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Make it Better

Read, rewrite, revise, and edit. Make your work the best it can be.

Read, rewrite, revise, and edit. Make your work the best it can be.

My little sister is a busy woman. She’s a photographer, a part-time novelist, a dedicated housewife, and a mother of two active little girls. She somehow finds time in all that to read voraciously, and even to blog sporadically. A couple weeks ago those last two activities overlapped a little bit when she wrote a blog post about the hundred books she’d read in 2009. Then, to her great surprise, one of the authors on the list commented on her blog!

She was ecstatic. She called to let me know about it, and I went to read the post in question, and right away I winced. One of her favorite authors found her blog, and found it all riddled with terrible writing. I’d have been mortified. To be fair, I’m easily mortified and she’s got a pretty forgiving audience. More importantly, she’s got better things to do with her time than policing passive voice.

Still, her big brother is a writing professor now, so I had to lecture her about it. I met her for dinner and said, “It’s time for you to start taking your writing seriously. It’s time for you to start proofreading!”

She just frowned and said, “But I do! That’s the thing. I don’t know how to make it better!”

Start with Style

One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing is to have paid attention back in high school. Unfortunately that requires an incredibly awkward verb tense and a time machine, so it’s not really a great solution. More to the point, it requires a perspective and sense of judgment you probably didn’t have in high school, because unless you’re writing academic papers, you’re probably much better off ignoring some of those grammar rules.

The thing is, there’s a big difference between ignoring the rules and being ignorant of them. All those stupid lessons you glossed over in high school exist for real, concrete reasons. If you know those reasons, you can make the occasional judgment call to break them. If you don’t really understand, though, you’re making that call with flawed judgment.

The nice thing is that real life doesn’t require you to go back and get an A in every high school class. Real life just requires you to learn the stuff that would actually be useful to you now. And there are resources out there to help with that. If you do well with textbooks, dig out your copy of The Little, Brown Handbook or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Chances are good you’ve got one gathering dust on the bottom shelf of a bookcase somewhere, because those two books between them are some of the most informative and helpful instruction on English grammar ever written. Find one of those, dust it off, and start brushing up.

If you’d prefer a more casual tone, look around for articles or blog posts by grammarians like June Casagrande (author of the fun and funny Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, which is effectively the Style Guide for It doesn’t have to be dry and didactic — pick a teacher whose style works for you. Do pick a teacher, though, and start learning all the rules you didn’t bother with before.

Read it in Stages

Once you know how to tell the difference between a verb and a participle, between singular subjects and plural conjugations — and, more importantly, why to care — it’s time to clean up your work. It’s always a good idea to reread anything you’ve written before publishing it to an audience (even if it’s just an email to your mom), and the more times you review it, the better it will be.

Carlos picked up on that back when he read my Works-in-Progress chart, but most experienced writers are in the habit of reviewing their work not only multiple times, but in multiple ways. As a novelist, I might dedicate one stage to fixing grammar, one stage to characterization, and another one to plot. If you’re still working on basics, you might dedicate one stage to fixing your verb tense — past, present, or future, it should be the same throughout your document — and another one to paragraph length and smooth transitions.

Whatever your problem areas are, consider dedicating at least one full mark-up to each.

Learn Your Weaknesses

Of course, before you can do that, you need to know what your problem areas are. Lucky for you, that’s the easy part.

Examine Your Blind Spots

I already recommended revisiting Elements of Style, but even if you never read anything but this blog, you’re studying writing. In the process, you’re going to come across references to rules you know nothing about, whether that’s subject/verb agreement or the proper use of subjunctive case. Even if you’re following the incredibly permissive style of Grammar Snobs, you’re occasionally going to stub your toe on some rule or technicality that you know nothing about.

When that happens, pay attention! Chances are good that rules you’ve never heard of are rules you’re breaking. Get in the habit of learning. There’s no better way to learn good writing techniques than to apply those techniques — again and again — to your own documents, especially when it’s work you actually care about.

Trust Your Ear

I do realize that getting you back to school is going to be a hard sell, and even if I’ve got you convinced, it isn’t going to do anything to help your writing now. If you want to instantly get better at editing and revising your own documents, I’ve got a one-step guaranteed method for you:

  1. Read it out loud.

It’s easy to forget, living in one of the most literate societies the world has ever seen, but every written word is a direct representation of spoken language. It’s not a vague connection, it’s not even two different symbols both pointing to the same idea — written words are graphic representations of the spoken words (that ultimately point back to ideas).

Your readers jump through those hoops every time they glance at your document. A voice in their head converts all of your letters and symbols into sound, and then tries to build meaning out of it. It’s your job, as a writer, to direct that voice. It’s your job to manage not just the words on the page, but also the imagined sounds in your readers’ brains.

Does that sound intimidating? I guess it could, but at least it’s specific. What I’ve really said there is the same thing your English teachers tried to get across to you every time they scribbled “poor transitions” or “flow” or just “awkward” in your margins. What they were talking about was the difference between the ideas you’d put together, and the way those ideas sounded when read by the voice inside your teacher’s head.

So how to handle that? Commit your writing to voice. Read it out loud. I know you wrote it. I know you’re a competent reader. I know you probably struggled through the arduous process of learning how to read silently a long, long time ago, and that’s so much more convenient and efficient than reading aloud.

Do it anyway. Read your stuff out loud. You’ll hear grammar errors you can’t spot on the page. You’ll notice which words you use too often (or too close together). You’ll realize which sentences butt awkwardly against enough other, and need smooth transitions between them.

You’ll also slow down, and in the process you’ll catch a lot of easy mistakes you’d miss when reading silently — typos and word inversions and even homophone errors that are so easy to overlook when you’re speedreading.

Get Feedback

Of course, the best way to learn what your writing sounds like inside someone else’s head is to get that person to read it for you. When it comes right down to it, there’s no way for you to look at your document entirely objectively — you already know what the document is getting at, you know why you organized it the way you did, and you already possess all the information it’s trying to convey. To get a real analysis of its effectiveness, you have to hand it to someone else.

The good news is that there’s always someone willing to criticize anything you’re willing to care about (trust me, I’ve tested that claim extensively). Not all of them are going to be qualified critics or ideal readers, but everything they have to say is valuable, once you learn how to use it. (I’ll talk about that more on Thursday.)

In the meantime, search out those people who do give immediately helpful advice. Find the smartest, pickiest person in your target audience, and ask where your weaknesses are. Find a friend who really knows his or her stuff, and get some detailed markup. Lacking that, ask everyone for feedback, and look for consistent patterns.

When you know what’s wrong, you’re ready to make it better. Exactly how varies from case to case, writer to writer, audience to audience. That’s a lot of what I want to talk about here, though, and if you’ve got specific questions feel free to ask. Leave a message in the comments or send me an email, and let me know what you’d like to improve. I’ll help in any way I can.

5 Responses to “Make it Better”

  1. Courtney Cantrell says:

    What I’m now curious about is which of you wrote your blogpost first today: you, or your sister? And was one in direct response to the other? ;o)

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    In the interest of full disclosure, I sent Shannon an email last week (when I wrote the first draft of this article) making sure it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. So she’s had at least that long to cushion the blow.

    It’s total coincidence they actually hit press on the same day, though.

  3. Carlos Velez says:

    I didn’t know your blog was going to be so interesting! Bravo…I dig it.

    I was also shamed when you mentioned how I latched onto the idea of proofreading in stages, because I haven’t done it. In fact, I forgot about it. BUT! I just put down a reminder to do exactly that on my little WordPress Dashboard sticky note with a link to that page. I will do it from now on.

    On the subject of ways to proofread…one thing I find helpful in the blogging format, is to proofread my finished post in the preview page (the way it will look when it’s published). I will also keep a tab open with the dashboard version of that post where I can make edits and then switch back to the preview mode.

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    Don’t beat yourself up too much. This is the first time I’ve actually discussed the process — before, I was just pointing out the names of some of the stages that are useful to me.

    I like that this one worked for you, though. And I definitely endorse your method for blog posting — it’s the same thing I do. The larger idea applies to any medium, too: make sure to review your work as it will look in its final form, whether it’s a blog post, a four-page fold, or a neon pink cotton T-shirt. You haven’t finished reviewing your work until you’ve reviewed it in media.

  5. Courtney Cantrell says:

    I would dearly love to see something from UnstressedSyllables printed on a neon pink cotton T-shirt. Maybe your WIP progress chart. ;oD

    Oh, and speaking of T-shirts, I finally ordered me a NaNoWriMo “noveling machine” T-shirt. Its color is “cranberry,” I think it’s going to be made of awesome.