How to Write Well: Keep Your Readers Interested

The wise have always found time and ways to read
The wise have always found time and ways to read | Source

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.

The Dictionary

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.

The Thesaurus

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 DzyMsLizzy

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Comments 36 comments

typeface profile image

typeface 4 years ago

This was really interesting! I am new to Hubpages and would really appreciate it if you could have a look over my first hub and see what you think?

Thanks for a really helpful hub!

Typeface


ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

This was a very informative hub and I agree the best advice includes read, read, read. Reading and writing go together like a hand in a glove. It cannot be overstated enough the value of reading. Spell-checking is good, and proofreading is a necessity. I also find dropping unnecessary words such as "that" or "the" is helpful advice too. Thanks for your hub of reminders!


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Nice work. Advice that all of us, some more than others, need to remember. Thanks for the simple clear explication of the basics of good writing.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ typeface--thanks very much for your kind words. I'd be happy to look over your hub.

@ Ytsenoh--I'm pleased you found the article useful. Thank you for your comment, and added bit of information.

@ phdast7--Thank you very much for your kind words.


homesteadbound profile image

homesteadbound 4 years ago from Texas

Very good advice. There are times when we all need a little help from our friends - the dictionary, the thesaurus, and the grammar and style guide. We need to treat them like friends and not something to be avoided.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, homesteadbound--

Thanks much for your kind comment. I think people avoid these books and the lessons inside because of past teaching methods. Learning should always be fun...because it is FUNdamental!


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

Well written, and important!

Dictionaries, thesauri and at times, even translation software are important, but care needs to be taken. As an English teacher (ESL), I see so many problems caused by non-native English speakers accepting the first translation listed for a word in their dictionary!


gchicnotes 4 years ago

Great advice. Especially about turning off the tv. With the huge growth of reality tv, we have even less things for our imagination to grow on. I also like the piece on big words. I agree sometimes less is more. Voted up, useful and interesting.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, nifwiseirff--

Thanks so much for your compliment and that additional input. You make an important point about non-native speakers not understanding American idioms and (sometimes offbeat) usage. I'm thinking that perhaps I should go back and re-edit the piece to speak about a secondary dictionary of slang and idioms, instead of just listing it in the book references section.

Even there, I debated about using "thesauruses" or "thesauri," and decided that in the spirit of the article to go with the former as more understandable--both are accepted plurals--and many readers don't understand the "i" plural ending of Latin and Latin-root words; cactus/cacti, etc.


randomcreative profile image

randomcreative 4 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Great advice! I definitely agree that the best way to be a better writer is to be a better reader. I also agree with the "dumbing down" that has occurred in our education system. It's very sad to watch. Writers should be aware of this and write to their audiences appropriately.


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 4 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Very great tips! I only use the $5 words when I'm in an argument with my husband... LOL! But seriously, writing well is a gift that comes naturally to some people, but everyone can learn to improve their writing to be more effective at communicating in general!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@randomcreative--

Thanks so very much. Your comment and input are appreciated. I'm glad you liked the article.

@stephhicks--

LOL on the 'argument usage' of pricey words! Yes--I recall an "on-paper argument" back when my kids were in grammar school...we were fighting with the school board to get rid of the principal of the school...(he should never have been in education to start with).. but, our parents' group had been promised use of a certain room, (among other things), and it turned out, he wanted to be a dictator, and get rid of the parents' presence, so was pulling the rug out from under us. I wrote a letter to the school board, using those $5 words to call the man an unreliable, lying S.O.B. ;-)

We were granted a hearing, and won our point. (That principal was later removed by the police for investigation of some nefarious shenannigans!)


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 4 years ago from California

After a trip to the youth room in our local library I am not so sure it is only budget cuts in schools that are causing all the problems. I was horrified. The non-fiction books were the size of picture books. None of the non-fiction books had more than 50 pages. In a world where kids will read nearly a 1,000 words of Harry Potter they won't touch anything that is remotely stretching in the real world. I get this information from a friend that is a librarian in a prep school.

This is an amazingly good hub with solid ideas and applications.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, tirelesstraveler--

I think you are right to be horrified at such meager selections. Goodness, but I may count myself fortunate that my father refused to have a TV in the house (although I did not feel fortunate when I was a kid--I felt out of the loop with my peers).

I blame the TV culture in large part, and my generation was the first to be raised in the era of TV as entertainment, so of course, as parents, the trend was continued and expanded upon. Then came the electronic games and the internet, bringing with them a severe lack of patience and any ability to sit still and concentrate for more than 5 minutes at a time.

I thank you kindly for your input and your compliment.


Kevin Faulkner 4 years ago

Sound and thoughtful advice. Not so much dumbing down more write as if English is the reader's second language perhaps. But I agree, the great age of literacy has long gone and may never return. Imagination dwindles, Hollywood, TV and the electronic age have stunted reading literacy and concentration, only Kindle offers hope to a revived love of the Word !


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Kevin Faulkner--

Thank you for your thoughts. Sadly, the schools have indeed come to expect less and less from their students. It began many years ago with the "discovery" that inner-city children from disadvantaged homes had more trouble in school. Instead of helping them with additional tutoring, the schools' response was to change the curriculum to make it easier for these students, so that it could APPEAR they were performing better, and avoid 'damaging their psyches,' or hurting the little darlings' feelings.

The end result WAS and continues to be a "dumbing down" of the educational system, as teachers now spend all their time "teaching to a test" instead of providing genuine education.

I scoff at these so-called 'tests' which prove nothing, and I must also ask--how much MORE 'damaged' is a person's psyche when they emerge from school unable to read properly or obtain a job due to their educational deficit? It damages for life. Hurt feelings can be healed, and in the end, the student will thank the teacher who pushed.

All students have been done a severe disservice as a result of these changes, including the ones the new sub-standard 'standards' were purported to help.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

P.S. After years of holding out, I finally broke down and got an e-reader. But then, I already loved to read. If the schools and teachers do not first produce students who enjoy reading, all the e-readers in the world won't fix that.


poetvix profile image

poetvix 4 years ago from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country.

Thank you for the tips. I have to admit to having problems in two of the aforementioned areas myself. I find some of the best hubs are those that are useful and this one is most definitely that.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi there, poetvix--

Thanks much for stopping by. I often feel I may be 'preaching to the choir' with such topics here on Hub Pages, so I'm pleased to know you found it useful.


Jeri Sheppard 4 years ago

This Hub was wonderful! It's an excellent reminder that a writer needs to read, and keep things simple. (One book that really reminded me that it was reading that made me want to write in the first place is a book called "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them" by Francine Prose [quotes, because I can't underline! D:], which really helps a writer focus on the analysis part of the reading.) Thanks a lot!


kelleyward 4 years ago

Thanks for your hub. Your words reminded me of the importance of paying attention to the writing style and what I like or don't like about the books I'm currently reading. Interesting points!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ Jeri Sheppard--

Thank you very much for the compliment. I'm pleased you found it useful. I'll have to make a note of that book--it sounds like a great reference work.

@ kelleyward--

Thank you so much for your input and sharing your thoughts. I'm glad you found worthwhile nuggets in the article. ;-)


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

I grew up loving to read and playing word games like Probe. This is a good reminder of what we should all strive to achieve when writing articles. Excellent hub! Voted up and useful.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Peggy W--

Thank you so much for your kind words and the votes!

I know what you mean--I always loved word games, and my mom and I used to play Scrabble all the time. I'm good, but she nearly always beat me, crossword-puzzle addict that she was; she liked the really difficult ones with lots of obscure words. ;-)


mljdgulley354 profile image

mljdgulley354 4 years ago

I am so glad to see these writing tips. I love to read but never thought of doing a journal and tearing the story a part to see what kept me reading. Thank you for sharing this hub


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, mljdgulley354--

Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm pleased you found something to take away from the article. Cheers!


htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

Engaging your readers is really very important ..Great post


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello there, htodd--

Thanks very much for your input and compliment.


thesingernurse profile image

thesingernurse 4 years ago from Rizal, Philippines

Simple, informative, and straight-forward. Glad I've read a hub from a good writer. :) Thanks!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

"thesingernurse"--hello--nice to meet you.

Thank you very much for your praise. I'm pleased that you liked the article.


Sturgeonl profile image

Sturgeonl 4 years ago

I am always looking for ways to improve my writing. Thank you for the tips.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Sturgeonl--

Thanks very much for taking the time to comment. I'm glad you found something useful here.


RBJ33 profile image

RBJ33 3 years ago

Better late than never - just happened onto you hub - good stuff, thank you.

"If I had more time I'd write a shorter letter." Most of us use too many words. Also I would advise that you read, and then re-read your article before turning it loose.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 3 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, RBJ33,

I'm glad you liked the article; thanks for the compliment.

I've seen that quote before, about writing a shorter letter, time permitting. Funny on the surface, but so true of taking the time to edit.

Absolutely proofread your articles. I try to do that several times; alas, I'm only human, and despite my care, I do now and then find goofs that made it past several re-reads. When I find them, I fix them.

Thanks much for stopping by and adding your perspective.


always exploring profile image

always exploring 2 years ago from Southern Illinois

This was very interesting. I want to be a good writer. Thank you for an article that teaches with examples. I learned a lot. Thank you....


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 2 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, alwaysexploring,

Thanks very much for your kind words. I'm most pleased that you found this article interesting and helpful. Your comment is appreciated.

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