How to Use Words - Make a Living Writing

How to Use Words

Carol Tice | 53 Comments

photodune-3217095-wooden-letters-colse-up-xs“Would you take a look at my writing and tell me if I’m good enough to do this professionally?”

I got this question last week, during my marathon 5-hour free mentoring call for my blog subscribers. (Sorry to the 100+ people who couldn’t get through!)

I always feel worried when people say this. First off, because I don’t feel qualified to tell anyone if their writing is good or not.

But also, because if you don’t have the feeling that you’re good at this, you’re in trouble as a freelancer. You’ll end up charging too little, and not putting yourself out there and getting the good gigs.

There are so many different kinds of writing, too. My general feeling is that there is a writing market out there somewhere, for most writers with the drive to do this for a living.

But we can all, always improve our writing.

Even after 12 years as a staffer writing 3-4 stories every week, I read great feature articles and think, “Dang. I am not even close to there.”

A writing professor’s 2 best tips

I recently had Ben Yagoda, a writing professor and author of the new book How to Not Write Bad, as a guest on one of my podcasts.

We talked a lot of real grammar-dork fine points, but Ben says if you only have a few moments to listen, his advice is:

Read (other people’s work). The more you read, the more you naturally absorb writing conventions and get a sense of how wordplay and style work.

Read it out loud (your own work). Often, this will help you quickly spot sentences or words that are too long or don’t belong.

As I think about how to make my own writing better, I have seven principles that help me improve my own writing.

How should you use words?

1. Sparingly

Every reader is short of time these days. Our attention spans are shrinking by the minute.

So as you write, think of the most concise way to express your thought. Your readers will thank you for it.

After you write a first draft, go back and shrink it. Could a paragraph or sentence be trimmed out without losing anything substantive? Chop it out.

Do you have a word or phrase you tend to overuse? Patrol and kill off repetitions of it.

Then, go phrase by phrase and word by word. Remove anything excess. Choose a shorter word if it gets the job done.

Less really is more here.

2. Thoughtfully

If we write while half-thinking about something else, or in a mad rush, we don’t do our best.

Yagoda and I talked about the art of writing mindfully — being fully present with the work we’re doing.

Strive to be fully present when you’re writing and to not write half-asleep or on auto-pilot or while also checking Facebook every other minute. The quality of what you produce will jump immediately.

3. Creatively

There is nothing new under the sun. We’ve read it all before. That’s why it’s up to you to put a little extra sweat into your writing and find a fresh way to say it. That’s how all great writers make a name for themselves, with their unique approach to the language.

I know I most admire the writers who can astonish me with their creative turns of phrase.

I think these often happen in the final draft. Squeeze out just a bit more effort and think of a new twist, an enlightening metaphor, an unusual observation to add. That finishing touch makes the work uniquely your own — and gets freelance clients saying, “We just have to have you for this assignment.”

4. Frequently

Writing is a muscle like any other in your body. Exercise it a lot, and it gets into fine shape.

I know the writing ability I have was honed by the hundreds of articles I wrote as a staff writer. The quality of my writing at the beginning of that long stretch was flat-out embarrassing in comparison to what I produced at the end.

Find your own way to do a large volume of writing, whether it’s blogging, keeping a journal, or volunteering to write a newsletter. Or all of those and more.

Writing flows better and gets easier, the more you play with words.

5. Correctly

Are you unclear on whether to use theirs or there’s, or if you should write Pittsburgh, PA or Pittsburgh, Penn.? Is it Web site or website, ten million dollars, or $10 million?

When in doubt, look it up. Grab a dictionary, thesaurus, Ben’s book, The Elements of Style, or the AP Stylebook and find out what’s considered appropriate for your situation.

This is particularly critical if you are writing in English as a second language. Small grammar and word-usage missteps signal editors that you don’t have the proficiency they want.

So take a moment and make sure you’ve got these fine points right.

6. Conversationally

Stiff, old-fashioned language is a major problem in writing today. Many writers are still creating Web pages and marketing emails that read like a business letter from the early 1960s.

The tone of business today is conversational. On blogs, the tone is extremely conversational.

Read your writing and see if it sounds like you’re talking to people. If it doesn’t, loosen it up. Read it out loud.

Put your personality and speech rhythms into it. Use sentence fragments — those work on blogs.

Consider carefully who your reader is, and make sure you’re speaking their language.

7. Respectfully

Write with an awareness that your words have great power.

Think: Will my words hurt someone? Are they thoughtless, careless, crude, unnecessarily disrespectful? If so, make a change.

If you are writing something intentionally provoking, consider how it will make people feel. Is that what you want? Be very sure before you press “publish” or “send.”

How to succeed

A writer emailed me recently to say she was having trouble putting it out there because she felt so intimidated by “all the other writers out there.”

Don’t worry about the competition. Instead, commit yourself to improving your writing. It’s the sure-fire way to move up as a freelancer and get better assignments and better pay.

There is always call for writers who are in command of their craft.

What do you do to improve your writing? Leave a comment and add some new tips.

53 comments on “How to Use Words

  1. Erik H. on

    I loved the suggestion made by Ben Yagoda to read your work out loud. The very idea terrifies me so much that I know it’s the one practical method I can use right now to begin improving my writing. Deeper improvements will follow as I spend more time writing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go stand in front of a mirror and read my latest post to myself. *Gulp*

  2. Francy Judge on

    I discovered a fun way to improve my writing a few years ago. Faithwriters.com holds contests based on a new topic each week for stories written under 750 words. Writers can give and receive feedback on their stories or poems until the judges post the winners for each level. This motivates the writer to improve to compete with other talented writers. I’m sure there must be other similar websites to suit individual preferences. This one worked for me, helping me write about 120 short stories and poems. Nothing like a little competition to get me going.

    Thanks for your helpful tips.

  3. Chris Lappin on

    I absolutely love this post as it’s so useful!

    My eldest son, who’s nearly 17, is studying English Language and English Literature at college here in the UK. He plans to do an English Language degree at university. The main reason his creative writing is so good – not just the opinion of his very proud mum 🙂 – is because he’s read so many books and, as you say Carol, has absorbed so many styles from a really young age.

    I have to remember: as an aspiring writer I need to read more to be an inspiring writer.

    Thanks again 🙂

  4. Arden Zich on

    Thank you Carol. I’m glad to read that you too at times don’t feel up to snuff as compared to other writers. I’ll congratulate myself on a blog post only to read something on a similar topic and fall to my knees in a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy!” style.

    To improve my writing, I ask myself why someone would want to read it or if would they be happy enough if they found my post in a search.

  5. Kathy on

    Take a poetry workshop. Writing poems “sharpens your prose,” gets you to focus on individual words so that your prose writing benefits in the long term.

  6. Sheila Bergquist on

    Great tips Carol! I was so intimidated when I first started writing, but the more I did it, the more secure I became. As you said, you have to keep doing it over and over and you’ll get better and better. And other people inspire me. When I read their work and love it, it makes me work that much harder.

  7. Amy Gutman on

    Great advice, as always. I got an email today from a blog reader wondering how to boost her freelance career–for the first time ever, she’s hit a slump and isn’t sure what to do. I’m about to write her back and my main advice for her, as it’s been for others, will be to check out the Writers Den and makealivingwriting.com.

    • Carol Tice on

      Great example of not letting outside feedback throw you off course! I think too many writers get their heads all turned around at every little comment outsiders make. 😉

  8. Diane Dutchin on

    Thanks for the tips! I improve my writing by doing the following:
    Read purposefully – articles from writers in my niche, this blog, and publications on my “top 20 to write for list”.
    Write down words or phrase that jumps out to me as I read – They turn into ideas, or words I can run with in a current or future piece.
    Spend 30 min a couple times a week just writing down titles to articles and out of that have ideas for new articles.
    Write daily – 100 words is OK too, I wrote and that’s progress.
    I agree it is a muscle that gets better with use, and it’s one that’s worth cultivating.

  9. Andre Hugo on

    A professor once told the class – “Find where you think that you have waxes most elequently, and cut it out. ”

    As a writer, I try to take the sentiment seriously when reviewing my work.

    • Carol Tice on

      It took me a long time to learn to write to length, Kelley — the first time I had to write a long feature the first draft was about three times the requested 3,000 words! And then it was A G O N Y to get it down to size. Learned my lesson and now I don’t tend to have much to cut after that first draft, as I have such a better sense of what to leave out because it’s not going to fit in the story.

    • Carol Tice on

      Right on — Ben Yagoda said the comment he writes most on students’ papers is “word repetition.” Find another word to use that second time around…your readers will thank you. Using the same words and phrases over and over makes for dull writing.

      • Anita on

        Synonyms are fine – as long as it doesn’t take one too far from your principle of, “Choose a shorter word if it gets the job done.”

        Often, don’t you think it’s a matter of paraphrasing an idea rather than looking for a single word replacement? Articles with an obvious synonym-finder feel can also loose readers quickly.

  10. Jennifer L on

    My favorite is No. 6: Conversationally.

    That’s a big one. I still have to coach myself into writing conversationally sometimes. Practice helps. It also helps when you read something that’s been written conversationally, and you discover, “Hey, that is SO much easier to read and understand.”

  11. Michael Hicks on

    That’s a great idea, Carol.

    The writer gets instant feedback
    and a template (or a writing strategy)
    that’s acceptable to the Editor.

    The Editor gets to critique your work
    without being critical personally.
    Plus, they have a chance to observe
    you taking the initiative to come to them
    in the first place. A definite win-win
    in my book…:-)

  12. Rebecca Klempner on

    There are a lot of great comments here, so I’ll add one on a different aspect of your post.

    I think the biggest piece of the “Am I good enough to write professionally?” question is that regardless of the answer, you still have to grow.

    1) What if the person says, “No?” You have to realize, that’s a “No” for right now. Maybe your work isn’t publishable now, but that can change if you consistently work on it (and I think your tips are all helpful for both new writers and more experienced ones).

    2) What if the person says, “Yes?” You still have to approach each piece as a learning experience, where you will build mastery of your craft. People will stop reading you if you just keep saying the same thing, the same way over and over. And you will be stagnant as a writer.

    BTW, I think writing “Thoughtfully” is an area a lot of us struggle to overcome PARTICULARLY when we start getting more gigs. I’ll be working on that one.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Rebecca —

      Such a great point. The main thing is we all have to keep improving. I certainly still consider myself a student of good writing and how to use language.

      Just reading Swamplandia! right now, and so enjoying and learning from it. I love reading fiction for the imaginative use of language…helps us be less boring nonfiction writers. 😉

      • Rebecca Klempner on

        I looked Swamplandia! up and WOW! that looks awesome. Amazon has an enthusiastic review from Carl Hiaasen, whom I love. Time to add it to my Goodreads to-read list…thanks for the lead!

  13. Willi Morris on

    Hear, hear for sentence fragments! Love them. (See what I did there?) Still trying to learn how to not be verbose. Great one again, Carol. You always knock these out of the park. Not sure how you do it. (Although I’m sure there’s a blog somewhere that says how you do it.) OOO You need a search feature on here.

  14. Michael Hicks on

    To improve my writing, I do my best to get in
    500 – 1,000 words per day. Brevity and clarity
    are my benchmarks. I never use 5 words when
    3 will do, and I write like I’m talking to a friend
    over a beer during Happy Hour.

    A quick word about asking someone more experienced
    about writing ability: That’s a bit of a Catch-22.

    If we don’t ask, then it’s our fault for not asking.
    If we do, then we run the risk of sounding like
    we lack confidence or undervalue our talents.

    That isn’t necessarily true. Seeking advice from
    writers who are smarter than we are is one of
    the best ways to advance our careers. Evaluating
    a situation from the outside looking in is a skill
    most writers don’t possess on their own.

    The easiest way to get what you want in life
    is to ask for it. It’s been my experience that
    writers are much better off raising questions
    spawned from those they ask than by
    choosing to remain silent. In other words,
    not asking is more costly than saying nothing.
    And that includes topics people aren’t always
    thrilled to talk about…like assessing a writer’s
    talent level. But like I said. it’s a slippery slope…

    Great content as always, Carol. Enjoy your
    Monday!!!

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Michael —

      One of the big things I did that improved my writing is when I first got a semi-regular gig writing short articles for an alternative paper, I used to trot in every Friday with my article in my hand and get my editor to sit down with me.

      “I see you changed my lede from this to this…why?” I’d ask.

      And so on through the story. I’d compare the draft I turned in to the final, and use that as a course in writing improvement. As I learned what worked for my editor, writing got better and easier, too.

  15. Lori Ferguson on

    Another pithy post, Carol—thank you!

    I had a college rhetoric professor advise me once to be very leary of any sentence I *really* fell in love with, as that was the one that usually needed to go. And I’ve found it to be true time and again–I’ll write something, think it’s grand, then find myself manipulating sentences *around* ‘the queen’ just so I can keep her. Ridiculous–that’s when I highlight and delete. 🙂

    The other thing that I find useful is to write a draft, print the story and walk away. I come back later–sometime in an hour, sometimes in a day–and re-read. I find that once I get a little distance from the piece, I can often do a much better job of editing it into a tighter, cleaner body of text.

    Thanks for continuing to lead by example!

    • Carol Tice on

      Or even leery of those sentences… 😉

      I am doing that come back later strategy more and more these days. I used to try to bang out my blog posts in one session. Now, I give up and return, and it takes less time and comes out better, I think.

  16. Robert Walker on

    Thanks for this post, Cheryl.

    I especially agree with #1. Writing long, elegant sentences used to score me A’s in college. Unfortunately, it took a long time to lose that habit.

    I still wonder what would’ve happened if I wrote like a blogger in Comp 101.

    I’d add “Intentionally” to your list (though that’s a tired word I’m only using here since the theme is adjectives). Good writers know their audience and what they want. In fact, writing with purpose often trumps all over worlds.

    Sometimes you want to:

    *Babble on a bit to make a point (not sparing)
    *Spew out a flurry of ideas while… maybe a little tipsy (not thoughtful)
    *Tell leadership you’re over budget (not creative)
    *Use ain’t or gonna (not correct)
    *Make a historic speech (usually not conversational)
    *Stir up controversy (Fox News succeeds; they are *not* respectful)

    But I don’t think purpose can ever trump frequency. No one ever gets better as a writing by not writing. Sometimes even reading is just an excuse for not writing.

    Last but not least, I wanted to apologize for a hasty tweet the other day (not being thoughtful, respectful, or intentional). It was about your new guest posting policy. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about… Awesome. (Whew!)

    …But if you are… I’m sorry!

    • Robert Walker on

      My lord! Since the theme is *adverbs* (not adjectives!). Maybe I need to go back to that Comp 101 course.

    • Carol Tice on

      Hi Robert — I don’t remember about the tweet. But that post did get nearly 100 comments…so you’re off the hook!

      I like your addition of intentionally. Yes, sometimes we are writing to be controversial…but if you are, do it with a lot of care and intent.

      I work with a lot of current and former academics in the Den, Robert, and it is definitely a challenge for many to iron out the formality from their language and start speaking in the tone of the Internet. I’ve had people from England tell me they just couldn’t do it! That it felt ‘wrong’ to speak conversationally. Major handicap in this era…

  17. Sheryl B. on

    Very Helpful Advice.
    My favorites:
    1. Writing is a muscle. If we don’t work out, we get flabby. Duh, same happens with writing.
    2. Write conversationally. I can certainly tell when someone is writing to impress rather than help.
    Thanks for the great tips!

  18. J. Delancy on

    I’d add “Edit on paper, not in your head”. Trying to edit what I want to write before I put it on paper always causes me confusion, which leads to me getting stuck and quitting.

    Write it, leave it, then edit it seems to be Stephen King’s prescription.

  19. Lorrie B on

    Thoughtful and compassionate, as always, Carol. I would add one:

    Write from the heart. The best voice we have as writers is the honest one which comes from our deepest thoughts and emotions in harmony with our knowledge base and experiences.

    As an avid reader, I see quickly through manipulative writing that tries to pull me in with cheap tricks or over-used drama. With the roar of the Internet in our ears and people writing hash-tag headlines to get noticed, it’s getting harder and harder to hear the real voices struggling to be heard.

  20. Sarah L. Webb on

    These tips are quite beautiful and inspiring. Maybe it’s that you used adverbs for each subheading. I’m not sure what it is, but I’ve heard these tips before, yet they feel more true in this post.

    Since I’m on this courage kick, I’ll add *courageously*. It means something different for everyone. For example, in my opinion, this blog speaks courageously about fair pay for writers.

    And courageous writing doesn’t have to contradict the 7th tip to write respectfully.

  21. Vincent Nguyen on

    I find your advice of shortening things to be the most important part for me. When it comes to writing, I sometimes jump around without really getting to the point. During my editing and proofing sessions, I realize how much of the fat I can cut off from the intro and the end and then I go to the meat of it and rearrange things while cutting things that don’t add value.

    Most people are defensive against deleting parts of their work because after all, they wrote it! Why would they actually remove their words of wisdom? I used to think like this, but then I realized how much better things flow and LOOK after trimming the unnecessary things. It gives what you did read much more value.

    • Carol Tice on

      Yes, that diva syndrome — “Not my words! You can’t cut my beautiful words!” — is a great way to get your article killed.

      The reality is that you will be edited. So do the heavy lifting yourself, while you can still control what gets cut.

  22. Angie on

    Excellent advice, all around. I think a lot of writers have the “Am I good enough?” gene — seems to go with the territory. But with so much bad content out there (and there is a LOT of it), just having a good grasp of writing basics should put you a step ahead of most of the pack.

  23. Neil Heater on

    If I cannot appreciate or feel comfortable with my own use words, why would anyone else? If we could look at our work objectively, without the emotion of self-defeat, than we might understand our own writing better.

    Thank you for a great article that gets to the meat of the problem. We have to see that we have something to sell…ourselves, and operate our marketing with that confidence.

    Very timely.

  24. Melissa Paulik on

    Great article. I especially like the tip about overused words. Mine is “leverage.” t shows up repeatedly in most of the whitepapers I write so I keep my thesaurus handy in my second and third drafts.

    When I get questions like this, I always tell people you have to be willing to write poorly before you can write well. In other words, just get it down on paper (or computer) and go from there. Your post is a great roadmap for what to do next.

    • Carol Tice on

      Mine are “really” and “just.”

      I am a really vicious rewriter — I’m always patrolling my draft to see what could be eliminated or rewritten in a better way.

      I like to ask of each sentence, then each word — does it belong here? It is the best word choice to say exactly what I want? If not, keep working on it!

  25. Aileen Hunter on

    I really like this article and will share it. I think most importantly is writing – not to tell – but to help. So many people tell people what they should do/know, rather than writing about an issue their audience will find informative and helpful.

  26. Norvan Martin on

    Thanks for this article Carol!

    Its a reminder to all of us that writing is as much an art as is painting or classical music. It requires time, energy and constant refining.
    I find reading other peoples’ work works best for me in terms of…well, exactly how you put it:

    The more you read, the more you naturally absorb writing conventions and get a sense of how wordplay and style work.

    I particularly like the idea of using your words sparingly as well. We need to develop the habit of slashing sentences into phrases and phrases into single words while keeping the original meaning in tact.

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