1. PUT TIME INTO YOUR WRITING
Professional writers only publish around 20% of what they write because most of what they produce needs to be rewritten. You are no better: always go back and redraft. Remember, cutting out bad writing is always a gain and never a loss. And never edit right after you write: you need time away so you can view your writing honestly. As Hemingway said, “After writing a story I was always drained and both sad and happy, like after being with a loved one, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day." Write everything passionately and in the moment for the first draft, then take out what’s weak after you have a more level head.
2. TAKE CHANCES
Most everything you write will only be seen by you (and maybe a teacher). And as a teacher, I’d rather see you try something different and uncomfortable instead of being plain, boring, and safe. Don’t fear failure: use it to become a better writer who knows what doesn’t work. Sin boldly.
3. BE EXACT WITH YOUR WORDS
Know what words mean before you use them: jealousy and envy are not the same. Neither are destroyed and decimated, or tragedy and travesty. These are called yellow words and separate a skilled writer from a clumsy one. Use a dictionary often, but never a thesaurus; it’s usually the tool of a weak mind trying to look smart (a stratagem that never works). Don’t repeat yourself. Never use “I think,” “I believe,” “in my opinion,” “to me” -- this is your paper, of course it’s what you think. Know what absolute words are (dead, pregnant, unique, rare, etc.) and avoid them.
4. KEEP READERS INTERESTED
Avoid passive verbs. Use dialogue. Vividly describe people and places. Make characters suffer. Make characters do what’s least expected. Have things explode, shatter, mutate, or smolder. Surprise me.
5. MAKE YOUR WRITING EFFORTLESS TO READ
Use words I know and walk me through every thought. I read dozens of papers every week and don’t have time for guesswork. Don’t use a dependent clause when a single accurate word will do. Don’t try to be impressive or fancy-sounding with the richest words culled from your thesaurus: big thoughts don’t come from big words. Remember rule three: advanced diction is vital to a story, but only insomuch as simply no other word is as accurate as the clear, advanced word. If the homicidal clown in your story has captured his teenage victim, it is crucial to say if his knife sliced, hacked, rent, danced, or eviscerated: these words have no exact substitute. But to say the clown was drenched with a deluge of sanguinary fluid is pretentious and stupid--just say he was covered in blood.
6. LONG ENOUGH TO COVER; SHORT ENOUGH TO ENJOY
Though length of a piece of writing varies, all writing should follow the rule of a tailor making a dress: it should be long enough to properly cover everything, but short enough to be appealing and allow natural movement.
7. EDIT WITH YOUR MOUTH
When editing, read what you’ve written aloud. If anything sounds odd or out of place coming out of your mouth, then something is wrong with your grammar, clarity, or organization. Diagram the sentence to diagnose what’s wrong and fix it. This will get rid of most of your errors.
8. DON’T GIVE UP
Writing well is hard. If you get stuck, but do something else for a while. Fly a kite. Play with a puppy. Fill your neighbor’s bathtub with pudding. Do anything but write. Then, when you have had some time away from the task, you can return to writing with your creative inkwell full.
9. DON’T GIVE ME WRITING YOU KNOW IS TERRIBLE
It doesn’t matter how long you worked on it, bad writing is bad writing. So start over. Even if you’ve worked on it for a month. Even if it’s due tomorrow. A paper with intriguing ideas and rough style and mechanics is always better than well-edited yet soulless writing.
10. MAKE YOUR WRITING MATTER
Have a purpose to your writing, something more that “the teacher assigned it.” The entire point of writing is to say something significant and true, and to convince the reader that what you have to say is worth my time. So make what you write count. Change a mind. Challenge an idea. Upset the status quo. Warn of our impending doom. Teach. Entertain. Demand action. JUST DO SOMETHING!