How to Write Well: Keep Your Readers Interested
Be A Reader
Yes, believe it or not, one of the main keys to being a good writer is to be a reader. Turn off the TV and pick up a book. Read if from cover to cover. See what the author has to say. Decide if you like their writing style. Analyze the story from all levels.
In a way, it is like being back in school and doing a book report. You have to think of the same kinds of questions the teachers put forth way back then. The difference is, you can do it all in your head. You don't have to write a paper, and you won't be graded.
Figure out the specific reasons why you liked or did not like the book. If you want, you can keep a journal of books you've read, with brief notes on your feelings. Did the book keep you so interested that you could not stop turning pages until you finished, even though it was two in the morning? Did the book bore you to the point of falling asleep on the couch? Answer the question "Why?" in either case.
The more you read, the better a writer you will become. After all, the goal of any writer is to have readers who will read their works. Without discovering your own tastes in reading, you will have trouble with your own offerings.
Keep It Simple
The "K.I.S.S." (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle is important when writing. Some authors, (James Michener springs to mind) get away with very long sentences that are full paragraphs all by themselves, but to avoid the sentence becoming a twisted mess that no one can understand takes years of experience. Even so, not all authors can get away with it, and even Michener does it sparingly.
You have to understand that, sad though it may be, you are writing for an audience with approximately an eighth grade reading level. Even high school graduates these days don't read much better than that, thanks to all the budget cuts to our schools and the resulting slashes to teaching staff. There are many other reasons for this, but they all amount to the "dumbing-down" of our schools.
This has been going on for years. Even my own Associate in Arts degree is about equal to my mother's high-school-only education. Today's graduates from four-year institutions probably have about the equivalent of a two-year degree in my mother's day. Sad, but true.
Knowing that, there is no point in using five-dollar words. Not many of your potential readers will know what they mean, and people reading for enjoyment do not like to be constantly sent to the dictionary to figure out what you are saying. Most won't bother; they'll just skim over unfamiliar words, and if there are too many of them, they'll simply stop reading your story.
For example, If you say about a character, "He felt a heated effulgence spreading across his physiognomy," your readers will say, "HUH? What the heck does that mean?" Instead use the simpler words and phrase, "He blushed," or, "He was embarrassed."
In the above example, "physiognomy" refers to the face, and it is a (deliberate) mistake to use it this way. The actual definition of the word in its first sense means the study of the facial features in an attempt to determine a person's character. "Effulgence" means to shine with great brilliance. Yes, you certainly feel that way if you have been embarrassed and made to blush--but the word is more fitting of a sunrise in the desert.
So, before you use any big words with lots of syllables to impress people, you need to be sure of the meaning, or you risk looking the fool. Saying something with fewer words is usually better, but that doesn't mean words understood only by university professors.
A good rule of thumb is, if you have to look up a word to figure out its meaning, so will your readers, so use a different word.
The Writer's Bibles
There are three books no writer should be without. A good dictionary, a thesaurus, and a grammar and style guide.
Writer or not, no home should be without a dictionary. It is a great reference book, and in addition to the definitions of words, also gives their origins, often from other languages. This in turn gives us a better understanding of why we have so many crazy spellings in English.
A dictionary can also increase your own vocabulary, if you let it. Sure, you'll learn those obscure and multi-syllable words, but that just enriches your own educational experience. Knowing "big words" doesn't mean you have to use them in your own writing--but it will allow you to understand them in others' writings, adding to your range of enjoyable things to read.
A thesaurus is the next basic reference book you need. It's function is to give you all those alternate words, so that if you look up "prevaricate," you'll find the synonyms: "equivocate, lie, quibble." So to call someone a prevaricator is to essentially call them a liar. But there are shades of meaning within that.
Now you can go on a detective hunt, looking up each of those in turn, and find that they all mean similar, but not quite exactly the same thing. "Equivocate," for example, means to speak in a manner using equivocal (similar, not quite the same) terms to deliberately mislead, hedge or deceive. Perhaps not an outright lie, but not exactly the truth, either. For a perfect example of the meaning of "equivocate," think, "politician." If their mouth is moving, chances are they are equivocating.
My mother and I used to have great fun with this word play, and often would look up a word, and "get lost" in the dictionary or thesaurus for some time, finding new words, alternate meanings and origins. For us, it was fun.
The Grammar and Style Guide
The final entry on this list, a grammar and style guide, is important because poor grammar marks you as a poor writer. Many people feel that a poor writer is also unable to do good research, and therefore you lose credibility. How can anyone trust what you say if you can't even construct a sentence correctly?
There are many stumbling blocks in this area, and some of the most common ones involve third-party references. This is where the "who/whom" issue comes up. Which do you use? Well, to give an over-simplified example, you use "who" when you are directly referring to a person at hand. "Who are you?" "Who is that?"
You use "whom" when you refer to someone not there at the moment, such as when taking a phone call, "With whom did you wish to speak?"
Use Correct Spelling
I've given this its own section because just like grammar, it is important to how people view your writing skills. If you are a poor speller, a book such as the misspeller's dictionary reference shown below is a great help.
Beware, however, of "spell-checker" programs, both here on Hub Pages, or in your own word-processing program. Neither of them catch context errors. Those are the mistakes that happen when a same or similar-sounding word gets used in the wrong sense. The spell-checker won't catch it, because it's a properly spelled word that has simply been used incorrectly.
One of the most often seen of this type of mistake is folks mixing up "then" and "than." "Then" refers to a point in time; "than" is for making a comparison. I give examples of both and more in the hub I wrote cautioning people about giving writing advice. In that article I make the point, which I repeat here: "spell check is not equal to word check."
If, like many, you struggle with spelling, then a "misspeller's dictionary" might be just what you need. It can be annoying, when asking someone how a word is spelled, to be told to look it up in the dictionary. "How do I look it up if I don't know how to spell it?" was always my reaction in school. These specialized dictionaries come to the rescue. Instead of trying to look up a word to find out how it is spelled, you look it up by how you think it might be spelled, and you will be shown the correct spelling.
I also have a series of articles on one of my blogs that tackle these questions in more detail.
As an imperfect human myself, I realize I tread on dangerous ground there, but I've done my best to be very careful.
Just the Basics
In this article, I've given the basics you need to write well. Feel free to explore and expand on your own, and learn what fun it is to dive into the history of words.
Play with them, use them. Practice with them. By all means, try your hand at writing things both with obscure, complicated language, as if you were writing a speech for a politician, then re-write it in plain English that anyone can understand. You'll be amazed at what you, personally, learn from the exercise, and you will gain important writing skills to entice your readers.
© 2011 Liz Elias
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