Thursday, January 21, 2010

Basic Tenets for Good Writing

Opinion has supplanted research. There is no reason to learn the facts if an opinion is as acceptable as the truth. Nowhere is this as obvious as on the internet. Everything here is debatable: news stories, celebrity lifestyles, even encyclopedia entries.

When it comes to good writing, however, there are certain basics that are not debatable. Whether we are bloggers, content producers for various websites, novelists, these are all tenets we must heed:

1. Use dynamic verbs and concrete nouns, and keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Watch for word qualifiers such as “a little,” “quite,” “somewhat.” They undermine our authority and make our writing seem indecisive.

2. Action first; reaction second. Cause first, effect second. “He finished smoking his cigar, then he aired out the room.” Not: “He aired out the room after he finished smoking his cigar.” When we don’t use the proper sequence, our writing seems unfocused.

3. Use active voice; too much use of passive makes our writing seem muffled.

4. Don’t be clever just for the sake of cleverness, don’t complicate the obvious, and don’t be unconventional for the sake of being exotic; ultimately, our readers will feel used or confused, and we will lose them.

5. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar do count. Content is important, but what good is all our wisdom if we come across as dolts?

6. Strive for clarity, economy, grace, and dignity. We can string words together, but without at least a couple of these elements, our writing will not be worth reading.

Pat Bertram is the author of Daughter Am I, More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire available from Second Wind Publishing, LLC.


James C. Wallace II said...

You make some interesting points but I would ask you to clarify one particular issue which I fall under.

I use a grammar style that is not quite correct but accomplishes my goal of approximating what I term the "Hoosier dialect."

Is it acceptable to use an incorrect style of grammar when it suits your story purpose?

Pat Bertram said...

Good point and one that needs clarification. Dialogue is different. It is not only acceptable to use an incorrect style of grammar when it comes to talking, you absolutely need to, otherwise the dialogue seems stilted. Very few of us use correct grammar when speaking, and neither should our characters. As for dialect -- try to rely on sentence construction and word use to portray the dialect instead of apostrophes. A lot of apostrophes are hard to tolerate, especially if the story is told in first person and the whole story and not just dialogue is written in dialect.

James C. Wallace II said...

That helps explain a lot. Apostrophes aren't so much an issue for me as much as the comma.