I occasionally receive emails from LRC readers, asking for advice on becoming better writers and on getting published.
Here is some general advice; I may not always follow all of it because I’m not perfect, and because writing is an art and there are exceptions to everything. But the advice is still solid.
Avoid common mistakes.
By far the most common mistake I see on the Internet is using "your" instead of "you’re" (I almost phrased this as "confusing ‘your’ and ‘you’re,’" but that’s inaccurate, because most people clearly don’t even know there is such a thing as "you’re.") "Your" is a possessive pronoun, such as: "Kramer, your article was 10 minutes of my life I’ll never get back." "You’re" is a contraction of "you are," such as: "Kramer, you’re a mediocre writer who’s better suited for picking up trash in the park."
Other typical errors are confusing "whose" and "who’s"; "its" and "it’s"; "then" and "than," etc.
Cultivate good headlines/titles.
This is an area I struggle with; I seem to have little imagination for clever titles, and I marvel at some titles I see, and especially at people who are able to think of numerous clever possibilities for one article almost instantly. The main reason this is important is the more people you can "grab" with your title, the more people will read your article.
As an example, probably the best title I’ve seen in the past year was for a December article on Politico.com by Jeremy Lott and W. James Antle III, which was about Ron Paul’s amazing ability to raise money and recruit supporters — despite the fact that he’s not only offering them no government hand-outs, but is specifically telling them that they won’t get any if he can help it (but in exchange, of course, they’ll get their freedom). The article was titled The Audacity of Nope, which was a play on the title of Barack Obama’s New York Times Best-seller, The Audacity of Hope.
Probably the quickest way someone can look like an amateur writer is by cluttering his prose with unnecessary or redundant words.
An example of a cluttered sentence is: "In my opinion, I truly think that LewRockwell.com is one of the very best news sites on the Internet." A tighter version is: "In my opinion, LewRockwell.com is one of the best news sites on the Internet." But you generally don’t need to label obvious opinions as such, so an even tighter version is: "LewRockwell.com is one of the best news sites on the Internet." Even a stronger statement, such as: "LewRockwell.com is the best news site on the Internet," is still obviously an opinion and doesn’t need to be labeled as such.
Once you learn to look for unnecessary words, you’ll be amazed at how many you’ll find. Another example, which is subtler than the previous one, is: "I used to have a red bicycle," which can be tightened to: "I had a red bicycle."
A common type of clutter, which is sometimes seen even in prolific, professional writers, is the use of "intensifiers," which are usually unnecessary and/or redundant.
As an example, in his book on the American class structure, Class, English professor Paul Fussell described author John T. Molloy’s research into the class implications of men’s clothing as "really quite impressive research." This conveys no more information than just "impressive research."
Other examples are phrases like "most favorite" or "very best," because such things have no degree: something is either the best according to some criterion, or it’s not; something is either your favorite, or it’s not. For example, instead of writing: "My favorite types of ice cream are vanilla and strawberry, but my most favorite is chocolate," write: "I like vanilla and strawberry ice cream, but my favorite is chocolate."
An example of a different type of redundancy can unfortunately be found in my last article, where I let the phrase "unforeseen beforehand" slip by me. Non-redundant versions are: "unforeseen" or "unseen beforehand."
This could be seen as the opposite of being redundant, because sometimes it’s necessary to add words to clarify something.
When you reread something you’ve written, ask yourself if there’s anything that could possibly be misunderstood. If so, rewrite it until it’s clear. For an example from elsewhere in this article, about my writing style: "My style has been influenced by Harry Browne more than by anyone else." There’s no room for doubt that I’m stating that Harry Browne influenced my writing style more than anyone else has. But if I had written: "My style has been influenced by Harry Browne more than anyone else," do I mean that Harry Browne influenced me more than anyone else influenced me, or that he influenced me more than he influenced anyone else?
One could argue that the meaning is obvious, because if Harry influenced me more than he influenced anyone else, there’s no way I could know that. That’s true — with this example. But why leave any doubt, especially when adding one more word can clarify the statement?
Don’t "back into" a sentence.
This should generally be avoided; even so, it’s common among professional writers, although I don’t know why, especially since people rarely talk this way.
An example is: "When I was a kid, I had a red bicycle." This could be changed to: "I had a red bicycle when I was a kid," which also tightens and simplifies the sentence by removing the comma.
Using clichés, which is another sign of an amateur writer, should generally be avoided; there’s always an original way to make the same point. Clichés without quotation marks are even worse, because then it seems like the writer is trying to pass off the cliché as his own words.
Make smooth transitions.
Use transitions from one subject to the next. When you reread something, look for any changes from one paragraph to the next that seem too abrupt. When you find one, insert a transition so that your writing flows. An easy way is to start a transition sentence is with a word like "and" or "but"; while this may be grammatically incorrect, and may even produce sentence fragments, it makes for a smooth transition.
Make complicated things simple, rather than simple things complicated.
The saying is true that brilliance is not making simple things complicated; it’s making complicated things simple. Have you ever read something written in such convoluted English that you had to reread the sentence several times to understand it? That doesn’t mean you’re stupid; it means the sentence was poorly written.
As a writer, strive to use the most appropriate word to convey your message. As Mark Twain wrote, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." But the right word isn’t always the fanciest one; choose the best word to convey your message, not the best word to show off your vocabulary or to prove to your readers how much you know or how smart you are. Usually, the shortest, simplest word is the best choice.
My LRC archive shows that I struggle with this, but the advice is still sound, regardless of whether I always have the self-discipline to follow it: Don’t wait to become motivated to write. You don’t wait to become motivated to go to your job or to do your work once you get there — at least not if you want to keep your job. If you wish to someday make writing your profession, force yourself to write; as with anything, the hardest part is usually getting started.
Don’t think you have to be perfect.
I’m a perfectionist, so I understand the idea, as irrational as it is, of putting something off indefinitely until you think you’re better prepared. Stop it. Don’t use fear of failure as an excuse not to even try; if you wait until you’re perfect, or until you know for certain beforehand that you won’t fail or won’t embarrass yourself, you’ll be waiting forever. You’re a human being, and you can’t do anything perfectly — and neither can anyone else. The way to get over this is to just get to work; once you make mistakes and see that the world didn’t end, this concern should dissipate.
Find a writer to emulate.
This was the advice Murray Rothbard used to give to people to improve their writing; he recommended reading H.L. Mencken.
In my experience, if you read someone’s work because you enjoy reading their substance, but you also admire their style, you will learn a similar style almost by osmosis, with no conscious effort.
My style has been influenced by Harry Browne more than by anyone else; when he first introduced me to libertarianism, I began devouring all of his work that I could find. I had no aspirations to become a writer at the time, but his knack for writing in short sentences and short paragraphs and for explaining complex subjects in simple terms seems to have seeped into my subconscious over the years, and I hope it shows.
Develop your own style.
It’s difficult to give specific advise on this point, because it’s something that should come automatically, the more you write. But generally, while you should find writers to emulate, you shouldn’t necessarily try to copy them exactly. If you receive the same complaint about your style — which would usually result from it being unclear — from several different people, then you should probably consider making some changes. But, if writing in a certain style brings success and makes you proud of your work, you probably shouldn’t listen to occasional, random people who tell you it’s wrong.
For example, I can think of one prolific, successful writer who almost never writes in compound sentences, so I find his style too "choppy." He also uses parenthesis frequently and unnecessarily, when he could’ve incorporated that side-note into the sentence. Whenever I read his work, I think of how I would rewrite much of it. But he’s had a great career, so why should he change just because he doesn’t write things the way I would?
Learn all you can.
This point is the easiest and most fun, because if you choose to write about something, it’s probably something you like, so you already know a lot about it and you enjoy learning more.
If you’re interested in writing about current events, philosophy, history, politics, economics, etc. for a site like LRC, start with the usual suspects: Mises, Rothbard, Hayek, Hazlitt, Nock, etc. Mises.org is probably the best source of free material on the Internet. In addition to the excellent articles, they also have media files (which include audio books) and entire books. (And please consider making a donation if you find the site valuable.)
Write things down when they’re fresh in your mind.
Comedians and writers, especially of fiction, are notorious for carrying a little notepad and pen with them everywhere. Any aspiring writer would do well to do the same; great ideas that occur in the moment are often lost forever if they’re not immediately recorded. I’ve occasionally thought of an idea and lost it in the minute or two it took me to find a way to write it down, especially if I was doing something else at the same time.
Write in short sentences and short paragraphs.
Notice that professional journalists usually write in short paragraphs. Sometimes they even write in sentence fragments; while grammatically incorrect, fragments are easy to read and are sometimes the bluntest way to make a point.
Have you ever looked at a block of text that was half of a page, or even an entire page, and felt a sinking feeling in your stomach at the prospect of reading it? And, while reading such a paragraph, have you ever lost your concentration due to eye fatigue? That happens because the human eye can only move side-to-side so many times before it needs the rest of going to the next paragraph. You probably found that it was also difficult to find your spot again after such a break.
Don’t do that to your readers. Using simple words in short sentences and short paragraphs isn’t about dumbing anything down; it’s about using a style that helps clearly convey your message, rather than distracting from it.
Avoid making absolute predictions.
Harry Browne had two rules-of-thumb that are excellent to remember; he applied them to investment markets, but they pertain to most everything in life:
- Anything can happen.
- Nothing has to happen.
If you’re considering making educated predictions about things like political races or the economy, remember that you’re not infallible, nor are you omniscient; no matter how much you know, you can’t see everything that could affect the veracity of your predictions.
One writer, who may be the most astute observer of society and popular culture I’ve seen, has been making a living for 30 years predicting an imminent second Great Depression. The fundamentals behind his logic seem sound, but he’s always been wrong. His predictions may turn out to have been premature rather than wrong, but the fact remains that, as of today, his predictions have been wrong for 30 straight years. That doesn’t seem to have hampered his career, but why take a chance? And why would you want that reputation?
My article The Coming Market Triumph was a rare deviation for me. I still stand by it, especially since the predictions were based on extrapolating trends in technology for just one more generation, rather than on human action; and because I was mostly reporting the predictions of others, who are credible experts with good track records. Even so, looking back on it, I wish I had tempered my language a little more, because unforeseen factors could always change things.
I also wrote in September that McCain was finished, and was just hanging on until January, when he could collect his matching funds to pay off his campaign debts. We can all see now how accurate that was.
So choose your words carefully; instead of stating that something will happen, state that it’s likely to happen. You may be concerned about coming across as wishy-washy or as less of an authority, but wise readers will respect your humility and realism.
Going to file, save is fine. But it’s better to make it a habit when you’re typing to hit Ctrl, S, which does the same thing, after every sentence or two. It’ll eventually become so automatic that you’ll do it without even thinking about it. That way, if something happens, like a computer crash or a power outage, the most you’ll lose is a couple of sentences. Word processing software usually saves such files automatically, and gives you the chance to recover it after such occurrences. But why take a chance?
This advice goes beyond avoiding the work of retyping; it pertains to the earlier point about recording ideas when they’re fresh. If you lose most of an article, you will never be able to recreate it exactly; again, great ideas that occur in the moment are often lost if you don’t immediately record them.
Understand that ideas generally don’t go out of style.
Robert Ringer has an excellent course on writing and self-publishing, which is available here under the title Self-Publishing Audio Series. Ringer’s tips on keyboard shortcuts alone are worth the price of the course, but the most astute advice he offers, especially for novices, is that ideas basically don’t go out of style.
Ringer cites the current popularity of American Idol as an example. People act like whoever came up with that invented chocolate, but have you ever heard of The Gong Show or Ed McMahon’s Star Search, to name two? The details of how the show works may be new, but the basic idea is as old as TV.
As another example, remember how big Who Wants to Be A Millionaire was a few years ago? Prime time quiz shows were among the first hits on TV 50 years earlier, and they’ve been popular daytime TV fixtures ever since.
And basic fiction plots are recycled all the time. For example, the beginning framework for Dallas, one of the most successful TV shows of all time, was just Romeo and Juliet, slightly retooled.
Ringer was highly influenced, as I was, by Harry Browne’s book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. A few years later, that book inspired him to write a similar book explaining to people, as Harry’s did, how to take responsibility for their own lives. He was open in the book about how Harry’s work influenced his. That book, Looking Out for Number One, reached number one on the New York Times Best-Seller List. All Ringer did to make basic, unoriginal concepts his was to give his own take on them and relate them to his own experiences.
There’s no one else like you, who has exactly your outlook or experiences. That, not reinventing the wheel, is what’s important. New ideas are great, but don’t let someone tell you a fresh take on age-old concepts can’t succeed.
Probably the best examples of this principle are stand-up comedians. How many have been successful talking about the same things as other comics? Does one comic decide that he can’t talk about basic, near-universal concepts like personal insecurities, work, love, etc., because another comic already does jokes about the same subject? Does Leno decide he can’t make a joke about a current event because Letterman already joked about it last night? Of course not!
With creative pursuits, the key is to give your own, unique take on basic concepts. If those concepts are already popular, that shows how much demand there could be for your ideas.
Hold your article for a day.
As an example for those who haven’t written since school, do you recall spending several consecutive hours writing a term paper, then rereading it the next day with a rested pair of eyes and finding numerous errors that you couldn’t see the day before? When you stare at something too long, it gets to where you can’t see the forest for the trees; the next day, you may find numerous punctuation, spelling and grammar errors, and even missing words. Always run the spelling and grammar checks, but don’t rely on them to catch everything. Most of the "errors" you find the next day will be minor stylistic changes that probably no one but you will notice. But if you can make those changes the next day, why not wait? Unless you’re on a deadline and you have no other choice, save any article you write — no matter how certain you are until it’s finished — until you’ve reread it the next day. You’ll be glad you did.
Don’t rewrite to death.
You could spend the rest of your life rewriting just one sentence; at some point, you have to accept that it’s good enough. While you should proofread and edit your writing, and check it again the next day, once you’ve fixed all errors and made sure everything is clear, you should generally stop and consider it finished.
Understand that you’ll always think of additions to your article after it’s published.
In my experience, you will always think of additional points you should’ve made in an article, whether a week later or a month later. It’s unavoidable. Rather than feeling bad about it, use the new ideas for additional articles.
Develop a thick skin.
Face it: you’re going to be criticized when your work is public.
In my experience, at least 95% of the feedback you’ll receive will be positive, while almost all of the rest will be polite, helpful, constructive criticism, pointing out (hopefully minor) errors and challenging your assumptions.
But you will get mail from the occasional idiot who has nothing better to do than to send rude messages. Such people rarely offer any kind of specific, relevant critique; they usually send nothing but ad hominem attacks, like "you’re (usually misspelled ‘your’) an idiot," or vague, pointless criticism, like "that was stupid" — and that will be the entire message. If the message is longer, expect it to be rambling and semi-literate, with numerous misspellings.
My favorite was the guy who wrote to tell me what a waste of his time an article of mine was. So he decided to waste more of his time writing me a letter. But what else should I expect from someone who wasn’t bright enough to figure out before he got to the end of a lengthy article that he thought it held no value for him?
As Gary North has commented, such people assume that your time is free, and they just want someone to pay attention to them. Don’t give them the satisfaction.
You’ll also be criticized in public, especially on message boards. It goes with the territory.
Both improving your writing skills and getting published are largely common sense: practice, work hard, be honest, don’t procrastinate, try to make contacts, etc.
Maybe this article will help ensure that I’ll be reading one of yours someday!