10 New Year’s resolutions for writers

As we roll into 2020, let’s remind ourselves to prioritize the reader’s takeaways, key on clarity and brevity, and use punctuation judiciously.

At the dawn of this new year and decade, let’s adopt—or reinforce—smart writing practices.

Here are 10 tactics to consider adopting:

1. Be clear about your topic. Doing so helps you, the writer, as well as your readers and the intrepid editor who will help you sculpt your prose. It’s important to figure out not only what you do want to say, but also what’s extraneous or would work better in a separate article, story pitch or internal email.

2. Emphasize the reader’s WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). If we’re reading a particular bit of text, it’s usually to derive some value—especially in our professional lives. How does this help me, the reader, excel in my current job or advance in my career? Beyond stating and reinforcing the takeaway, emphasize “you” rather than “I.” It’s more engaging, and it keeps the self-fascinated reader scrolling along.

3. Get to the point right away. Anecdotes are an important part of storytelling, but you can help the reader by stating your contention up front and offering the illustrative tale afterward to support your assertion or insight.

4. Minimize jargon. Industry nomenclature is often unavoidable, and shorthand can save time, but hackneyed phrases turn off readers, and, frankly, they suggest a lack of creativity. Rather than deploying (for the 24,000th time) a tired bit of imagery, shuck a new species of oyster and pluck out a sapphire of wisdom.

5. Punctuate with purpose. As this series covered previously, punctuation marks are like road signs that guide the reader. Just as a speed limit marker wouldn’t be a proper substitute for a stop sign, punctuation marks are not interchangeable. Handy guides such as this free download can help keep things clear for all concerned.

6. Keep it fluid. Vary your sentence length and structure, lest you lull your readers into a Rip Van Winkle slumber or, worse, send them fleeing to another source of information. Also, craft segues and introductory phrases as welcoming pathways to the next phase of your narrative. Beyond that, avoid repetition and bloated phrasing that can impede your readers’ progress. When possible, cut it in half.

7. Keep listed points consistent. If you’re using labels, make sure they’re all labels. If you offer imperatives, as in this article, use an imperative in every instance.

8. Double-check everything. Citing the source of a quotation? Make sure the spelling is correct. Lombardy is a region in Italy; Vince Lombardi was a Hall of Fame football coach. Incredulous and incredible do not mean the same thing. Make sure unusual words work within your context; for example, the word cleave has two contrasting usages. In the words of Robinson Prize-winning editor Karen Conlin: “If you don’t know, look it up. If you think you know, look it up. If you’re sure you know, look it up anyway.”

9. Hand it off to an editor. An extra set of eyes always helps. If you must edit your own writing in a pinch, approach it as you would someone else’s. And by all means, thank your editor.

10. Make your deadlines. Better still, be early—just in case. Questions often arise. If you need more time, say so as early as possible. No one wants an unpleasant surprise.


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