Basic Writing (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

In some people, the word writer inspires a feeling of pride or admiration. In others, it inspires dread. If you’re in the latter category, consider making writing improvement your top educational priority. If you aren’t, practice a lot anyway. It’s probably the most useful skill you’ll learn in school.

Basic Writing Skills

How to write a paragraph: Write the main idea. Follow this with several supporting sentences. After mastering this basic formula, experiment with placing the main idea elsewhere in the paragraph. Switch to a new paragraph when the main point you’re making changes.

How to write an essay: The first paragraph is the most important. Begin with either the main idea or a hook—a lead-in that offers relevant information. The hook may be several sentences long, but most of the time, the main idea following it will be one sentence, especially for short essays. The statement of the main idea is called the thesis. Some theses are called “five-prong” or “three-prong” because they follow the main idea with exactly three or five supporting points, each of which correlates with a single body paragraph in the essay. After writing the first paragraph, write the body paragraphs, then a concluding paragraph. For simple essays, body paragraphs each make a single supporting point. For more complex essays, which might be broken out into sections, several paragraphs may be used to make one supporting point.

How to take notes on a text: First, find the main idea of the entire section of writing. Practice this skill alone until you are good at it. (This comes in handy in both personal and philosophical arguments, in which the main point of the speaker often gets lost.) After that, identify the main supporting ideas in the section—the points that give rise to the main idea. Finally, make note of any particularly insightful or important side point. Record your notes in the simplest form possible, without unnecessary blank spaces on the page. Use bullets.

How to write an outline: Place your thesis statement at the beginning. Then list the major points that support your thesis using Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.). Under each of these, list all of the supporting ideas or arguments using capital letters (A, B, C, etc.). If needed, under these, list subordinate ideas using numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.), then small letters (a, b, c, etc.).

How to write a short story: First, create a compelling dilemma involving interesting characters. Think of the story as a movie without a narrator, and write each scene like a movie scene without any background explanation. Start the story at a particularly interesting place in media res (in the middle of action). Make sure that every character undergoes inner change, and the protagonist is quite changed by the end. Make sure that in each and every scene there is an immediate conflict in addition to the story’s larger conflict, and make sure that every scene moves the story forward. Use the standard plot graph, with a slow introduction, then rising action (when lots of complications are thrown in), then a climax (when everything bad happens all at once), then a quick resolution.

How to write a poem: Read several poems of several types, including free verse, odes, haikus, rhyming poems with regular stanza lengths, nonrhyming poems with regular stanza lengths and more. Find a feeling within yourself and choose a subject that in the moment of writing causes that same strong feeling in you. Write a straight description of that subject/metaphor that includes words that convey your reaction to it, without ever describing your thoughts or feelings directly. As you edit it, get rid of any extra words and any words that sound in any way corny (flower, sunshine, beauty, etc.).

Basic Writing Terminology

Synonyms: Words with the same or approximately the same meaning

Antonyms: Words with opposite meanings

Homographs: Words which are spelled alike but have different meanings and/or pronunciations

Homonyms: Words that are spelled and pronounced alike but have different meanings

Palindrome: A word or phrase that means the same when read in either direction (i.e. “eve”)

Acronym: An abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word

Exposition: Explanatory writing

Didactic writing: Instructional writing

Freewriting: Writing continuously without much thought in order to discover hidden ideas or feelings

Jargon: Terms only familiar to those in the know

Editorial: A short article expressing an opinion or point of view. Often, but not always, written by a member of the publication staff.

Bibliography: The list of books, magazines, journals, people, websites, or any other resources that you consulted in the process of writing a book, article, or paper.

Boilerplate: A piece of writing that gets reused frequently, sometimes with minor changes

Canon: Works generally considered by scholars to be the most important of a genre

Byline: The author’s name appearing with his/her published work

High concept: A storyline with a clear conflict and that can be described in one sentence

Hook: A starting sentence or idea that grabs the reader’s attention

Pseudonym: A “pen name” 

Public domain work: Any written material not under copyright

Query: A short letter pitching an article or a book idea to an editor or agent

Rough draft: The first organized version of a document or other work

Serial: A series of related works or a regularly published work, as a newsletter or magazine

Side bar: Extra information put alongside, but not in, the main article

Slant: The bias or angle a writer used in an article

Solicited/unsolicited manuscript: A manuscript that an agent or editor has or has not asked to see

Synopsis: Brief summary of a story, manuscript, or book

Basic Writing Rules

The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. This happens when language is clear, concise, well-organized and direct. The following rules for good writing can and should be selectively broken in creative writing, but in most nonfiction writing and in most practical writing (letters, emails, instructions, etc.) they stand.

Most, but not all, of the following rules come from The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.

Be direct. Use the active voice. Use the positive form of the statement, avoiding “do not” or double negatives when possible. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

Be concise. Omit needless words. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t over-explain.

Be clear. Place the words you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence. Avoid awkward phrases. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking. Keep related words together. Pay attention to transitions. Don’t confuse the reader by jumping from one step to the next or one idea to the next without showing (subtly) how they relate.

Be readable. Avoid a succession of loose sentences. Avoid a succession of short sentences. Express coordinate ideas in similar form. For example, when using bullet points, all of the points should be in the same form (sentence or fragment), same tense, and as parallel in structure as possible. Pay attention to rhythm. Intersperse long and short sentences. Read the piece out loud or have someone else read it out loud to you to see if it flows well.

Be organized. Write an outline first, and use it.

Be humble. Don’t refer to yourself. Write in a way that comes naturally. Don’t used forced-sounding figurative or formal language. Do not affect a breezy manner. Use orthodox spelling. Avoid fancy words. Don’t use dialect unless your ear is good. Don’t inject opinion. Avoid foreign language words. Use figures of speech sparingly. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. For dialogue, use either “said” or “asked” or leave the quote bare. Don’t use “stated,” “exclaimed,” etc.

Practice. Revise and rewrite. Wait a year, then revise again. To become a faster, clearer, more organized writer, practice outlining nonfiction texts (summarizing the main idea and supporting points in a few pages). Also, master the art of writing short, true, straightforward stories worthy of a top-notch news reporter.

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