But what does it mean? An in-depth guide to some well-intentioned writing advice

Written by Writing Assistant Emma Haas

Writing advice generally comes with the best intentions: to make your writing better. But, if you don’t really understand the advice you’ve been given, then it’s pretty hard to move forward. As a Creative Writing major, I’ve gotten lots of tips and tricks to develop my writing style. However, I’ve noticed that while most professors often bring up suggestions, they don’t really take the time to delve into what those suggestions mean and what they do to help your writing. I’m going to take some of the best writing suggestions I’ve heard, and get a little more in depth with them.

“I” Rule: Some professors like to assign personal essays that use first-person “I” for the speaker. These essays, I’ve found, are generally easier to write because we’re familiar with the material already- they’re usually about our own life. These prompts can be fun, but they hold a potentially dire consequence- overusing first-person “I”. This can potentially ruin an otherwise interesting story, so it’s very important to read through your paper and take out as many “I’s” as you can. I like to do this by printing out a physical copy of my paper, then using a bright pen or highlighter, mark each and every time “I” is used. Chances are it’s much more than you think. Then, I go through line by line and see if I can re-word the sentence to decrease the use of “I”. So, the line “I realized I couldn’t change the way I thought about the class” could potentially change into “The way I thought about the class couldn’t be changed.” It’s much easier to read now that some of those “I’s” are gone.

Show, Don’t Tell: If you ask anyone for writing advice, chances are this is what you’ll hear. “Show, don’t tell” is a great tool to use, once you know how to use it. In its basic form, it’s asking you to check your writing for places where you tell your reader something when you could show it to them instead. For example, if in your work you say “Bob is happy when he sees his friend,” that’s telling the reader: Bob is happy. It reads as though you’re spoon feeding information to your reader–it shows them that you don’t trust them to process information on their own. Instead, try showing that Bob is happy by giving him an action or reaction to seeing his friend: “When Fred rounded the corner, Bob’s face lit up.” See the difference? Now imagine if you used that wherever you could in your writing. “Show, don’t tell” is a simple reminder, but it can further your writing skills indefinitely.

Use All Your Senses: This is geared more toward the creative writing people and those first-person “I” stories. This goes hand in hand with “Show, Don’t Tell”: use your senses to tell the reader about an image or scene. For example, you could tell the reader “I recognized my friend because of her straightened hair and the perfume she wore.” That’s alright, but it can be improved if we use that sensory image: “I saw a flash of shiny, straight hair and the faint scent of citrus and knew immediately it was Susan.” Not only is this more interesting to read, but it also gives Susan more characterization in a shorter amount of time. The reader can get a better image of Susan’s hair and can also imply what her personality is like based on the perfume she likes. Getting creative with this sensory characterization will heighten your imagery and really wow your readers.

Trust Your Reader: I mentioned this briefly in the “Show, Don’t Tell” section, but it’s worth explaining this a bit more. Trusting your reader means just that: trusting that your reader understands some of the concepts you’re writing about. Think about it: what makes a joke funny? It relies on information that you already have to connect the dots and find the humor. We all are familiar with how awkward it is when you have to explain the joke- it’s the same with writing. You don’t have to define every concept you use or talk about. Assume the reader is semi-familiar with your topic already. This doesn’t mean assume the reader knows everything– it just means pick and choose which topics you explain, and when you do explain them, do it briefly.

These are just a few of the best suggestions I’ve received, but they’ve improved my writing exponentially during my time at Hope. Once you’ve understood what the advice you’re receiving means, you can apply it to nearly every piece of writing you produce. If you’re given a tip to improve your writing and it doesn’t make sense: don’t be afraid to ask more about it until you really understand it. Besides, writing tips are meant to help you, and they can’t do that if they don’t make sense. But once you do understand, you will be unstoppable!

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