1. Read Crap. Go ahead and read the classics if you must. But be sure to include lots of well-written popular books that talk in a style that ordinary readers will enjoy.
For me – a guy – this means the mystery novels of Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, and Robert Crais.
Parker, a Virgo, had a tremendous gift for choosing the right phrase. P. G. Wodehouse, a Libra, never stumbled in his word choices. His work was universally admired by respected writers.
There’s a lot to be said for learning from popular writers who know how to make words sing. Wodehouse read oceans of trashy novels, taking notes when he came across memorable words and phrases.
2. Sleep On It. For the first four years of my writing life, I had the pleasure of working in an office next to Joe Henderson, the founding editor of Runner’s World. Joe was a writer’s writer – he had mastered the art of telling engaging stories in a clean, readable style, using short words.
The best lesson I learned from him was something he told me on my first day. “When you write a draft in the evening and you think it’s pretty good, wait and look at it again in the morning. You’ll almost always find it isn’t nearly as good as you imagined.”
Sleep on it – again and again. You cannot rush the process.
By reading widely, you’ll develop a feeling for what good writing sounds like. Don’t share your work until you’re sure it’s done.
3. PRINT IT!!!!!!!!! It’s impossible to over-state the importance of this.
In his book The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, Stewart Brand tells how MIT scientists found that people make forty percent more proofreading errors onscreen than on paper.
“Aw, c’mon,” I hear you say. “I proof my stuff on screen all the time, and it’s fine.”
The online world is riddled with typos. Make the experiment – print it, proof it, and be amazed.
This step has given me a profound advantage when selling my services as a copy editor. Companies tell me, over and over, how relieved they are to find someone who knows what he’s doing. I owe 90 percent of the credit to my laser printer.
4. Don’t Write Backwards. The lamest, least-readable stories begin at the end instead of the beginning. They make grand, all-encompassing statements that are designed to impress but fall flatter than stale beer. “God is love.” “Love is everywhere.” “Spring is a great time to be alive.”
Folks, these are conclusions. They are not a good way to begin a story.
Consider another approach. Get out of the reader’s way and just start telling your story as flat-footedly as possible.
“My friend Josephine was at the mall with her four-year-old daughter when a stranger approached and handed her a small box and a business card.”
It isn’t exciting, but it paints a picture and suggests that a story will follow. When you’re finished, and if you’ve told your story well and you’ve proved that God is love, you can confidently say so.
5. Look Stuff Up. Accuracy in small things will give your words weight and credibility.
6. Make It Fun. Don’t write when you’re exhausted.
7. Pray. Forget what the cynics and atheists say. All true inspiration comes from a higher source.
8. When You’re Stuck, Turn Off the Logical Mind. Go for a walk. Look at wild art. Listen to music that takes you someplace better. Watch a movie. There is no magic in logic.
9. No One But You Will Ever See Your First Drafts. You HAVE to learn this. Writing crappy first drafts is an unavoidable and very necessary part of the process. “What if somebody sees my awful first draft? What if I die in the night?” They won’t, and you won’t, and if you do, you won’t care.
10. Take Notes. If you try to remember your good ideas, you’ll lose them. There’s a Chinese saying: “The best memory is not half so firm as faded ink.”