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Writing Gooder

The first submission in the b5media 12 (or so) days of Christmas series is from Rhys Alexander one of b5′s many bloggers with more blogs than she really knows what to do with. She’s the blogger behind Screamstress (a horror blog) and Literally Blogging at b5. And has other personal blogs that include: Proud White Trash, Online Universities, TV Envy, and Universities. Rhys is also a college professor who teaches writing and literature and has more energy and ideas than I’ve seen bundled in one person for a long time! I hope you enjoy her post on Writing Gooder – she certainly seems qualified for it.

Do you have dreams of striking it rich through blogging? Want to sell your own products, or make revenue off a company’s products? Want to be the king or queen of blogging networks, an online ad expert, an Internet force? Great. But before you can accomplish any of this, before you can even begin to have a hope of success, you must possess one crucial skill. And it has nothing to do with business savvy. It’s good writing.

As a blogger, writing is your main product. It’s the only way your reader or potential consumer has to know you and to gauge what you’re selling, whether it’s a physical product or simply your thoughts. Your writing is what a car is to the car sales person, what the colorful consoles and games are to Nintendo, what the rousing beat and catchy lyrics are to a musician. In blogging, your writing is you.

Unlike stories and novels, where the reader has the luxury of flipping through pages to get to the ‘good part,’ you must capture the reader’s attention immediately. Because something else is always a click away. There’s a reason they’re called ‘hyper links.’

I teach writing and literature courses at the university level, and regardless of the class, we always spend the first three weeks discussing the three crucial elements of all good writing. We don’t have three weeks here, of course, but we’ll cover the important highlights.

All good writing can be reduced to three essential parts:

Diction

Detail

Grammar

The first element is diction. Diction is simply word choice. What could reveal more about you as a writer than the words you choose?

The biggest mistake writers make here is diluting their writing with unnecessary words, perhaps trying to sounds more ‘important’ or ‘intelligent.’ Don’t deaden your words that way. You want your writing to crackle with life and energy. One word is always better than two.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King addresses this wonderfully:

“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.

“Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip” and you’ll never say John stopped long enough to perform an act of excretion when you mean John stopped long enough to take a s***. If you believe “take a s***” would be considered offensive or inappropriate for your audience, feel free to say John stopped long enough to move his bowels . . . I’m not trying to get you to talk dirty, only plain and direct.

“Remember that the basic rule of vocabulary is use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful. If you hesitate and cogitate, you will come up with another word — of course you will, there’s always another word — but it probably won’t be as good as your first one, or as close to what you really mean.”

Writers’ sentences are often full of unnecessary, clunky words. Our lexicon is full of overdone expressions like “9pm at night,” “very unique,” “in my opinion,” and so on. Take a look at these two sentences and their revisions:

“In the border closer to the image, there is a crease which runs through the border about one inch..” Ug. Instead, how about “Closer to the image, a one-inch crease runs through the border.”

“One of the important chapters of the book that I find interesting is the one about the language of chimpanzees,” can be streamlined to “The important chapter on chimpanzee language interests me.” Which would you rather read?

As a teacher, I like to give assignments. So if diction is a problem for you, try this: A popular writing genre is ‘short shorts’ in which a writer writes a complete story in less than 300 words. That means you have characters, a setting, a beginning, middle, and end, and conflict…all in less than a page of writing.

An example: ( Daydream by Roberta Allen)

“My half sister is shrieking in the front seat of the car while her husband–a gambler like our father–races through the mountains at top speed. This trip feels like a roller-coaster ride. My half sister’s husband can’t wait to reach Las Vegas and lose his wife’s money. Their son and daughter hold each other tight in the backseat where i sit too. My half sister’s daughter–older than me!–is also shrieking. i keep my nose pressed against the window glass. I am not afraid.”

You learn so much in such a short space. You can practice this with fiction or non-fiction. There’s no better exercise to force you to choose the ‘best word.’

The next must-have is detail.

Detail makes the difference between boring and terrific writing. It’s the difference between a pencil sketch and a lush oil painting. As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colors.

All detail is rooted in the five sense, as these are the only way we can possibly experience the world. The five senses are sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Can you guess which one is the most overused?

Yup: sight. Even the worst writing will describe what something looks like. One sense is missing in more than 90% of writing: smell. Which is unfortunate, as smell is the sense most closely tied to memory, and the one that affects us most strongly. If you see a picture of an ex boyfriend or girlfriend, for example, memories will arise. But imagine how strongly you’ll be affected if you catch a whiff of the perfume or cologne they used to wear.

Oh come on, you may be thinking, I blog about car reviews. People just want the facts.

Yes. But would they rather get those facts in a dry, boring paragraph, or would they rather feel like they’re there with you in the car, the smell of new leather tickling their nostrils, the vibration of the engine beneath their feet, the butter-smooth leather against their fingertips? Guess which article would make the reader want to buy the car.

In her novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver is a master of sensory detail. Here is the first paragraph from her book:

“Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.”

Beautiful and affecting, but even she forgot to include smell.

Here is the assignment I use to help my students improve their sense of detail. It forces you away from the hackneyed sense of sight, and to consider the senses most writers overlook:

Describe your favorite color to a blind person who has never seen it.

You obviously can’t explain what green ‘looks’ like. But how does it smell, what would it feel like, what sound does it make? This ends up being most of my students’ favorite assignment.

Now on to the dreaded, but necessary, evil: grammar. You must have expertise in this area or you will never be taken seriously as a writer. Grammar is the foundation your house of writing is built on, and without it, your structure will crumble.

Nothing is worse than being interested in a piece of writing, only to encounter bad grammar. Nothing pulls a reader out of the illusion faster than this lack of skill. It’s like seeing a beautiful woman across the room, only to have her smile at you and reveal rotting teeth. Ruins the effect, doesn’t it?

There are several blogs that contain interesting premises and original thought, but I can’t stand to read them because the writers have not bothered to perfect a basic grasp on language rules.

Now, typos and misspellings are not that big of a deal…spell checkers will pretty much catch those. (There may well be typos in this very article…but there’s a difference between making a minor mistake, and not knowing what you’re doing.)

The most common, and worst, errors are context errors. Basically, it’s using a wrong version of a word.

The most common is probably the infernal switching of ‘your’ and ‘you’re.’ If nothing else, please know the difference between these two. And of course, there’s their/there/they’re, it/it’s, accept/except, affect/effect, and many, many more main offenders. A great exercise is to practice sentences containing all variations of the word, to force your brain into seeing where each version belongs. For instance, to practice their/they’re/there: “Those dogs over ___are wagging ___tails. ___ cute.”

This is just the tip of the grammar iceberg, but as 85% of errors writers make here are context errors, it’s worth the time. It will be painful at first, but soon it will come naturally.

Here’s a maddening, yet fun exercise I use each semester. The following poem, if put through a spell checker, will come out as perfect with no errors. That’s because spell checkers don’t catch context errors. Take a look:

“I have a spelling checker -
It came with my PC
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh -
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing.
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when aye rime.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should be proud.
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaws are knot aloud.

And now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know faults with in my cite;
Of non eye am a wear.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed to be a joule.
The checker poured o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

That’s why aye brake in two averse
By righting wants too pleas.
Sow now ewe sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear for pea seas!”

Read out loud, it makes sense. But it will twist your brain will you try to read it. For the ultimate exercise in overcoming context errors, rewrite this correctly.

This concludes our brief exercise in Writing Gooder.

Everyone can become a better writer, and it’s your most valuable asset as a blogger. Once you have the mad writing skillz, nothing will stand in your way of taking over the blogosphere.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Larson says:

    Well said professor.

    All the SEO, stats and ad placement schemes in the world won’t help a horrific writer/blogger. Amazing this isn’t talked about more often.

    Yes, smell, I like it.

    Can the car review guy make your nose twitch and inhale the rolling fumes of new leather stretched around a bucket seat?

    Or will he just roll out the dead stats… and further the growing corpse of “information”?

    Ah, I suppose the cream will eventually rise.

    And Darren, good luck.

  2. Victor says:

    My kind of reading, Rhys. You made some wonderful points here. I’m new to the blogging community and have enjoyed the b5 network. I look forward to visiting your other blogs soon.

    Great decision Darren!

    Take care,

    Vic

  3. Marco says:

    I liked that you mentioned Nintendo. Are you a fan? For I always thought that a problogger did not have enough time to play games.

  4. Christina says:

    Ware due we sand or assignments four you’re reef vue? ;) Great article, Rhys!

  5. Verne Gripes says:

    This is excellent, and not said often enough. Especially to ourselves.

  6. Hsien Lei says:

    I’m constantly trying to improve my writing and I think blogging is a great way to do it. Bloggers typically write frequently and practice is one of the major ways write gooder.

  7. Dehumanizer says:

    Very nice post.

    Am I the only blogger in the world who doesn’t use a spellchecker? I sometimes have a couple of typos, and there are words that I’ve spelled wrongly for years (e.g. “confortable” instead of comfortable), but, otherwise, I think my blogs don’t have spelling problems…

    I have to try using one someday, to see if it catches anything.

  8. Dave says:

    I don’t mean to be picky but I believe the correct pronuciation is ‘Gooderer’…or is that just me…..nice article…thanks

  9. Thanks for an education post Rhys,

    A great read and learning experience for all I’m sure.

    There’s nothing quite like typing to trip you up with spelling mistakes!
    I tend to use a spell checker and read through text for any hidden errors, such as the word he [which should be the] and other common errors.

    This wouldn’t happen if I was writing with a pen!

  10. Gayla says:

    …and if a person doesn’t have the skills as such, therein may be a niche :)

    I call it “Hillbilly bloggin”

    I think the fear of proper spelling, proper grammar and the many vocal critics around the blogosphere lead to many not making the effort at all.

    I know of two right off hand who won’t blog because they are afraid of “the critics.”

    Personally, I could easily overlook their spelling errors and such just to be blessed with their imagination through blogging.

    I guess it’s kind of like –
    Someday’s I feel like hanging out in sweats and reading Hillbilly Bloggin’ while other days I feel like dressing to the nine’s and reading “proper.” :)

    That’s just me though…

    Great article Rhys – I hope others will follow your example and lead and not place so much emphasis on the fear of writing.

  11. Great post, Rhys, and I agree wholeheartedly. Poorly written blogs quickly lose their position in my RSS reader. I will sometimes opt to use larger words than are necessary, but not because I think that it sounds better but because that is how I actually talk and I do not really think about it. I like the bit about writing on the other sense more often. I have no sense of smell though so that particular avenue is not open for me.

  12. Roy Jacobsen says:

    A good post. Writing well will give you an edge that so many seem to take for granted.

    One note I’d add to the diction section: Beware of jargon. Given the specialized nature of many blogs, you can’t avoid jargon completely. But some terms become so diluted by overuse and improper use that they’re not useful anymore. Also, buzz-words and phrases are death to clear communication. Do things like “mission critical,” “cutting edge,” and “seamless solution integration” actually mean anything anymore (if they ever did)? (Bullfighter — http://www.fightthebull.com — is a good tool for checking for that sort of gobbledegook.)

    Finally, a bit of shameless self-promotion: I write about this very topic at my blog — Writing, Clear and Simple (rmjacobsen.squarespace.com).

  13. Funny, despite having a pretty good vocabulary (I would say), I had no idea diction could mean choice of words. I’ve only ever heard it used to mean enounciation, particularly when referring to singing.

    I think the most helpful thing for learning good writing is reading as many books as possible. When you’re so accustomed to seeing proper grammar and the correct choices between homonyms, it makes it very easy to spot mistakes (or prevent them entirely) in your own writing, because it will just look wrong.

  14. Rhys says:

    Thanks so much for the great feedback, everyone! I’m so glad you found the post helpful! And Christina–good one! :)

  15. Ingrid says:

    Your rite, Rhys. Bad grammer and poor spelling is a definate turn-off ;)

    Seriously, though, this was a great post. I thoroughly enjoyed it. :)

  16. Eiso Kant says:

    Usually i come to problogger.net and see if there is a title that excites me, if so i start reading the excerpt and then usually move on but this time i was caught up by your writing and read your article, i’m glad i did. A large compliment from me!

    I will definitly share the link to this article with the TeenageWriters.com members.

    Best regards,

    Eiso

  17. Mike says:

    Simply great !

    Those of us not fortunate enough to write English, I use Kentuckian instead, are astounded at the depth of your knowledge and ability to write that much in one sittin’ !

  18. Matt says:

    Haven’t read the story Rhys, but will shortly. The thing I found interesting in looking at this post is that the blogs attributed to Rhys don’t appear to be written by her at all. Well, actually, the white trash one seems to be down, but the University one is written by some professor guy, and the other is written by three people whose names also don’t seem to be Rhys. Maybe the links are pointing to the wrong places?

  19. Benny says:

    Awesome post. As a new blogger, I’m trying to make my posts concise. Writing has never been my best subject so I’m hoping there is room for me to improve.

  20. Yaro says:

    Can someone give me a quick lesson in affect/effect? I’m am struggling with this one so I generally opt for ‘effect’ hoping it’s the correct one.

    I’ve googled around to read some teaching materials but I just can’t get my head around the whole one “has happened” and one is “going to happen” explanation.

  21. colbert says:

    Rhys

    Thanks for the great read. Its always good to make sure typos are not posted up as that would leave a very sticky mark on your reputation. A good old dictionary comes in handy for me.

  22. Yes, good stuff, Rhys. No doubt some in the blogosphere could do with a word shaver, if such a thing exists. But there are also those who might add a little wordage to their illiterate offerings.

    I liked Stephen King’s book on writing too. Very unexpected. Have you read “On Writing” by Arthur Quiller-Couch? He’s got a similar example to yours : for the sentence “He was conveyed to his place of residence in an inebriated condition”, he puts “He was carried home drunk”. Much better. :-)

  23. Glen Farmer says:

    Excellent article. I particularly liked the part on using all the senses.
    I checked out the other blogs you write, or contribute to, but there doesn’t seem to be one that has articles like this.
    If there is one could you let me know.
    I need all the help I can get..

  24. Marti says:

    Wonderful post, Rhys!

    Spelling and grammar errors ARE important to a lot of folks – look at the success of the book, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” – LOL

    Thank you for YOUR magnificent writing!

  25. Spelling and grammar errors are speedbumps and potholes on the communication highway. Your readers will have to slow down, and they won’t enjoy the ride. Even if your message is outstanding, people will become fatigued and either visit less often or look for an alternate route altogether.

  26. Rhys says:

    Hi everyone! Thanks again for all the wonderful comments, and I’m thrilled that it was helpful!

    Marco: no, I really don’t play video games, but since Ingrid’s always yammering on about them they’ve been on my mind lately. ;)

    Nancy: I know EXACTLY what you mean! It’s much easier to get it right when a keyboard isn’t involved. (In fact, I just made a typo when replying to you. :)

    Thank you, Eiso! I’m honored.

    Yaro–great question! I always tell my students the easiest way to remember is that ‘affect’ is a verb and ‘effect’ is a noun. Such as…Alcohol will affect the intended effect of this medicine.

    Dave: good one! ‘Gooderer’ it shall be. :)

    Gayla…Hillbilly blogging is great. you should start a blog on it!

    Matt: sorry for the confusion! I co-write some of them, which is why other people’s bios/pictures are there.

    Blaine: no smell? How tragic!

    Excellent point about jargon, Roy. It’s extremely annoying.

    John: Thank you for the book recommendation. It sounds great!

    Thanks Marti! :)

    Glen: excellent point! I actually have thought about starting an English/writing blog with subjects like this post. If b5 will let me have another blog…:)

    Thanks so much everyone…and please ignore any typos in the post. :) Happy blogging!

  27. er, “But it will twist your brain will you try to read it.”

    Evidently!

  28. Rhys says:

    Exactly, Christopher! :)

  29. Matt says:

    Great article. It’s the details that help to convince a reader that what you’re writing about is really happening, that convinces them you know what you’re talking about.

    Wow, this is an old article.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] There’s an article over at ProBlogger by guest author Rhys Alexander on how to really improve your writing. I’d be remiss if I didn’t advise your inner manager to force your inner writer to go and read the article. Twice. [...]

  2. [...] Day 1 – Writing Gooder Day 2 – Ethics for Science and Health Bloggers Day 3 – It’s all about the Lifestyle Day 4 – Fund Your Love of Blogging [...]

  3. [...] Although I give due credit to the amazing Rhys Alexander on the importance of “Writing Gooder“, but a blog post is not all about what you say or how you say it. Face it, there are hundreds of things that just slip past us, well written or not. [...]

  4. PigPog says:

    Improving your Writing

    Latest Update: Added You Don’t Need Permission to Create from Ripples.
    Improving Your Writing

    You Don’t Need Permission to Create from Ripples – some good, practical advice for getting started and getting better.
    Writing Gooder at ProBlogger

  5. [...] Writing Gooder at ProBlogger – some excellent advice for writing. Aimed at bloggers, but just as relevant if you’re writing articles or even a novel. “Once you have the mad writing skillz, nothing will stand in your way of taking over the blogosphere.” [...]