If you can’t get the basics of something right then the rest is just a waste of time. It’s a point that applies to juggling (make sure you can catch before you try to catch fire), cooking (make sure you don’t burn pans before you try a soufflé), and of course to writing. That’s why I enjoyed reading Brandon Royal‘s The Litte Red Writing Book. It’s a good guide to writing, aimed at non-fiction but with lessons for any writer, that gives twenty useful principles and a grammar guide. A lot of it will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever written an essay, but even when it was covering principles I already knew I found its clarifications and reiteration useful.
So here’s three particularly useful things I picked out from this book.
Favour verbs, not nouns
This one was totally new to me, but fitted my recent experience.
Last week I was doing edits on a story, and a lot of the feedback was ‘too many uses of the word ‘she’ here’. It was a tricky thing to tackle. I didn’t want to over-use the character’s name, or put other nouns in its place as that could get clunky. It took me ages to work out those edits because while I could see that the editor was right I just couldn’t see another option.
This is it. Structure your writing to lean more on verbs than nouns. It’ll help keep it active and interesting, and help you avoid getting bogged down in pronouns like I did. Above all avoid nominalising – turning verbs and adjectives into nouns. It often makes for ugly writing.
Six basic writing structures
I like having structures to plan my writing around. They aren’t to stick rigidly to, but to give me a framework to start from. Royal sets out six basic structures that are useful for writing things like articles, essays and blog posts. I write a lot of blog posts, not just here but also for freelance clients, so having these is handy. I’ve already put them into my blog planning template.
Describing all six would take a whole post in itself, but they include things like evaluative, chronological and causal, and he explains briefly how to structure each one.
Support what you say
I already know that I need to provide evidence when making a point, but Royal provides a good reminder of the fact that your evidence should be concrete and specific. Not just ‘Larry is a great communicator’ but ‘Larry is a great communicator as shown by the rousing speech he gave to his minions, which inspired them to conquer Quebec’.
One for reference
This book is going on my writing reference shelf, to be kept handy for all occasions. It’s worth a read if you write at all, whether for pleasure, for work, or just out of that itch that drives us to put pen on page.
Anybody got any favourite books on writing? I can always do with recommendations in this area, especially now it’s my work as well as my hobby.