NewClassic's Writing Theory
Words have power. They are the primary method through which people communicate, and their importance is paramount in writing. Words have life, a streaming and conscious pulse that varies with highs and lows of flow, pronunciation, connotation, placement, format, and use.
I've spent several of the past years treating words like they were a dedicated field of study. Setaceous is a perfectly fine word, but pales in comparison to bristled. The reason for this is the "sound" of writing, and just one of the many facets of writing that have more to do with word choice than "writing talent".
So, without (too much) further ado, I present to you NewClassic's writing theory, the thread. Also note that anyone who's read The Elements of Style will find most of this very familiar. I learned next to everything I know about writing from it, and heavily encourage everyone to read it. Twice. A day.
The Practice of Writing
Like all arts, there are rules. Grammar is the rule set for writing, and what every writer needs to learn. Punctuation, capitalization, and placement are all integral parts of grammar. Learning the rules of grammar is the first step to any writing. This step is absolute, and cannot be avoided, put off, set aside, or ignored. Grammar is law for the writer, and one follows the law if one expects to succeed. Before any writing gets off the ground, it needs a solid basis in grammar. Some reference sites for that are as follows.Grammar Book's English RulesDarling's English GuideGrammar NowThere's a great big internet out there...
But, like all arts, there are also times when laws can be broken. With writing, evading the rules of grammar is a precarious thing. Where and how aren't standard, and there's no easy-reference guide to when you can or cannot sidestep the rules of grammar. Like perspective for an artist, or color-design for a painter, there are times when imperfections or rule distortions are permissible. The easiest reference guide for this is to play it by ear. Sound it out.
The ultimate lesson is to follow the rules when in doubt. You can never fully screw something up if you follow the rules to the letter. If you're still not sure, follow the law instead of breaking it. And do not make the mistake of thinking grammar is not a necessary step if it can be broken. Grammar is the building block for all writing. No one is allowed to break the rules until they know them.
Spelling is an uncertain thing. Several English-speaking countries have produced different styles of spelling, and there are no conventions of "right" or "wrong" for many spellings. Words like dialogue and dialog are both correct. This also applies for colour and color, center and centre, and even certain elements like aluminum and aluminium.
The rule of thumb to follow for proper spelling is look it up. If neither the American Heritage or Oxford English dictionaries have it, it is likely misspelled. This is not an intrinsically bad thing, just means the use of a synonym or looking up the spelling is necessary.
Like grammar, spelling is occasionally something that can be overlooked, but for a different reason. Mistakes happen, and making a spelling error is no exception. Even professional editors occasionally overlook spelling mistakes. Just correct any spelling errors pointed out, and make a point to not get offended when errors are pointed out to you.
The only acceptable alternative to proper spelling is shorthand, and like breaking the rules of grammar, this is a precarious route to take. Shorthand is all very personal, and changes from person to person. The only rules of thumb for shorthand are visibility and consistency. A lot of writing is in presentation, and placing shorthand like "b/c" and "w/" are functional for speed typing, but counter-intuitive for speed reading. Demanding the reader to step away from their pre-established understanding of spelling will actually slow their rate of word processing, and place more of a strain on the reader than is entirely necessary. Remember that presentation is key for writing, as no written work (short of an assignment) will ever be a required read. If your reader doesn't like your writing, they probably won't read it. So remember to keep it presentable.
On top of that, understand how shorthand works. "Pprwght" is a bad shorthand for "paperweight" because it is nigh incomprehensible unless you know what word you're trying to shorten. "N/A" and "7th ed." are acceptable because it's clear what they are referring to. Shorthand is about saving time in writing, and unless it is a draft or required for the text, it is better to spend the effort to length out spelling and the writing process in favor of presentation.
If shorthand is a route that you're determined to take, then be consistent. Create a system, and do not break it. Make sure the system is easy to read, comprehensible, and noninvasive. Also remember that this is not an absolute, and there may be consequences to going the shorthand route. When using shorthand, it's all about damage control, not superior function. Be prepared to accept all consequences for shorthand.
A possible sub-heading of grammar, syntax is all about how a sentence or series of sentences are laid out. Sentences like "The worst tennis player in the world is I." are technically correct, but abhorrent to read. To alter the syntax of that sentence, "I am the worst tennis player in the world" is also correct, and much easier on the eyes. (Note: If you prefer the obscure syntax, the matter of ear would be to break grammar rules and use "The worst tennis player in the world is me." Despite being wrong, it "sounds" better, and flows more functionally in writing.)
Remember that there's more to syntax than simply individual sentences. The progression from one sentence to another is just as important as paying attention within the sentence. That progression is what makes reading be a flowing process, and can be the difference between a reader losing two hours reading, or giving up five minutes from reading the first word.
Syntax has no easy reference guides, because it's all about the ear. Words have to flow from one sentence to the other, and it really relies entirely on the ear and good sense. The only suggestion for this is read a lot. All writers have a distinct style, and it's a good practice to "shop around" with writing and learning what works and what doesn't. It doesn't hurt to learn from professionals. Look around, figure out what works and what doesn't, and incorporate it into how well things work for you.
Writers are like mothers, and their writing are their babies. By that logic, editors are the necessary evil of the writing world. To improve something, it has to first be analyzed (and possibly disassembled) with clinical detachment. This is necessary for writing, and an editor is key for this.
Editing is about the ultimate cleanliness of the finished product, so being able to take criticism is key. Finding a good editor, and following that editor's advice is just as much a part of the writing process as putting pen to paper in the first place.
In the case of self-editing, the best tool is the "sound" of writing. To do this, force yourself to read the draft aloud word for word. Every verbal stumble, momentary pause, or hiccup in the text is something that can be reworked for spelling, syntax, or grammar. It is at that point that you need to decide whether or not that passage needs editing.
And like any and all critiques, remember that not all advice is the bottom line. Sometimes it's alright to disregard editor's advice. Like grammar or spelling variances, this too is a very precarious position and should be practiced with the utmost caution. In 99.9% of situations, editors will have good suggestions for the writer.
The Theory Of Writing
Make every word count. The importance of this cannot be stressed enough. The difference between long winded writing and strong writing isn't the number of words, its the function of the words. Do not mistake brevity for under-speaking, simply make every word count.
Writing is a sound-based form of communication. If you can answer the question "What sound does A make?" then you know that writing is just a way of attaching symbols to sound. Because of that, writing also has a "voice" that speaks to the reader as he reads. This voice is comprised of several parts, including vocabulary, word flow, and placement.
The difference between "enervated" and "exhausted" is minute (in definition), but plays a very large role in application. Word choice and vocabulary defines part of the voice of a character, writer, or article. Using words like "your justly earned vengeance" and "may the blades of a thousand warriors cleave your head from your spine" will paint a clear picture of anger and hatred where "you deserved that" and "I hope you die" will only allude briefly to the former sentiments. Choosing simpler words and informal language can make as much a statement as using English textbook formality and intricate articulation. Remember this as you write, and it could mean the difference between having a destitute reader, or a comfortable one.
This is largely a function of syntax, vocabulary, and grammar, but says a lot about a piece if it is well cared-for. Words have a rhythm and function, and tailoring these to fit a certain tone can make up part of a voice. If you are trying to make the reader tense and anxious, it benefits you to run your sentences at length without break or respite from the ceaseless hammering of words, phrases, concepts, ideas, ideals, and letters. If you wish a reader relaxed, hand him a drink. It all has to do with the "sound" of writing, and can easily be tailored to match a mood with enough practice. Know that sentence length has a lot to do with how the reader will feel.
This is a more obscure example, and is tied entirely with syntax. The previous example, "The worst tennis player is I." is grammatically correct, but sounds much better as "I am the worst tennis player." If you do want to intentionally change the word placement, you're entirely capable of doing so. This is another part of the voice. How you place words and sentences will affect your written voice. Consider placement with your writing for the best results.
Voice is a tricky subject because it is entirely aesthetic and will vary from reader to reader. The age-old adage "You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time" holds true for writing. The best thing to do is do what works best for you. Writing is a very personal practice, and is always best-written when it is written for you. Do what you think is best, and that will improve your writing for better than writing for a theoretical audience.
Writing is about telling someone something. By reading this, I am telling you my theory for writing. Though these are not absolutes, they are written with absolute conviction. Confidence is tied with writing, and it is best for a writer to have no uncertainty in their writing. A lack of conviction creates a slump in the writing, which translates with almost disastrous effects on the final product. Have certainty in your writing. Commanding and forceful language is stronger, and makes for stronger writing.
Because of this, write in active voice. Passive voice is elusive, unsure, leaves room for doubt. Active voice provides a stronger basis of writing. Active voice is stronger than passive voice. Writing is stronger when using active than when using passive. Use active voice.
Style and Observation
Style is unique to each individual, and a result of existing. Style cannot be sought out and self-taught, it is pre-existing. People favor writing certain ways, using certain words, and thinking along certain lines. By those criteria, style is created simply by a person writing. Because of this, tailoring a writing style is a bad idea. It creates a fictional tone that is unbecoming and inaccurate to the writer. Style is what the writer likes, and should be maintained to the writer's personal style, not by trying to emulate another's.
That said, observation is key. Style is a subconscious thing, and can changes as the writer experiences more writing. Reading magazines, newspapers, books, articles, and any writing can contribute to a writer's sense of style. So learn how to develop your style by reading and exploring. There's no such thing as a right or wrong style, only a polished or unpolished one.
No one likes to be spoken down to or to discover the article is talking at them rather than to them. Remember that the tone of any writing needs to be assertive, not forceful. Regardless of whatever illusion may exist, the reader can never be forced to read or do anything. Certain persuasions can come into play, but it can never be forced. Do not take a superior, haughty, or dismissive tone with your audience. If you do, they will take the exact stance to your writing.
Point of View
Always consider the point of view when writing. Point of View determines how the audience sees the story. It is also an integral part of a narrative style. First-Person means we are seeing the story through the eyes of the narrator. Like a voyeur in the protagonist's head, we see what s/he sees, feel s/he feels, and nothing else. That means that this character is shaped by how they observe the world. When walking into a packed ballroom, does the protagonist see the other patrons' outfits? Does the protagonist notice the devout Victorian architecture? Or maybe they notice that all of the guards are wearing both ankle and shoulder holsters, most of which are unsnapped. Considering a character's point of view makes a bit difference with characterization, and makes up part of that character's voice. Their personality is dependent on how the writer narrates in First-Person.
Third-Person has two types, limited and omniscient. Limited Third is not confined to "I" like First-Person is, but remains very similar. The point of Limited Third is most often used to allow the narrator to jump between two or more characters. Notice that they are still the narrator, and will control whose perspective of the story will take place. Omniscient Third knows all, as the name implies, and can tell you the story from a perspective only available to deities and the author. This is one of the hardest point of views to write accurately because it calls for a lot of strain on the writer. The result can make for a very engaging read if done right. Third-Person usually has little to do with characterization though.
In Depth Section
Characters are people. This is the biggest illusion of fiction, and also one of the most important. The hardest hitting mistake in a writer's arsenal is to create cardboard cut-outs into characters. This is unacceptable practice, and one of the worst mistakes any writer can make.
Characters breathe life into a story, and making them human is the biggest part of writing good fiction, or telling good non-fiction. Characters can make or break a piece of writing, and that is why they are so important. The importance of a human character, even if they're just a side character, is unshakable. Do not make the mistake of writing cardboard and calling it a character. The character is paramount to a successful narrative.
Writing a good character takes a steady eye for personality. Remember that this is a living world. People do not happen for the convenience of others, and they are the protagonists of their own personal lives. They should be written as such, not simply as set pieces.
Characters' speech patterns are a part of their personality. Whether or not a person grunts instead of speaking, or will only speak in one to two-syllable words and short phrases, will affect the character's manner.
Strong dialog is hard to write because strong dialog isn't finite. Written form discourages elaborate writing, but sometimes a character's personality demands being whimsical. To do that, a writer has to carefully allude to the whimsy of the character without compromising his own pace and style. The best method to this is simply to approach writing with patience and editing for sound. The ear is the most powerful tool in a writer's toolbox.
Differentiating characters through their dialog is an effort of separating the writer from the writing. The best way to do this is to understand your character's history and motivation. Use that, examine it, and talk with people whose opinions more closely resemble the character than its author. Learning about what makes the characters tick is just as important as the fact that they do tick.
There are no shortcuts or cheat tricks to writing a good plot. The only thing you can do is avoid potholes. Remember to read over old work to avoid plotholes, know the ending of the story before you so much as write the beginning, and don't waste the audience's time of trivial details. Details can provide atmosphere or characterization, but do more harm than good if done in excess. This falls back on word use. Make every detail and plot event count, make each word tell.
Also, characters need to be essential to plot. If characters don't take part in how the plot progresses, it creates the appearance of too much convenience. Characters are the vessels that propel the plot, as well as pieces in it. Remember to make them just as important as the goings-on. The story is about them, after all.
Earn your cliches. The phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" is not wrong. However, due to its overuse, it must be earned. Cliches are established because they have worked, consistently, in the past. To make them function in the future, they must be pertinent and insightful. Dark and stormy nights may set a wonderful tone, but they only set the reader's perceptions in a certain mindset. If the dark and stormy night is being used as a plot device, then it may have merit. If it is being used as a prop, then it's hurting the narrative.
Words have power, and they command the way the reader feels. Cliches have a pre-established connotation set to them. This goes with Presentation. If you can appear presentable even with cliches, wear them proudly. If you cannot, do not put that toll on your reader.
Accuracy is one of those unfortunate things that are necessary when writing both fiction and non-fiction. They are needed simply for the fact that we need to believe what we read. Writing is a form where people question first, and trust later. Because of this, being accurate to reality (or events for non-fiction) is important.
An all-encompassing theme is important. This is a part of making every word count. Every phrase or thought should lead or contribute to the thesis in some way. Without it, writing feels meandering or lost.
Remember the reader when writing. Write too long, and the reader is lost. Write too briefly, and the reader is left unfulfilled. Remember that the reader has volition, and can choose simply not to read your writing. Remember to not overspeak, or overstate, your points or thesis. As well as that, do not explain every little thing to the reader. Remember to keep in mind reasonable assumptions, which do not need to be explained. This is because the reader can and often will feel as if they are being spoken down to if everything is over-explained.
Function over Form
Writing for informative purposes is imparting information. Figures of speech, foreign languages, and off-beat expressions can add life to a piece, but do so at the cost of clarity. While select exceptions can be allowed, do not completely sacrifice clarity. Although form should be observed, function is the main goal. This rule has no exceptions. Always take function over form when writing informative pieces.
Though, do not mistake this for completely removing form. A reader will likely abandon reading material he or she finds too dry.
The article is the basic form of informative writing, and one that is among the more brief. Usually 250-1500 words, the article has a singular purpose. A single idea or theme that it wants to transmit. For articles, digression and uncertainty are disastrous. Articles should stay on point, have a strong purpose and idea, and should fulfill that idea capably and briefly.
The essay is my most dreaded piece of writing. Not because it is frequently assigned, or that it is often topic-centric, but because it is the most inconsistent. Essays' functionality depend on who is looking over it. An English professor would look at an essay differently than a Psychology professor, and a middle school student different from a doctor of engineering.
Because of this, an essay can change from fantastic to awful by only changing the person reading it. The best way to write a strong essay is to get tips from the person looking over it, or people who've worked with or under this person. Aside from that, simply follow habits of good writing (see Umbrella Theory).
Writing a good review is first understanding your audience. Highly technical reviews should not be submitted to casual audiences, and casual reviews are not detailed or extensive enough for highly technical audiences. Pay attention to as many facets as you can, and report on them. If you can answer the question "Will the reader care about this topic?" with "Yes.", then your review should cover that topic.
Reviews have different tips depending entirely on the audience. Tailor your review's content carefully to the audience, and follow tips for good writing. Also, unlike with any other form, accuracy is unparalleled in importance for a review.
Informal, nebulous writing that varies in tone, structure, and length. Unlike essays, these often have no such strict grading scales, and should only be written in terms of Presentation rather than for fear of grades. Usually informal, follow the same criteria as any other informal writing to keep it as clean and legible as possible.
The short story is a difficult part of fiction because it tells a large story in a short space. This means creating a world, characters, plot, personality, and life in the space of 800-10,000 words, and can become quite taxing on the author to fit so much into such a small space. Because of this, short stories are the physical manifestation of good word-use.
A good short story must have all of the elements of good fiction, without any of the space to really develop each of them at length. This means it will rely largely on the reader's ability to visualize the world with little instruction, and come to care for characters in a short time. This makes short stories challenging in that filling every word with so much information is a must.
There isn't much instruction to writing a good short-story than being on-topic at all times, and following the rules of good writing and good fiction writing. Remember that detail is good sparingly, and oversaturation will kill a story before understatement will. It is better to err on the side of brief.
Anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 words, a novella is a good length for a lengthy but simple story. It has room to delve into full detail, and tell a single story with some haste, but not enough length to completely build a world from the ground up. This short-form writing often pales in comparison to the novel in terms of popularity, and is a fairly rare find. Though most are more inexpensive than full novels, and often come with a competent amount of information. Because they are faster than full novels, they are usually relatively profitable for the writer.
The father of all fiction, the novel is the "book-sized" form of fiction-writing. Books average anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 words, and have time to really delve both into a world and a story. This is the most versatile form of fiction because it allows room for digression, character development, and world-building.
Novels are also hard to write for because that is still a lot of space to use up. Though this can be completely packed with information in the space, it's calling for the reader to continue to read the work for long durations. This means this is the most likely piece of writing to be put aside before completion, and calls for good writing for a long duration.
The tips for this are to follow the tips for good writing, good fiction, and good habits. Do not forsake any rule in the novel, because your reader will be more likely to leave now than ever.
Like anything, good writers have good writing habits. Writing is not like riding a bike. Practice is a prerequisite for good writing, and frequent practice is required to maintain strong writing. Making an effort to regularly write, even a little, is good habit to staying in form. Not all writing has to be presented (even writing a private journal is still writing), but it is still good form to practice regularly.
Reading diversely and regularly is also a good habit for writers. Aside from the worlds of learning that reading regularly brings, exploring diversity is what makes a writer's scope of understanding broader. This counts for articles, fiction, games, or even life experiences. Trying something new is a sense-enlightening experience, and helps you learn to pick up more in life than just what you see. Sounds, smells, gut feelings are all part of the life experience that is rarely translated into writing. Learn to look for these things personally, and they become easier to write about.
Lastly, a good habit for a writer is to ask questions. Robert Kennedy once said, "Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream of things that never were and ask why not." That is a solid mantra to follow as a writer. Question everything that is done, and get to the root of it. When you understand more about the world around you, it is easier to approach, question, experience, and ultimately write about.
The Elements of Style
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well
David Sirlin's "Writing Well" - Part 1, 2, and 3
Anything, at least little bit every day.
One fiction novel a month.
One non-fiction writing, such as a newspaper article, or chapter in non-fiction book, a day.