After four months of writing a weekly article and participating in the weekly workshops, here are the most helpful writing tips I learned.
By Mary Kiser, Trident Technical College
If you’re looking to grow as a writer, then you should look to “Study Breaks.”
The magazine has given me an experience both foreign and unique, and I encourage any aspiring writer to join the “Study Breaks” community; in fact, if I could go back in time, I would have kick-started my career here. The tools that Editor Mark Stenberg, the student editing staff and other writers gave me have altered my writing style for the better, and I think that the experience of critically examining the nuts and bolts of your writing can be incredibly useful for any student author.
From tidbits of advice to golden nuggets of wisdom, they’ve made their mark on how I write, as well as on how I read. I’m forever grateful, and I wanted to share not just my gratitude, but my knowledge.
So, after writing for “Study Breaks” for upwards of four months, here are some of the most helpful writing tips that I have picked up along the way.
1. Write Passionately, Not Passively
At “Study Breaks,” the editing staff constantly preaches the use of the active voice. Its opposite, the passive voice, generally stems from the use of helping and linking verbs, such as “is, are, was, were, be, being” and “been.” When using these words, the subject of the sentence can be obscured, which means the action meanders around, which leads to wordiness. Most students write their first drafts using the passive, which is fine, but in the revision process, it is important to look for instances of passive that should be changed and to change them.
The passive voice has a time and a place, especially when you want to indicate an action is happening to you, as well as when discussing more delicate topics, so it is not a matter of eradicating the passive. Instead, the idea is that writers should consider passive voice a tool in their writing tool belt, one to be used in certain situations to create a specific effect, but not one that young writers rely upon.
Working to remove the passive voice can be difficult, as part of the transformation comes from adopting a whole new slew of active verb substitutes, such as “aim, avoid, work, eschew” and “adopt,” as well as a dozen others, but a lot of the magic comes from learning to restructure your sentences differently, putting most of the descriptive, scene-setting information toward the front of the sentence. By doing so, you create the context for the action of the sentence, and then let it happen concisely, at the end, after a lot of build-up.
2. Be Linguistically Specific
Generally, try to avoid vague words. Whether you’re writing for the “Rolling Stone” or your history professor, be as descriptive as possible. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, you have over 250,000 words to choose from, so be picky!
Whether you’re writing about the standoff between Trump and Comey or the metamorphosis of a butterfly, always wrack your brain for the right word. Treat your word count as if you were on the “Wheel of Fortune,” and every time you wanted to use a word you had to pay for it. You should write with the mentality that every word should be carrying its weight, so using more dynamic verbs, removing redundant modifiers and arranging your syntax to say as much as you can in as few words as possible should always be on the back of your mind.
Your writing is only as strong as your language, after all.
3. Writing Numbers
Different publications have different ways of representing numbers, but Stenberg advocates a system in which they are almost always written out. According to the “Study Breaks” style guide, in fact, writers are encouraged to use words in many cases in which symbols are allowed, such as writing “percent” instead of using the symbol. The idea is to create a uniformity of text, excising incongruous figures from one’s writing whenever possible. Of course, exceptions to the rule exist, and, especially since the guiding principle is clarity, all rules are subject to scrutiny, and nothing is merely accepted as fact without due consideration.
As a result of their philosophy, Stenberg encourages writing out numbers between one and ninety-nine, as well as most larger numbers if they are simple enough, such as one billion or two hundred and forty. Very specific numbers, ones that go down to the last digit and cannot be rounded, such as “81, 325,” should be written out for clarity, same thing for percentages and speeds. One important caveat to keep in mind though is that no sentence should start with a numerical figure, so it should be written out if it begins the thought, or, as sometimes is the answer, the sentence should merely be rearranged to avoid the problem entirely.
Other important rules regarding numbers can be found here. Read at your own risk.
4. Chill on the Dashes
En dashes are used to separate compound adjectives, such as “full-time,” and em dashes can be used to separate the most important part of a sentence—the most important part. However, young writers increasingly have a tendency to overuse both, especially em dashes.
Here’s my advice. If you’re unsure on whether or not a word should be hyphenated, just use your friendly Safari or Google. If you’re unsure on whether or not to set a phrase or word aside with an em dash, then ask yourself if you could use a comma as a replacement. Most of the time, when you’re using the abrupt em dash, you could really just be using a comma. The em dash indicates a jarring, hasty aside, one that has a place in writing, but should not be used in cases in which commas suffice. Some theorists have even suggested that the rise in the em dash correlates to the increasingly short attention span of the modern reader; whether this is the case or not, I don’t know, but it would do you some good to consider the comma before typing and dashing.
And if you’re unsure about the difference between em dashes and en dashes, then have no fear. Your local Grammarist page is here.
5. Keep Introductions Short and to the Point
Though of course this advice does depend on the subject of the piece, a good rule of thumb is that your introductions should be less than one hundred and fifty words. In an age in which readers make the decision to stay or leave your article within two seconds, time really is of the essence. When a reader decides to give your article a try, it is likely because they are interested in what the title promised them, so the sooner you can get to discussing that subject matter, the likelier they are to stay.
When it comes to brevity of introduction, the writer is not powerless to the whims of the reader; there are a multitude of different ways to introduce a piece, and if you feel like a slow, sauntering introduction is the way to go, try giving an overview of the subject in the first few paragraphs, and then essentially starting “at the beginning” with your first body paragraph. You are constantly trying to toe the line between how you want to tell the story, and how your audience wants to read it; keep both parties in consideration when writing, but be sure to be cognizant of their patience when writing the intro.