3 Ridiculously Important Writing Tips That Ann Handley Forgot to Tell You
“Writing a book is like birthing a Volkswagen,” quips Ann Handley in the first pages of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.
Small disclaimer: Unlike Ann Handley or Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, I’ve never been pregnant. But I have written a book. And if there’s one thing I know about book writing, it is this: You can never include everything in your tome – not even if it is the size of Volkswagen camper.
That is to say, no book is exhaustive. There’s always something more you could have said. So, with no further ado, here are a couple ridiculously important writing tips that Ann Handley forgot to tell you.
Tip 1: Make explicit the implicit
Take nothing for granted in your writing. List your assumptions for your readers. Define your terms, especially problematic ones.
What do I mean by this? Let’s use an example from Everybody Writes. Throughout the book, Ann applauds TheEconomist‘s style guide. She particularly likes the opening three sentences:
Coming from academia, which is a desert of mirages and dry prose, I can appreciate the second and third sentences. Difficult thoughts do not require difficult writing. Rather, confusing sentences often mask confused thinking.
That’s the lesson that Ann wants us to pull from those sentences. But take a closer look at the first sentence again. Something is missing. Can you see it?
Readily understandable–by whom? The editors never explicitly state who their readership is. They simply assume that we should know who their ideal audience is.
But therein lies the problem. What is readily understandable by a graduate student in English is not necessarily understandable by a graduate student in Economics. Furthermore, what is readily understandable by a graduate student in Economics is not necessarily understandable by a high school student of Economics.
Whom should The Economist‘s writers have in mind as they craft their articles? We do not know because The Economist‘s writers did not make explicit their implicit assumptions.
Bottom line: Polish your sentences until your assumptions are crystal clear.
Tip 2: Edit from the back to the front
Or at the very least, give some extra attention to the last three-quarters of your text.
This is particularly important for the procrastinators. In her book, Ann confesses that she’d opt to binge-watch the first three seasons of Sandal rather than sitting down at her desk to write. I, too, am the same way. (But my poison is Murder, She Wrote, and a whopping 11 more seasons await me.)
Maybe you can relate. I spend roughly 83% of my time writing the first half of the piece. By the time I reach the conclusion, I’m tired of writing. So, I say to myself, “Meh, it’s good enough. Besides, does anyone read conclusions nowadays?”
The end result is a Frankenconclusion, a monstrously ugly appendage that does not match the tone or style or depth of the first parts or your piece. Frankenconclusions happen to the best of us – even Ann Handley.
(Sorry, Ann, I love the book–really, I do–but the sixth part of Everybody Writes reads like something your editor made you tack on. You sound uninterested during your discussion of tools, and it lacks the passion of the rest of the book.)
Here are the two techniques that I’ve developed to avoid Frankenconclusions:
1. When editing, start at the end–not the beginning. When I’m copyediting (i.e. checking for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.), I start with the last sentence and work my way forward. That way, the text feels unfamiliar to me, and I see mistakes that I might otherwise miss.
Plus, by starting at the end, I make sure that I give the conclusion some extra attention.
2. Edit in 20-minute chunks. I lie to myself all the time when I’m writing. I tell myself that creating a draft is the hard part. Editing, on the other hand, will be much easier, and it won’t take as long.
I’m a fool.
The truth is editing is hard work, and if I try to edit an entire piece in one fell swoop, the quality of my editing dwindles.
It turns out that I’m better at short sprints rather than traversing Iditarod distances.
Tip 3: Read voraciously and read critically
In OnWriting,Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
When Stephen King uses the word “read,” he does not mean skim. He does not mean peruse the section headers of a blog post. He does not mean glance at an infographic, looking for stats that you can use in your next white paper.
Stephen really means read. He means looking at the words on the page–all of them–and thinking critically about what you read.
To make sure that you are processing what you read, use the following questions:
1. Do I like this piece? Why or why not? Start broadly, and then try to pinpoint the source of your emotions. Is the study poorly conducted? Does the writer misspell every other word? Sometimes, it is easier to identify your preferences by looking at someone else’s work–not your own.
2. How does the writer structure the piece? Do I want to try a similar structure in my writing? By studying the structure of an article, you can figure out what works and what doesn’t work. For instance, why do you scroll all the way to the bottom of silly Buzzfeed articles? Is it the image + text combination?
3. What do I think about the stylistics of the piece? Is there an interesting turn of phrase that you might want to borrow or adapt? (For instance, Frankenconclusion is a riff on Ann Handley’s Frankenwords.) Does the author vary sentence length? Is the author good at cultivating analogies?
Jot down your notes somewhere so that you don’t have to look for the article and try to remember why you liked it.
You should read Ann Handley’s book. It’s helpful. It’s funny. You can buy it here. You’ll be smarter for buying it, and you’ll be even smarter for reading it.
What writing tips would you like to add to Everybody Writes? Leave a comment in the comments section below!
See! That’s what happens when you don’t leave enough time for editing the conclusion! 🙂
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Volkswagen Image Credit: Nick Page on Flickr