One of my first graduate school professors offered our class, in one of the first sessions of the semester, some guidance as he summed up what he expected of our writing. That night, he said three words he would repeat throughout the semester, and which I have never forgotten.
Clear, Concise, and Compelling
So simple. And yet it’s guided me in writing essays, blog posts, and my fiction all these years since.
No matter what you’re writing, you want to be clear. The reader should know what you’re trying to say. So should you, the writer. When I find myself with a muddled mess of a sentence, I ask myself, “What am I trying to say?” The trick is, I answer the question. “I’m trying to say: Canadian Geese have turned my backyard into a mine field.” There. A simple sentence. Once you answer the question, you may be able to use your simple answer as is. Or it can show you the gulf between what you’re trying to say and the muck of a sentence you’ve written, where you went off on a tangent, or perhaps that you didn’t even get to the point you wanted to make.
When we write a first draft of anything, it’s the raw product of our brain. On revision, one of our jobs is to trim excess words. Certain words are big red flags that something needs to be cut. There is/was, it, very are just some words that should catch your eye. Look at the difference here: There was a flutter in my stomach versus My stomach fluttered. A small change, but the second sentence uses fewer words to get to the point, and is stronger for it.
What and how much you cut gets to a matter of style and voice, so these decisions really lie with you. Here you have to do what feels right.
This is a matter of word choice, approach, narrative style, among other things. Again, these decisions will lie with you. Only you can say what is compelling for your topic or story. But when you’re searching for a word, perhaps you don’t settle for the first word that comes to mind. Does that word truly describe the vision in your mind? Are you using abstract where you could use concrete words? Is there another way to convey your message that will grab more of the reader’s attention?
When I begin writing and when I stumble, I return again and again to these three words. They set me straight and clear a path for my writing. Even in my fiction, this advice has improved my writing.
Some writing advice will take you far. Some will take you further. If you keep your writing clear, concise, and compelling, you’ll be on your way.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received?
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