Write Away 

Doors by Tim Teebken from ArtvilleMore Better Writing

by Christopher Meeks

Shouldn't we ought to write better?

Ahem, yes, we should—and I've already started out with a few common mistakes—which I'll get to shortly.

This is a new column, and my goal is to make you a better writer. I was bored senseless in my high school English classes, so I promise to go over subjects in an easy way that will help you improve, painlessly.

Good writing is important

Good writing allows the writer to be taken seriously, and being taken seriously is always important in communicating ideas. If a person's writing is awkward and clumsy, readers get the mistaken notion the person is that way, too. ("Seriously" doesn't have to mean "serious" though, so you shouldn't feel compelled to make things sound "official" or stodgy.)

As well as writing for the Web, you may have memos or reports to write, and bosses who read these things. Being a strong or weak writer can certainly affect your own evaluations and how people perceive you. And as long as you're breathing, it's never too late to become a better writer.

I teach college students, and during the first weeks of class, my students tend to throw commas in like Jackson Pollock threw paint—though Pollock likely had more reasons for his work than why commas end up where they do in my students' papers.  They learn—and so can you.

So let me show you, during the course of the next several months, a number of basic writing tips. If you dread or fear writing, then perhaps I can demystify it and make it (dare I suggest it?) fun—or at least not onerous.

I'm a firm believer that writing helps you think, and good thinking leads to better writing. Like life itself, it's a circle.

Top tips

On, then, with a few top suggestions on how to make yourself a better writer:

1. There is no bad first draft. Just as Barbara Woodhouse believes there are no bad dogs, there are no bad first drafts. That's because first drafts are for you alone, a place where you allow yourself to make mistakes while you let your creativity flow.

This is crucial to understand. Most people I've met who have difficulty writing, or who are completely blocked in writing, feel that every word they write has to be absolutely perfect or else. That's a hell of a lot of pressure to give yourself. That's like a painter saying, "This better be Sistine Chapel quality or I'm a failure." You can bet that Michelangelo, lying on his back, might have had a whimsical notion or two. "I know! I'll have God's finger almost touch man's!" He was consumed to paint and didn't spend hours worrying, "What if this isn't right?"

Whimsy, in fact, is a good quality to have while creating. You need to toy or play around with your words at times, knowing you can always erase them later. If you don't allow yourself this fun or sense of freedom, you will paralyze yourself. Keep your first drafts so that if you decide to cut some of your whimsy and later wish you hadn't you still have your first draft to go back to.

The first draft is where you let your ideas and notions pour out without worry of grammar and spelling. The mechanical stuff you can fix later. Some of my best dialogue in plays has come when I was playing around, thinking, "What would happen if he said this?" Sure, I've erased plenty—but I wouldn't have created the best pieces if I hadn't allowed myself some curiosity.

Curiosity can begin with "What if I try this?" Your curiosity can be one of your biggest assets. If you want to try something out, do it. "What if" questions have created the planet as we know it today. "What if I flew a kite with a key on it?" said Benjamin Franklin. "What if we pumped electricity into power lines and strung those lines to people's homes?" asked Thomas Edison.  "What if I made my cheeks all goofy like this," thought actor Jim Carrey.

So what's the big deal that you try out some new words or write some controversial conclusion? Write it. You can always erase (or delete) it later. No one other than you ever has to see it. You're safe.

2. Fix the spelling and grammar. I know this sounds like a "no brainer," but  it's one of the first things people will notice. Even if your writing is brilliant, if it has a lot of errors (not uncommon on the Web), then people think less of you. If your writing is weak, but at least you don't have errors, well, that's a good, easy first step!

Spelling is important, contrary to some kind aunt or elementary teacher who may have said, "Spelling is no big deal—it's the ideas that count." Spelling counts. It always has. Not spelling well gives the mistaken notion that you are either dumb or don't care. Some readers feel, "If he (or she) doesn't care, why should I?"

In the old days, spelling correctly meant sitting with a dictionary—and if you didn't know how to spell the word, how the hell were you supposed to look it up? (The idea was to try different spellings until you got the one that was right.) Nowadays, word processing programs have spell checkers. If your word processing program does not have one, then get one that does.

With the idea of writing a first draft without worry of grammar or spelling comes the promise to yourself that you will put on your editor's hat after you write the first draft. After that draft, pay attention to spelling, grammar, and other factors such as punctuation, rhythm, intentions, and more, which I'll cover in this column over time.

To check your spelling is so easy these days. With a few clicks, the computer is comparing every word of yours against its dictionary. Words that don't match are flagged. Proper names are often flagged. If the word is right, you keep it. If it's wrong, you are given suggested spellings. Choose the right word.  It's so easy to check spelling that I'm irritated when my students don't do it.

That said, spell checkers can't find all mistakes, so whenever you can, either read your writing out loud (this is a great way to find mistakes as well as fix places that "don't read right,") or have someone else read it and fix problems for you. You can do the same for them.

This brings me to the second part of this writing tip: Check your grammar.

Although some word processors have grammar checkers, this is not as easy or efficient as spell checking, but it's still worthwhile. Grammar checkers are not 100% effective. They will catch some problems, but they won't catch others. My grammar checker did not catch "more better" at the beginning of this column, for instance. "More better" is a mismatch. Only "better" is needed.

The grammar checker did catch "shouldn't we ought," suggesting "ought we not."  It did not give a reason why.  "Shouldn't" and "ought" are basically redundant (they are two "modal auxiliary verbs" for you English types); only one is needed at a time with a main verb. Either "Shouldn't we write better?" or "Ought we not write better" is fine.

Grammar software or spell checking software won't catch homonyms, either, such as incorrect uses of  "to," "two," and "too." (But if you misspell "tutu," it'll catch that.)

A vivid example of this is the following poem by "source unknown" (if you know who, please tell me so I can give them credit) that I received by e-mail:

Spell Checker Blues

Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rarely ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it's weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

To improve your grammar, therefore, you will have to work at it.  You need to know the reasons why something is right or wrong. I can't say that grammar checkers, per se, will get you there.  Grammar checkers can make for good reminders, but you need to know when to ignore the checker's suggestions.  It may tell you that you have a long sentence, but sometimes you might want a long sentence. And sometimes a grammar checker's suggestions are actually wrong; it's just software after all, so if it tells you something you don't think is right, trust yourself.

One way to know the rules and improve is to get a good grammar book.  I've looked at several during the past few months.  The best one I've found with self-lessons is Now I Get It: A Commonsense Guide to Grammar and Usage by Larry Beason and Mark Lester (St. Martin's Press) for just $5. Visit their site.

Another way to understand these rules is to read this column regularly. In the next column I'll have more tips—and more specifics—to help you write away, right away. See you soon.

(Next time, I'll have more than just two tips for better writing! You may write me with questions or comments at elecwriter@aol.com.)

About the author

chris-meeksChristopher Meeks writes for and teaches creative writing at CalArts, and he also teaches English at Santa Monica College. He has published four nonfiction children's books and written many short stories.  His stories have been published most recently in The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, Rosebud, and upcoming in Writers' Forum. His first full-length play, Suburban Anger, was mounted in 1993 at the Playwrights Arena in Los Angeles. 

In August 1997, his play Who Lives? was staged at the 24th Street Theatre in Los Angeles, and its good reviews have other theaters across the country considering it now.  The play earned several grants for its production, including one from The Pilgrim Project, a group that assists plays that "ask questions of real moral significance." For seven years, he was a theater reviewer for Daily Variety, and he wrote a column for Writer's Digest for two years.  His screenplay, Henry's Room, won the Donald Davis Dramatic Writing Award.

Illustration by Tim Teebken, Artville

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