia of criticisms from my editors. My lede doesn’t make sense. My argument is unoriginal. There’s no compelling narrative. My stuff is boring.

Editors are not always correct because they’re editors. Sometimes you brush off the criticism and try a different market.  Other times, you admit they’re right and get to work. Either way, you can’t let the negative comments sap your inspiration.

And that’s even before you get to your audience.

Through online comments, letters to the editor and social media, I’ve heard from readers who think that pieces I’ve written are foolish, pointless or outright lies. Others are simply out to insult me personally.

After I wrote a blog post about the question of restaurant bans on young children, I got this:

“You can’t draw. Your drawings are awful. Either try harder or stop trying. Actually, your writing is also terrible, your attitude is so self-congratulatory and smug it almost defies belief. Get off the internet and as far away from the rest of the human race as you can manage. We don’t want you and we sure as hell don’t need you.”

Hm.

Holier-than-thou Example:

During last year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, I gave a positive review to an unconventional art/theater mash-up called the Art Anti-Gallery that questioned the genesis and ownership of art itself. The piece garnered two letters to the editor.

One said “Gosh, this was fun to read! And provocative: ‘whose art is it, anyway?’ What is it we writers/artists need to protect?”

Another wrote, “The trouble with Modernism’s free license for any or everything is that it appeals to the lowest possible denoms.” He went on to call me a “mindless” critic encouraging “inanities.”

Who is right?

I have no idea. I will be over here, writing some more.

What are your tips for strong writing?

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23 Comments

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  1. Again, you have provided me with much food for thought. I’m really glad I subscribed.

  2. Thank you for sharing. Your post was very helpful and enlightening to me.

  3. Number two is the one I think I’d struggle with the most. Social phobia makes talking with strangers pure hell on toast.

    • It’s strange – I have a lot of anxieties in my life (yes, clinical-grade anxieties), but social anxiety is not one of them. Doubtless there are successful writers who are shy or reclusive. But I do believe that you can practice getting comfortable with other people, just like you’d practice anything else. Giving tours did not start out as an easy skill for me, but I gained confidence with repetition.

  4. Thoughtful advice. Thanks for sharing. I have no desire to write in Starbucks or any other coffee shop but, since I write about my travels, I would love to write from the actual location. Unfortunately, time/concentration constraints usually prohibit it. Perhaps in 2013, I’ll make a better attempt at it…

  5. Great post, very inspirational!

  6. I don’t understand how anyone could so openly criticize someone in this type of forum. If I didn’t find your writing engaging or useful, I would just wander off and look for something else to read.
    I certainly wouldn’t tell you what I thought!

    That would be like going to the library and then writing to the authors each book you didn’t like to suggest that their book should not be on the shelves. Ridiculous trolls!

    • I don’t know. Sometimes I write articles that riff on written work I don’t like. I really don’t mind if someone else thinks my writing is terrible, smug, or whatever. There are lots of writers out there whose work I don’t enjoy and of course not everyone will enjoy my work. The thing I don’t like, and try not to ever engage in, is ad hominem pieces: not “your writing is lousy” but “YOU are lousy.” That’s one major difference between valid feedback and trolls.

      Thanks for weighing in!

  7. A lot of these tips are great for teachers, too. Useful blog!

  8. sociologification December 24, 2012 — 2:08 pm

    Excellent – thank you!

  9. Once again, a great post with great advice! I love your holier-than-thou examples (especially the one about working with editors).

    Also, I think my neighbourhood could use an off-leash brain park…

  10. Thank you for this great follow-up post to your freelance writing advice. Love the brain park image. 🙂

  11. Reblogged this on slicethelife.

  12. Great ideas. Reading out loud is a tip I received at uni and it works a treat. The whole criticism thing. Is that what they really said to you? I am a newbie and I think I better harden up. It is one thing to criticise your work, fair enough if they have a valid point in their minds but thats was downright horrible and offensive. Dont get far away from the internet or the human race, I enjoy what you do. Some people must be very sad in their lives.

  13. I just found your blog yesterday, and have enjoyed it so much I’ve been procrastinating from my own writing work to go back through your old posts to read. I can only assume that the troll who had such lovely things to say to you is cranky because his own blog isn’t getting any followers. I don’t think he’d know good writing if it hit him upside the head with a 2×4. Which I wish it would. Because someone needs to.

    Keep on keepin’ on. I love your advice, and the way it in which it is presented as well. I already look forward to the next email notification I get that tells me you’ve posted something new.

    • Well. How nice! I certainly don’t advocate violence though – even for insufferable trolls. They’re probably sad enough without us taking a whack at them.

      Thanks for perusing and feel free to weigh in again if the fancy strikes. You don’t even have to agree with me. Glad to have you on board.

  14. You’re welcome! I suppose you’re right about the trolls — not being a proponent of violence either (except occasionally in my head…wait, that sounds terrible…), I’ll stick to just feeling sorry for them.

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