Improving Your Writing – Jim McLennan

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By Jim McLennan:

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I frequently tell people that one learns to write by writing and by reading, and that some of what you read should be about writing. So, step one, read a book. This book: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. It covers all the important stuff and is written so well that you’ll enjoy reading it while you’re underlining and folding pages. (I don’t know how you do that with the ebook version, but knock yourself out.)

One of the things frequently mentioned about writing (perhaps mostly by non-writers) is “writer’s block.” I’ve never experienced it and you don’t have to either. The solution to not knowing what to write initially is to lower your standards temporarily. Don’t worry about writing something that’s brilliant, or even good. Just start writing something, anything that’s somewhat related to your topic. It doesn’t have to come out great, it just has to come out. You’ll make it great later, which is the real work. Writing is about 20% writing and 80% revising and re-writing. And unless you already have a lead (the opening sentence or paragraph) in mind, don’t worry about writing it first. At some point you might find it hiding further into the piece, in which case you’ve written the lead without trying to. Perfect.

Perhaps the best thing you can do once a draft is done is to get the broom out and remove the clutter. Any word that doesn’t do a job has to go. For example, you might write something like this: “I’ve come to believe that for me fishing is really a lot of fun.” Here are the unnecessary words: come, to, that, for, me, really. Ditch them and the sentence becomes “I believe that fishing is a lot of fun.” It’s shorter and better. You could cut even further and come up with “Fishing is a lot of fun.” It’s obviously your opinion and you believe it, so you don’t have to tell the reader that.

Once you’ve worked through a draft, cutting unnecessary words, making everything as clear as possible, and coming up with a good beginning and a good ending, the final steps are to use a dictionary and a thesaurus. Check the dictionary for any words you might possibly have used incorrectly. I’m surprised how often a word means something a little different from what I’ve assumed my whole life.

Then use the thesaurus – probably the one on your computer – to find the best words, especially descriptive words like adjectives. This will also accomplish another important objective which is to avoid cliches. If you’ve described the evening sky as beautiful, awesome, or ominous, you can do better. How about arresting, sublime or portentous? Just don’t overdo it. If you’re like me you know that your vocabulary isn’t as strong as you’d like it to be and even if you know the right word, you might not be able to call it up from memory when you need it. Use the thesaurus to find the word choices and then to find the perfect (or consummate or quintessential) word.

It’s important to read your own work critically. You can be proud of it later. The most important step in making a passage right is recognizing that you don’t have it right yet. It’s sometimes helpful to read your work aloud, for the ears absorb it differently than the eyes. I do this when I think I’m done, and quite often find a section that makes me slow down as if I’m approaching a stretch of rough road in my truck. If this happens every time I read this passage it’s a sure sign that something is wrong. As much as I want to be finished, I’m not. If this happens to you, check for unnecessary words and find the clearest phrasing you can come up with. If nothing you try helps, consider removing the passage altogether. If you can do that without losing any meaning or emotion, get rid of it.

One final thought is to accept the fact that that every time you read something you’ve written, you’ll want to change it – to remove or add a comma, change a word, add a quote. This never stops. You must realize that you never get finished, you just get stopped – sometimes by a deadline, sometimes simply by weariness.

Sign up for Jim’s upcoming Living and Writing the Outdoor Life Workshop!

Picture of Jim McLennan

Jim McLennan

Jim McLennan, author of four fly-fishing books and pioneer fly-fishing guide on Alberta's Bow River, now runs McLennan Fly Fishing with his wife Lynda, focusing on fly-fishing instruction. Beyond fishing, he's passionate about upland bird hunting and music. His solo CD, "Six-String Gumbo," released in 2011, earned a Western Canadian Music Award nomination.

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