Help me improve my writing
January 5, 2004 11:40 PM   Subscribe

My writing has gone to hell lately. Fiction, documentation, casual correspondence - it all looks like, uh, bad and stuff. And it's just getting worse as I crank out junk after junk. Any advice on how I can sharpen myself up, and get back on track?
posted by majcher to Writing & Language (21 answers total)
Get yourself a copy of Stephen Wilbers' Keys to Great Writing. Easily the best book on writing I've ever found.
posted by dobbs at 12:03 AM on January 6, 2004

Awww, man, for a second there I thought this might be about HAND writing.

Any suggestions for that? :-)
posted by shepd at 12:04 AM on January 6, 2004

Read new authors. And take stuff you really, really like, and start copying it down, word for word. Do this very often, but always start from scratch when you're writing your own material. I should note that I'm not recommending plagiarism - this is instead learning from others by reading and doing. I know our writing styles are heavily influenced by who we imitate. (Happydaz, for example, is greatly influenced by Craig Mitchell of Futon fame, Timothy Zahn, James Lileks and my 8th grade teacher.

Of course, this advice is coming from a journalist who's trying very, very hard to break out of non-fiction mode and write fiction. Hmmm. Seems like the rest of this evening will be spent heeding my own advice, reading Dickens and Hemingway.

Oh, another thing! Read the stuff you write out loud. If it doesn't work, scrap it and rewrite.
posted by Happydaz at 12:06 AM on January 6, 2004

You need a rest, majcher. A spell of writer's block is in order . it exists for a reason. Whenever writing comes too easily or too uneasily (you know what I mean) it means that our filters are out of whack. Either too porous or too exigent.

The fact that you think your writing has gone to hell is the surest sign of health. You might be over-critical, but don't rely on it. Trust your instinct and lay off for a while. You'll soon be back and better for the pause.

This has happened to me many times and usually comes from writing too much or too little serious stuff. MetaFilter doesn't count but letter do, imho.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:19 AM on January 6, 2004

letters, I mean.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:20 AM on January 6, 2004

If you're having trouble writing, take a break and read (yes, I know it's been said), read great classic works and marvel at the craft. Read atrocious works, and puff yourself up thinking how much better you are.
posted by drezdn at 1:12 AM on January 6, 2004

First, work out if your writing actually has gone to hell. It may just be your critical response which isn't working correctly. Many's the time I've spewed out some doggeral only to find out (after that three month in the cupboard before editing stage) to find that it wasn't as bad as I thought.

Secondly, I'd argue against taking a break from writing. If you train yourself that "writing badly" = "an upcoming rest from writing", then you're going to stop writing. If what you're producing is rubbish, then continue producing it, and then keep throwing it away until it gets better.

Thirdly, I always find that situations like this call for a session of automatic - stream of conciousness - writing. Lock yourself in a metaphorical writing cupboard, and spew words for three or four hours.
posted by seanyboy at 4:15 AM on January 6, 2004

Awww, man, for a second there I thought this might be about HAND writing.
Any suggestions for that? :-)

Quit trying. My handwriting is and has always been appalling, at school I was threatened with slow learner classes over it, and I went through quite a lot of programmes to improve it, to no real avail. If people can understand it that's enough. Use print if it has to look good. Alternatively you could always get yourself an MD/ PhD, then lousy handwriting is expected, that's what I did, and I can tell you that most of my doctored colleagues have worse writing than me.
posted by biffa at 4:15 AM on January 6, 2004

Handwriting is more fluid and controlled if you use your whole arm instead of just moving your hand. That will take some practice to get used to though.
posted by cardboard at 5:38 AM on January 6, 2004

I'll second the advice to read more. Lots, lots more. For a while, if you find yourself with option of reading or writing in order to amuse yourself to get rid of a mental itch, choose reading. Read good, proven literature: stuff you've liked before, or items recommended by trusted friends. I highly recommend "best of" short story collections, or literary journal anniversary collections, as they'll throw a lot off varied styles and information at you in a relatively few pages.

I also second the recommendation to read aloud, but I recommend you read others' writing, not your own. I find that Dickens is very readable: it comes off the tongue in phrases pre-parsed for inhalations and exhalations, and it's fun to do accents (particularly if you can do a few American Southern accents instead of any kind of British ones; Dickens becomes new this way). Reading aloud will teach you other things about writing without exhausting your writing drive: prosody (meter, rhythm, pace) and flow. Also, I find that reading aloud makes me very aware of when a writer has relied too much upon exposition. There's one book I picked up recently—part of a weakness of mine for Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Conan Doyle—which is awful, just awful. It reads like fanfic, not the least because, like bad fanfic writers, the author has all of his characters tell us what they have just done, rather than having these actions indicated in the narrator's voice. He also writes things he means to be funny, and then attributes it as, "he chuckled." Well, reading it aloud it instantly becomes clear that no matter how you read the character's words, no matter where you place the emphasis, they aren't funny, and that having to put "he chuckled" after them to emphasize the intended humor just proves that the writer was aware of this but wasn't talented enough to correct the defect.

I'd also say if you feel like everything you're writing, even personal correspondence, is bad, cheat. I sometimes write a very long email to one friend, then recycle it for another, and another, and another. But I make edits all along the way for spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, and phrasing (as well as for content to customize it for each one), over a period of days (perhaps 10), so that by the time I last send the last version of the email, it is a very different beast than the first version: it is tighter, wittier, more erudite, more comprehensive, yet usually shorter. It's good practice at self-editing. No one is the wiser to what you're doing, yet, you get to work according to a tried self-editing model in which you can be harshly self-critical but don't have to share that loathing of your own writing with anyone else.

Also, I'll agree with something else said above. Writer's block is useful. It's important to have, sometimes. There is, as in so many things (Congress, courts, police action, love, sports, financial activities) a value to encumbrance, to delay, to having to push away or climb over barriers in order to see what is most important, and, when you have reached your desired goal, to value it for not having been too easy to achieve, and for having learned from the compromises you have had to make along the way.

Finally, I recommend the books of Jorge Amado, even in translation. They are rich, light, deep, fantastical, well-written, and best of all, un-self-conscious. He is a story-teller more than a writer, and that is a good thing.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:31 AM on January 6, 2004

Best way to improve your handwriting: write as large as possible.
posted by luser at 7:15 AM on January 6, 2004

Alright, any other ideas for improving handwriting? Even my printing looks like a kindergartener with a bad case of delirium tremens.
posted by romakimmy at 7:36 AM on January 6, 2004

I hate to bible-thump, but Strunk-n-White is the definitive work of genius. You can always skip over the grammar points and go straight to the style part.

Also, maybe choose one author you respect, someone with a neat, concise (but not boring), effective, immaculate style --like Dashiell Hammet-- and immerse yourself in a few books. Without a doubt, the author's tone and style will rub off on you.

One more tip: Choose a friend whose opinion you respect and ask them for feedback for a while. As you develop a rapport, occasionally try writing conversationally "to" or "for" this friend, keeping him/her in mind as your audience.

Juat a few humble tips...
posted by Shane at 7:37 AM on January 6, 2004

Err, make that "Just a few..." Typo's feel so weird in conversations about writing!
posted by Shane at 7:38 AM on January 6, 2004

I've never understood the appeal of "handwriting." I print; I type; not once have I found myself in need of a curving, linked up mode.
posted by cortex at 7:41 AM on January 6, 2004

Try not using get or got, used way to much these days.
posted by thomcatspike at 8:02 AM on January 6, 2004

posted by thomcatspike at 8:02 AM on January 6, 2004

I'm with Shane . . . find an editor you trust. And then don't get defensive when your weaknesses are discussed.
Also, invent some new personal techniques for considering structure. Do you outline? If so, stop outlining and work from geometric sketches. Do you work from the inside out? Then try working from the outside in. What kind of connective tissue holds the bones of your work? Have you considered removing the bones and going protoplasmic?
What I am saying is that--beyond the mechanics of sentences and paragraphs--consider the structure of the thought you mean to convey. It's true that form follows function; determine what function your writing has and form it to be specifically functional.
posted by ahimsakid at 8:07 AM on January 6, 2004

I know that generally when I have trouble writing it's because I am not paying enough attention to the writing itself, I'm instead watching myself write and thinking about whether it's good or not. This feeds off itself until eventually I'm so self-absorbed that I'm not writing anything, just beating myself up for writing badly. As in any situation where stress is involved, I find it's best to step back and do something that clears your mind for anywhere from an hour to a week or two. For me, it's arson, but for you, it might be anything!

The ability to write isn't something you are in danger of losing, if that's your secret concern.
posted by Hildago at 9:22 AM on January 6, 2004

Response by poster: Great advice. Thanks, everyone. The "taking a break" thing isn't really an option for me, but I think I can try to incorporate a lot of other bits into my, uh... yeah, I'll get on that.
posted by majcher at 9:01 PM on January 6, 2004

Simple - Generate more "brain growth factor", through travel, learning new skills, intensive social interaction, and exercise. The writing will follow.
posted by troutfishing at 11:08 PM on February 1, 2004

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