Ten tips for writing

I'd like to use this column to give back in a way by providing some tips on how to write. Though my college degree is not in journalism, I've had much success with the written word:

— I won a New York Press Association award for humor writing;

— I've been published in many different publications including major magazines;

— I've edited several different club newsletters; and

— Around town, I'm often told how well-liked my Enterprise columns are.

I'm hoping that qualifies me enough to offer some tips. Writing, whether for fun, profit, school, or work, can be great fun. It's a wonderful creative outlet, too — you get to build something without getting your hands dirty (unless your quill pen leaks).

If you've never tried it or have and are looking to get better, here are 10 tips that might help:

— 1. Read, read, and read some more. All my life, I've been an avid reader. Reading anything and everything exposes you to so many different styles and words, you can't help but absorb some of it.

I've read interviews with many different authors, and they always say they read everything they can get their hands on in their chosen genre because it helps make them better writers. In your reading, be sure to include The New York Times, because it is considered the paper of record, as well as the award-winning Altamont Enterprise, especially the editorial page, because of the quality of the writing.

Reading for fun and pleasure and learning to write at the same time — it doesn't get any better than that.

— 2. Learn the rules so you can break them. All good writers break the rules now and then for many different reasons, but, before you can do that, you have to know what the rules are — grammar, spelling, parts of speech, and the basic tenets of journalism.

Pay attention in English class or get a good grammar book if you're an adult. (Strunk and White's The Elements of Style is a timeless classic for a reason.) Once you learn the rules, you can then tweak them to your advantage, which will really make your writing stand out.

— 3. Write about what you know. When I was a kid, I wanted to write but didn't think I had anything to write about. How wrong I was. We all know something.

For example, you can write about: what it feels like to get a sloppy wet kiss from a dog, going to the dentist, or locking yourself out of your car.

Quick example: For a writing class, my lovely wife wrote about buying a new purse. In this short piece, you got to know her whole outlook on life, how she was taught the value of a dollar, her value system, and more. Even if you'd never met her, from reading this amazing piece, you'd have a great idea of what a hard-working and thoughtful person she is — and all this from writing about something as simple as buying a new purse.

That's the power of good writing. The point is, there are endless things that you know about that would make for fascinating reading — all you have to do is let them come out.

— 4. Know your audience. Writing a love letter is different than writing a term paper. You have to know who your audience is and write accordingly.

When you tailor your writing like this, you're setting yourself up for success because you know the expectations and can plan and execute properly. Think about who you're writing for and you're on your way to getting great results.

— 5. Grab them in the first couple of paragraphs. As a writer, you are competing for your reader's time, which is precious to her. She has a zillion other things she can be doing. Why should she forgo any one of them to sit and read your writing?

It's up to you to make sure that, once she starts reading your work, she'll want to finish and not put on the TV or update her Facebook status. So do your best to reel her in at the beginning — it's the only chance you have.

Once you "hook" her, you can then make your point or tell your story in your own unique style. Then put the icing on the cake by wrapping up with a strong conclusion and you'll have created something you can be proud of and your reader will be glad she read. Good deal.

— 6. Keep it simple, direct, and flowing. There are writers like George Will who make a habit of slipping in long and fancy words as often as they can. He can get away with it because that's his thing, but, in general, you want to keep it simple.

Now, that doesn't mean you can't have fun with words now and then. In one of my columns, I decided to use the word "factotum" because I really like it and you hardly ever see it.

Just don't overdo it. Keep it simple, moving along, and flowing — almost like you're having a conversation — and you'll be on the right track. Reading your work, no matter the topic, should be an enjoyable experience. Don't make your reader work any harder than is necessary.

— 7. Respect your reader. If you expect someone to give you their time by reading your work, it's only fair that you treat them with the utmost respect. What does this mean? This means making sure your facts are dead-on, you're not BSing them, and that you're trying your best to make your point in as interesting and enjoyable a way as you can.

No one is expecting you to be Ernest Hemingway right off the bat, but they are expecting you to try hard. So respect your reader by trying your hardest to do your best work each time. Don't do it because it's necessary — do it because it's right.

— 8. Find your voice. You can rip a random page out of a book by Kurt Vonnegut, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Henry David Thoreau, and many other great writers and show it to voracious readers like me and we will be able to tell you in an instant who wrote it, because writers like these have a distinctive "voice" that is hard to miss.

It takes lots and lots of work to come up with your own voice, but, once you do, all your writing will be better. The only way to develop a voice is to write, write, and write some more. Practice works for musicians and athletes; why shouldn't it work for writers as well? Once you find your voice, you'll be well on your way to making a real contribution to society with your writing if you choose to.

— 9. Focus on a specific type of writing. The world of writing is as wide as the sky is blue. There are so many areas to focus on, you're sure to find one that you like. Focusing on a specific type of writing will give you the best chance of getting really good in that area.

I like reading and writing non-fiction personal essays in the Andy Rooney style. Others like thrillers, romance, poetry, or keeping up with a blog (a personal journal on the Internet) on any number of topics. The choice of what to write about is truly limited only by your imagination. How great is that?

— 10. Good writing is hard work. Like a simple weeknight dinner, you can slap a piece together pretty quickly if you want to, but good writing, like preparing fine cuisine, takes skill and effort.

I'm funny in this way — it can take me quite a while to get an idea, but, once I get the first sentence, I get the next thousand words pretty easily. Then, again like cooking, you need to allow the piece to "bake." This means you have to allow time to come back and edit it.

Unless you're covering a ball game or something else with a hard deadline, always give yourself time to let the creative juices stew, consciously and, believe it or not, sub-consciously. Editing (and having a good editor) is what can really make your piece great.

Famed sports writer Red Smith wrote: "Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed." Yes, yes, yes. All good writing must come from the heart.

Bonus Tip — writer’s block. Sometimes you hear about "writer's block," where you just get totally stuck. When this happens, you need to get your brain circuits rewired.

Try walking, traveling, sleeping on the other side of the bed, driving to work a different way, or doing a puzzle. Even taking a shower can help (some of the world's greatest discoveries have come in the shower). Just do whatever it takes — or do nothing at all (there's that sub-conscious mind working again) — until you snap out of it.

If you're currently writing, I hope these tips will help you in some way. If you're not writing, perhaps you'll be inspired to give it a try. It's really quite a fascinating hobby or vocation. Just look and listen — material is everywhere.

So don't be afraid to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard; you might be surprised at what comes out. It can be addicting, though — don't say I didn't warn you!

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