So you think you can write, ey? You may have some natural ability but unrefined talent will only get you so far. Like most skills, writing well takes practise and it only takes a few slips in tense, a single sentence fragment, or a meandering introduction to make a reader file your content in the “meh” tray forever. Avoid looking like a n00b and giving your editor/teacher/professor/clients a frustration-induced brain aneurysm by following this simple list of tips for rookie writers I devised when sifting through my own contributor’s articles.
- Being too lazy/confident to proof read
Once you’ve finished writing read your work out loud. Twice. The first time you will be constantly stopping and starting as you fix up some of the problems listed below. The second time, with technical errors out of the way, you’ll be able to get a much better idea of how well structured your article is and whether or not it flows. Editors can always tell if you’ve actually read your work, and if you haven’t, why should they?!
- Writing sentence fragments
Every sentence must have three things: a subject (the thing that is performing the action), an action (the action being performed) and an object (the thing receiving the action). Take this sentence for example: “No matter how long it took to get to the festival, the whistle of the wind in the gum trees, the feel of fresh mud underfoot, and the sound of psytrance in the air.” This is not actually a sentence, it’s a sentence fragment. Why? Well, if we break it down, we can see that there is only one of the three elements being fulfilled. In this sentence we have three objects: the “whistle” of the wind, the “feel” of the mud, and the “sound” of psytrance. However, these objects aren’t doing anything. If we were to add the words “always excited them” to the end of this sentence we would have a full sentence. “Excited” would be the action and “them” would be the subject.
- Not asking, “who cares?”
Do the “party test”. When you are reading your story out loud ask yourself, “If this story was being told to me by someone at a party, would I be interested in what they were saying, or would I be politely waiting for them to finish so that we can start talking about something I actually care about?”A common error is to write about topics that you think other people will be interested in. But, if it doesn’t interest you, why would it interest anybody else? Always ask yourself “what is the point?” and “who cares?”. This test is especially important if you are writing an opinion piece with little or no research.
- Mixing up tenses
Whilst there are some ways to incorporate multiple tenses into a piece, beginner writers should make sure they use the same tense throughout a story. There are three tenses which are used to show us when a story takes place: past tense (we ate a brownies) present tense (we are eating brownies), and future tense (we are going to eat brownies). Tense is tricky to grasp because often we start a story in one tense and accidentally slip into another tense by the end of it.
- Using the dreaded “that”
Don’t use the word “that”. “That” is a useless filler word in 90% of cases. It doesn’t mean anything and almost always detracts from the punch of a sentence. For example:
Have I told you that I love you? Or: Have I told you I love you? Same sentence, same meaning, but the second has one less word. When you apply this to an entire article you will soon realise “that” can seriously detract from your style. Obviously you need to use “that” in some sentences in order for the sentence to make sense (for example, the next subheading), but this is rarer than you’d think.
- Using description that isn’t actually that descriptive
Avoid descriptive words that don’t actually tell you anything. Instead of describing something as good, nice, awesome, fun, amazing, sick, mad, cool etc. go to thesaurus.com and search for a word that really tells us what you mean. Which sounds better? The sick party was filled with good people who were always nice. or The lively gathering was filled with uplifting people who were always approachable. These two sentences have the same sentiment but one conveys a much clearer picture.
- Being vague
Being specific always adds interest to your writing. Don’t just tell the reader you were enjoying a bottle of wine at the beach. Tell us you were slowly sipping a disproportionately large bottle of Moet atop the Burleigh Heads cliffs.
- Dicking around in a vain attempt to create an original style
Get to the point as early in the article as you can. Nine times out of ten if people can’t tell what they are reading about from the title of an article and the first paragraph they are going to give up on reading. Trying to be mysterious before you have established yourself as a writer rarely pays off.
- Not knowing your numbers
This applies more to technical documents/articles than informal blogs, but it’s still a handy rule to know. When writing out numbers there is one rule to remember: the numbers ten and under are always spelled out, numbers above ten are always written as digits. For example: Suzie had five tallies, 12 nangs, three trips, 29 bottles of water and one joint.
- Angle abandonment
Every piece must have an angle. An angle is more than an overarching theme, it’s a specific hypothesis that your article illuminates. Angles are tricky, especially when it comes to writing reviews. It is not merely enough to say that a gig happened, or even to describe how it happened. The ideas you have about a story need to be specific enough to capture the imagination. Angles don’t come easily to even the most experienced writers and it pays to brainstorm with other writers to find the best angle for your piece. Angles can always be refined later on in the writing process, but if you don’t have one to begin with you can waste a lot of time writing content you don’t end up using. Here is an example of the brain storming process used to come up with a solid angle:
I want to write a story about Boom festival.
What about Boom?
I don’t know, how fun it was?
How fun it was in comparison to other festivals?
Yeah I guess.
What makes Boom different from other festivals?
Well it’s one of the oldest parties and it’s held in Spain.
Ah, Spanish festivals! Now that’s interesting. You can make it a comparative article. Focus on the differences between the Spanish party style and the Aussie party style.
When you have a really solid angle it’s easier to write an attractive piece with a title that grabs you from the start. Which sounds more interesting? “Boom 2014: My Festival Experience” or “Boom 2014: Why Spaniards Festival Better!”