Check out the August 2010 issue of The Writer
, where you can read my article, "5 Roadblocks to Good Writing."
One reader is making her shopping list instead of pondering your plot. Another just slipped your book onto his shelf, thinking, “I’ll try again later, if I can make myself slog through this mess.” If your piece crashed and burned, maybe it’s because one or more traffic cones stood in the way of a good read. Learn how to navigate around them and keep your readers on board.
Traffic cone 1: too jumbled. When writing nonfiction, you must present clear and logical arguments. Readers don’t want to zigzag all over, so use your rough draft to map out the easy-to-follow route you’ll take. It’s natural for first drafts to meander and to repeat or omit information (you should have seen my first draft of this section!). When you arrive at draft two, you’ll know better how to present your material. Fiction gets mixed up, too. Perhaps you’ve described a character or setting twice, two snippets of dialogue are repetitive, or multiple characters serve the same purpose.
Whichever you’re writing, keep like ideas together. Follow an outline if you have to. If you’ve repeated yourself, move sentences about the same topic together and pick which version sounds best. Add missing supporting arguments if you haven’t fleshed out a point. Notice the last sentences of each paragraph in your draft. They may turn out to be good topic sentences (perhaps it took you a paragraph to figure out your point). Comb through your piece to find areas that lack logical organization.
Traffic cone 2: too dull. It’s dangerous to drive with cruise control because it lulls you into a monotonous rhythm. It’s the same situation with sentences that have similar structures. It’s boring for readers. It’s clear by now (if you’ve looked closely at this paragraph) that you shouldn’t start each sentence in the same way.
One time, use a compound sentence with two parts separated by “and.” Begin the next sentence with a long modifier. Sprinkle in the occasional long sentence (not too long, you hear?) and a few short, staccato sentences. Be daring and throw in a fragment to ensure your readers remain interested and awake.
Traffic cone 3: too general. You don’t want to follow the same route as everyone else. Most weak pieces don’t differentiate themselves; anyone could have written them. Think back to grade school, when you had to write a paper about your favorite film. Your teacher probably read multiple essays that began “My favorite movie is X.” Bor-ing! Stand out by avoiding platitudes, clichés, generalities and vagueness. Aim instead for imaginative vocabulary, and fill your work with examples, not generic phrases. Use specific verbs (cut down on “to be”) and precise nouns instead of relying on adjectives and adverbs. Give your work personality by adding your unique voice. (Nobody would mistake a Proust sentence for someone else’s.) Be concrete, and use more imagination.
Traffic cone 4: too inappropriate. You shouldn’t drive with the top down during a rainstorm. Neither should nonfiction writers obfuscate their upshot with an ostentatious lexicon. (That means don’t try to impress your readers by using fancy words or plowing through the thesaurus!) Deliver a nonboring piece tailored to your readers.
Novelists, too, need to pay attention—to their characters’ vocabulary and grammatical patterns. Most modern characters would not say “whom,” but a 19th-century one might. Read your dialogue aloud and ask yourself, “Would a real person with my protagonist’s characteristics say that?” Hey, it might be OK for a character to use improper grammar.
Traffic cone 5: too awkward. No reader wants to be distracted by distorted grammar, punctuation and spelling. Although some stuffy rules have been relaxed (yes, you may end a sentence with a preposition and start one with “because”), don’t veer off the conventional road too much. And don’t rely on your spell-checker to catch all potential errors.
You might have written the most poignant vignette or the most thoroughly researched piece ever, but if faced with syntactical gaffes and incomprehensible sentence structure, readers won’t get past your first page—or paragraph. These days, podcasts, websites and blogs, in addition to traditional books and magazine articles, make it fun to brush up on the rules.