I love a new year. It’s a time to assess where you are, determine where you’d like to go and decide how you’re going to get there. For me this year, that means deciding how I’m going to improve as a writer.
Resolution 1: Revise.
When I write, I tend to slam it all out on the page and fine-tweak as I go. Then, I check it for accuracy and give it a read for grammar, spelling and punctuation. It’s good so far as it goes, but I’m at the stage of my career where “good” simply isn’t good enough. I need to step up my game. And, for that, I need to revise.
I love revision about as much as I love having my teeth cleaned. Which is to say, I don’t. But, as writing guru Chip Scanlan reminds us, writing is all about revision. Revision is not punishment for being a bad writer. Rather, it’s an essential part of the writing process. It challenges us to produce our best work and creates prose that readers actually want to read.
My favorite revision tool: The read-aloud test. When I read my finished drafts aloud, I always find ways to polish up my prose. The practice reveals any confusing or unwieldy sentences that could block readers’ comprehension. If I have to do verbal gymnastics just to read the sentence aloud, I know I have a clunker I need to revise.
We all want to believe we’re brilliant writers who create flawless first drafts. But that kind of perfectionist thinking is what stalls us when we could be writing instead. As Scanlan says,
“To write well, you may have to write badly. At first.”
Resolution 2: Leave out more
It sounds counter intuitive, but the more detail you cut out of your story, the better it will be.
It’s another lesson I learned from Scanlan. As he says:
“The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.”
To that end, I’m now using a strategy he described in another article. (I’ve since lost the article. Otherwise, I would have posted a link to it.) The strategy is simple. First, list what you’ve gathered in your reporting and research: Quotes, facts, themes, everything. Then, give each item a grade from A to F. Only the bits that get an A make it into the story. You can discard the rest.
It may feel like a waste, but as Scanlan says, it’s not. All that information that never made it into the story helped you, the writer, understand the topic. And, that understanding helps you make more informed decisions about what to leave out.
This is a hard practice for me to put into place. I’m a cheapskate about the material I gather in my reporting. I can’t bear to throw anything out. So, to make myself practice this, I’ve created a spreadsheet where I can sort and grade my information. If you’d like to use it, too, you can download here: story-planning-spreadsheet-template.
Resolution 3: Write headlines that don’t stink
Headline writing has long been a weakness of mine. But, as I recently learned in an online course, headlines help readers decide whether your piece is worth their time. If your headline is lousy, the story won’t get read, making all time you spent on writing the thing a waste of time.
My story planning spreadsheet has a page devoted to headline brainstorming. Since I’ve started using it, my headlines have noticeably improved. Just spending five minutes thinking about my headlines has yielded better results, and I expect that they’ll only improve if I keep at it.
- If you want more tips on writing well, check out “10 Paradoxes of the Writing Life” by Chip Scanlan.
- If you want to dive deeper into the best practices for journalism and writing, check out Poynter’s News University. This site offers a variety of classes, both paid and free, on a variety of journalism topics.
What are your writing resolutions for 2017? How do you want your writing to improve this year? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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