Three Relatively Obvious and Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Right Now
The following three ways of improving your writing are obvious and simple yet seldom discussed in the writing forums because they’re obvious and simple. But it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to revisit them right now.
1. READ YOUR SHIT OUT LOUD (RYSOL)
RYSOL is by far the most effective and efficient method of proofreading; and the most legitimate way to evaluate the clarity of your writing.
Reading your shit out loud might not be fun at first, but it will improve your writing. To keep it interesting, you might consider recording yourself.
Allow me to tell you a short story about a short story that perfectly exemplifies the importance of RYSOL.
Several years ago, I pitched an autobiographical short story and the publisher asked me to narrate an audiobook version. Having a fair amount of experience in audio production, professional voice-overs, and extensive experience in home and commercial recording studios, I said OK.
The publisher asked for a price: How much to do the whole thing?
That, I replied, I didn’t know, because I had never recorded an audiobook. However, I have all the necessary professional sound recording equipment at home and it might save him a few bucks if I did it myself, rather than going into a commercial studio. *
* I have done shitloads of flat hourly-rate voice-over work for this publisher, and he has a preferred studio, let’s call it Champion Audio, owned and operated by his friend. All of the publishing company’s in-house audio materials get recorded at Champion. So I had a good idea of how much it would cost at Champion vs. on my own, but I didn’t know how long it would take. If I had to quote him a flat-rate for an entire audiobook, I might have screwed myself to the wall. I’m glad I didn’t do that.
The 15,000-word short story is spread out over 10 chapters. Each 1,500-word chapter equals roughly 4 minutes of recorded audio. Intro and outro sections are 15 seconds each. Although I routinely bang out the voice-over shit in record time, this is “voice talent” work, which is completely different.
The bulk of voice-over work is:
Woman UK: Hi, Greg. How are you today?
Man US: I’m OK, Marsha. How about you? Had enough of this rainy weather?
Woman UK: Yeah. It sucks. My roommate killed herself the other night.
Man US: Really? That’s too bad. How?
Woman UK: She slit her wrists and bled out in the bathtub.
Man US: Oh, that’s a common way people do it.
Woman UK: So true. She was nothing special. An under-achiever, that one.
Man US: So I guess you’re looking for a new roommate?
In light of the ambiguities both stated and implied, I offered to record just the first chapter in order to formulate an estimate. The logic being: However long it took me to do the first chapter would be multiplied by 10 = The Price.
We agreed on a fair hourly rate, shook hands, and I went to work.
I’m going to skip most of the technical pre- and post-production related issues involved in recording an audiobook. I’m also going to skip the formatting details and the differences between a manuscript and a transcript. At this point, I’m just going to assume you’ve heard an audiobook and you know there’s more to it than Stephen King starts talking: “Hi, I’m Steve. This is my book. It’s called Shawshank Redemption.”
Once I started recording, I hadn’t made it through the second paragraph before I had to stop and edit a line. Although it looked fine on the page and read well in my mind, it sounded weird.
That’s OK, isn’t it? Change it. Right?
Not so fast.
The publisher had already accepted the final draft and I was told the manuscript had been through the complete food chain of editing, formatting, and proofing. I had to stop what I was doing, call the guy, and ask if the story had gone to the printer.
Fortunately, it hadn’t. I was able to continue working. But FAR MORE IMPORTANTLY, I was able to prevent an inferior draft of my story from being published. All told, I wound up making a dozen changes to the first chapter of the story in question.
Eventually, even though the audiobook deal didn’t happen – I went ahead and recorded the entire story and made dozens of changes. The act of telling the story made my lips turn numb. Hearing the story brought my language to life and tears to my eyes. The print version was published and I guess everybody liked it. I dunno. The publisher didn’t ask me for an original piece of writing for at least a year after that.
Obviously, I had not practiced what I’m preaching about here – RYSOL – because if I had, I would have made those changes long before I sat down to record an audiobook, and certainly saved everybody down-line a lot of heartache and my pet peeve: having to do shit twice.
Moreover, when was the last time you recorded yourself talking for five minutes at a time? When was the last time you spoke non-stop for five minutes? When was the last time you read a 10-minute speech out loud? Something to think about, kids.
Nowadays, I’m reading emails out loud before I send them.
2. SIT ON STUFF (SOS)
It may seem counter-intuitive in terms of improving your writing right now, but there’s no easier method to improve your writing right now than SOS. Write it, polish it, file it away, and come back another day.
Unless a piece of writing is on a deadline, it will go through an extended process of intensive engagement followed by at least a week of complete neglect. The better I think it is the longer I’m going to sit on it. This is why it’s important for a writer to have many different works in-progress.
The first way SOS improves your writing is the implied perspective. Perhaps at the time of writing you were particularly aroused or impassioned about the subject. Or maybe vice versa. Whatever words are on the page will not change in the interim. However, you are a changeable human being. You might be a thousand different people on any given day.
Coming back to a solid piece of writing after a break gives you fresh insight. And if the writing is good, you’ll be excited about finding ways of making it even better. If it sucks, you either salvage or jettison the wreckage.
The second way SOS improves your writing is related to the first in as much as we change as human beings on a daily basis, we also learn shit, too.
Many years ago I wrote for several obscure music magazines and I was pretty much able to write whatever the fuck I wanted and they’d print it. At some point, I pitched and wrote an article about how I believed two rock stars in particular “ruined it for everyone.”
The publisher jumped out of his skin: “Yes! Yes! Write it now!”
And so I wrote the piece, which was full of snarky, bitter rancor, and yet managed to present an argument, back it up, and ultimately make the reader decide: Do I agree with this guy or not?
The first draft came back from the publisher with a few notes about “toning down” some of my rhetoric and whatnot. In those days, I wouldn’t say I was terribly sensitive to criticism, but the fastest way to alienate me [from writing for you] would be to ask me to “tone something down.”
And so I said, “Listen, I gave you that other piece about dive bars ’30 Days in the Hole’ – it’s ready to go and you already said you like it. Just run that one this month, huh?”
The publisher, who had forgotten about the dive bar piece, immediately agreed to run “30 Days in the Hole”. It was a relative hit as far as the magazine was concerned. The “ruined it for everyone” essay got filed away and forgotten about.
Until a decade later, I was waiting tables in a fancy restaurant in a major city and guess who I had the honor of waiting on? One of the two rock stars I’d previously accused (and convicted) or “ruining it for everyone”.
You can read about it here (“Robert Plant Didn’t Ruin It For Anybody” ), but the TL:DR version is: He was an amazing human being and he absolutely didn’t ruin anything for anyone. He made it possible for thousands of people to do what they do.
I was incredibly humbled and I made a point of going home and reading a draft of that unpublished 10-year-old article. My only thought was: “Jesus, I was such an asshole in 1995.”
3. THE LITTLE, BROWN HANDBOOK
Do you have a copy of this (or any other style manual) within arms’ reach at this moment? No? Tsk-tsk. Bad writer. You’re not interested in simple ways to improve your writing, are you?
Look, I’m not some wise old geyser who thinks he knows everything. Hell, I’m not even that old. But even at this stage of my career, if I’m writing, one of two books is with me:
A Writer’s Reference by Diane Hacker (Third Edition); and/or
The Little, Brown Handbook (Thirteenth Edition)
The Internet puts reference at your fingertips. You don’t necessarily need hard copies of The Chicago Manual of Style or The Book of Lists on your desk (or preferred writing station), unless you enjoy reading those books in your spare time, which I do. For instance, the other day I had a poignant semi-colon dilemma and reached for The Little, Brown to resolve it. Once I started reading about semi-colons, it led to colons, and I wound up re-reading the entire section on punctuation – for about the 100th time in my life.
Because you’re clearly online, you should have already bookmarked myriad word, grammar, reference, and writing-themed sites. You should visit those sites on a daily basis. You should visit Fairlex Free Dictionary just to see what their word of the day is. You should visit Wikipedia to see what their page of the day is. You should read your horoscope and check the weather forecast. You should do all of this before you think about writing.
You can never know enough about writing and language itself to venture out into the world of words without some kind of beacon, no more than an experienced camper would enter the wilderness without a light source.