Good writers are avid readers. Like sponges, writers absorb the rhythms of language, words that sparkle in the mind, passages that jar our memories, allowing us to live again in a moment almost forgotten. To write well, read.
Writers should be informed about a broad range of issues shaping the human experience so read non-fiction. Choose at least two magazines, electronic or print, and promise yourself that you will read the feature article in each edition. (Publishers advertise the feature with cover art and headlines; the feature spreads across the most pages in that edition and is often complemented by charts, photos, and time lines.)
After a first reading to understand the issue, return to the article to map its course. First, consider the beginning: how did the writer engage you, the reader, enticing you to enter into the conversation begun by the article?
Second, consider the content: how believable is the evidence? What are the signposts that direct your attention to key points? How does the writer amuse you and challenge you? Is the article convincing? Why?
Finally, consider the style: Where is the writing particularly artful?
Such close reading will provide you with a model that you can honor and imitate. Choose a different topic, but use the skeleton you have uncovered by close, analytical reading. Let the original author’s organizational prowess teach you about building an argument, then build one.
In addition, let the original author teach you about effective phrasing. Imitate the phrasing, noun for noun, verb for verb, using your own subjects. For example, if the original author writes about taxes, you may write about dogs or flowers—anything you know well. The goal is to manipulate words, shaping them into new patterns.
Some worthy non-fiction authors to study and imitate include Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, Stephen Hawking, and Stephen J. Gould. Enjoy their art and ideas.
Fiction writers are also useful to expand the budding writers’ understanding of the human experience, of bringing worlds and characters to life with beautiful language. Read widely for pure joy and to absorb the craft.
Consider Elmore Leonard and J. D. McDonald dialogue that sounds true and alive. Let yourself be carried away by Toni Morrison’s great empathy for human suffering and her ability to make incongruity sensible. Enter into the vast, complex realms created by Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Larry McMurtry, William Styron, Barbara Kingsolver, and Tim O’Brien.
GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.
One follower has asked for a GUM review, and I am happy to begin such a review even though the task is daunting. Whole volumes have been devoted to GUM. I will choose common errors that I see in email messages, friendly letters, and advertising—errors that, like weeds in a garden, seem to reproduce at an alarming rate.
First, the wee word its and its misunderstood companion, it’s. The first its is a possessive pronoun. Its cousins are his and her. None of them requires an apostrophe to be possessive. Only a proper noun such as John or Jane or student needs an apostrophe to transform the noun into its possessive form. For example:
--I cannot find my book. This book belongs to him. The book is his book.
--Aunt Jane cannot find her book. The book needed belongs to Aunt Jane. The book is Aunt Jane’s book.
--Cousin It cannot find his book. This book belongs to It. The book is It’s book.
In the final example above, Cousin It is proper name (Remember the Adams Family?) so the apostrophe to show possession is correct, but how many people are actually named It? Few. The more common use of it’s is as a contraction, a contracted or shorter form of two wee words: it and is. For example:
--It is clear to me that John has lost his book.
--It’s clear to me that John has lost his book.
The apostrophe indicates that something is missing, in this case, an i. The apostrophe is our cue that two words have been run together, helping us understand.
So proofread your email messages, letters, and documents. If you need it is to be understood, then choose it is or it’s, never its.
When you find a published passage that seems particularly effective and powerful, mark it or copy it into a journal. Later, imitate it with your own messages. Experience the many ways to say the same thing. Liberate your messages by learning to play with word choices and word order.