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On Writing

Quill pen and glasses

As magazine editors who review some 30,000 words every quarter—from first drafts to final proofs—we’re often asked, “How can I improve my writing?” A few suggestions come to mind, based on the shortcomings we see most often. Our suggestions apply to any genre, from feature stories and press releases to personal essays and fiction:

Offer a personal “take” on a subject.

A personal “take,” conveyed with your unique voice, establishes credibility and interests readers. This can be effectively communicated whether the point-of-view is first or third person. A writer’s voice is revealed in many ways, including diction (choice of words), tone, details emphasized—even punctuation.

Start with a compelling lead.

The opening of a story can be as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph. The goal is to grab a reader’s attention and encourage him or her to read on. Start with a strong statement, a vivid description or a compelling quote. Sound like obvious advice? Perhaps. But even experienced writers can fall down here. Just flip through any magazine, then decide which stories you’d like to read. They’ll probably have strong leads.

Show, don’t tell.

Don’t write, for example, “the woman is seductive.” Instead, describe her specific features and body language. Use active verbs and vivid adjectives to paint a picture. When possible, reinforce descriptions with compelling anecdotes and/or quotes that offer fresh information.

Avoid long, run-on sentences.

Long, awkward sentences occur when a writer gets lazy, packs too many ideas in a sentence or tries to sound  “artsy.” Such sentences are an editor’s nightmare—often lacking in logic and time-consuming to rewrite. Strive for one concisely stated idea per sentence.

Get a second opinion.

Ask a friend whose writing skills you respect to check your work for errors in overall structure, logic, flow, grammar, spelling and punctuation. It’s easy to overlook bloopers when you’re too close to your work.

Our favorite books on writing include William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Paula La Rocque’s The Book on Writing and Maureen Ryan Griffin’s Spinning Words into Gold.

We also appreciate the online courses offered by The Poynter Institute, a highly respected journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida (www.poynter.org). The Institute offers continuing education for  professionals in new and traditional media. Subjects include writing, editing, graphic design, web design and video.

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