Take a Minute to Write Right

by Erin Brenner on August 4, 2011

Writing books abound. Some are invaluable, such as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, while others aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Two books I came across recently, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey and Write Right, offer quick writing tips that you can put to use immediately. The writing in both is crisp, clean, and clear, and the advice is on the money. Oh, and they’re self-published books, demonstrating that DIY books can be worth seeking out and purchasing.

This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey

This short work by Steve Almond focuses on fiction writing and is an example of creativity you won’t find in books from traditional publishers. The first half of the book (or perhaps the second, depending on your point of view) contains 30 very short (1–2 page) essays on writing fiction. Flip the book over, and there are 30 flash fiction stories that back up the essays.

Almond’s writing style is straightforward and no holds barred. The first essay points out the two opposing forces of writing: “an absolute conviction in the importance of your work … that you (and you alone) have stories the world must hear” and “the creeping suspicion that any sustained effort to write is doomed.” The remainder of the essays teaches you to control one or the other force. They’re never completely defeated, of course, but controlling them is the first step to becoming a better writer.

Almond helps you to get your ego under control and to see the reality of your work. Only then can you improve it and make it worthy of readers. And worthy it must be. His Hippocratic Oath of Writing—never confuse the reader—makes the need plain. “Back when I was editing a literary magazine,” says Almond, “the most common reason we rejected stories was not because of shoddy sentences or flat characters but because we were fucking lost.” If readers spend the first few minutes of reading your story trying to figure out what’s going on rather than relating to your characters, they’ll give up. The author lists a few ways to tell if your story is too confusing for readers.

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Another problem fiction writers commonly deal with is trying to be artsy and stylish. “Style is doomed, to the exact extent it implies a conscious effort to shape the language” (author’s emphasis) So what’s the fix? Stop thinking about it and just write, says Almond. Don’t try to shape the language. “Voice is what emerges when you stop performing, when your voice on the page flows from your voice off the page, its particular tone and vernacular” (author’s emphasis).

Write Right: 26 Tips to Improve Your Writing. Dramatically.

The purpose of fiction writing is to tell the stories you have tell in a way that makes readers want to read them. The purpose of business writing is to create results, and Roger A. Shapiro has been creating results for over 35 years. He’s written corporate communications, advertising, speeches, and training materials and led writing seminars and workshops for students and corporate employees. His book is loaded with lessons he’s tried and proven over the years.

The first thing Shapiro wants his readers to understand is what a result is. It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are if you don’t know what your writing is supposed to accomplish when you set the words down. Whether your business objective is to increase site traffic, build your corporate brand, increase sales, or something else, the result you’re after is that the reader takes a specific action after reading your copy.

“What do you want your reader to do after taking the time to read [the] marketing tool you created?” says Shapiro. Answer that question, and you’re ready to begin the writing process.

The writing process, however, doesn’t begin with the actual writing. “An average writer quickly accepts writing assignments and hits the keyboard writing,” says Shapiro in the second tip. “A great writer … incorporates a deep pre-writing process” in order to understand what action he wants the reader to take.

As in fiction, readers who spend the first few minutes reading your business message are not likely to read through to the end. In fact, they’re less likely to keep reading because they know they’re being sold to. Shapiro shows you ways to tighten your writing throughout the book, such as eliminating prepositions. Not all of them, of course, but many of them. He offers this comparison:

The wireless router on your network lets anyone in your office access your data quickly and easily.
Your network’s wireless router lets anyone access your office data quickly and easily.

Four words eliminated, and suddenly the sentence is much quicker to comprehend.

Conclusion

I highly recommend both books. The one complaint I have with both of them is the lack of exercises. The best way to really learn a lesson is to practice it. Yes, you can practice on your own, but the results are so much better when you practice each lesson in an exercise designed to help you practice what that lesson was teaching. Repetition can be a great teacher. Without exercises, writers may read the lessons but never put them to work. They are eager to jump into the writing, all the words of wisdom forgotten in the moment. If either of these books is revised in the future, I’d love to see some more guidance for writers in the form of practice exercises.

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