It’s hard to write about the power of paragraphs without sounding like the narrator of a wildlife documentary for sixth-graders. (“Our industrious friend the paragraph!”) But here goes.
A paragraph break is among the most underrated writing tools. It not only helps organize your thoughts and serves practical purposes such as separating speakers in dialogue (always separate speakers in dialogue!); it can also lend emphasis, visually air out a dense story, or give readers a nanosecond to absorb a thought before moving on.
Nothing but long paragraphs can make your writing a chore to read, no matter how beautiful the words. Too many short ones and it’s choppy. By the same token, a deliberately crafted one-sentence—or one-word—paragraph can stop a reader cold (in a good way).
Paragraph mindfully. It’s part of the writing—and, even more important, editing—process.
One morning a while back, I tweeted: “Don’t write like everyone else.”
A coworker replied: “But how can you always tell? I sometimes can’t.”
I said: “Let me get back to you. Eating breakfast and reading the paper. Where everyone writes like everyone else.”
The next day, I messaged her: “I wish I'd thought of a nifty, concise answer before tweeting that! Part of what inspired it was the echo chamber I see in writing, especially online—the same rhythms, the same catchphrases, in many cases the same ‘insights.’ Best I can say is when something sounds familiar to you as the writer, that’s a signal to do it differently. Not just clichés but anything—the tics that everyone out there is using.”
They say—and I believe—that one of the best ways to write better is to read a lot. But sometimes, counterintuitively, maybe you need to read a little less to drown out the echo chamber and let your own voice take shape, in silence.
Sometimes it’s enough just to put sentences together. Not write a story. Not complete a draft or bang out 1,000 words for the day or come up with a new idea. Just tell yourself, “I’m going to put some sentences together.” That alone has value and beauty and sinew. That alone is honest work.
Anytime you write “there is,” ask yourself whether you can think of a more active formulation of the same statement. (In that sentence, I actually started typing "...ask yourself whether there’s a more active formulation…”)
“There is/are” isn’t necessarily to be avoided at all costs, but more often than not it gets in the way of your subject. This isn’t just my personal preference. Whole articles have been written on the topic. Such a phrase is known grammatically as an expletive, defined as “a word or other grammatical element that has no meaning but is needed to fill a syntactic position, such as the words ‘it’ and ‘there’ in the sentences ‘It’s raining’ and ‘There are many books on the table.’ ”
Compare “There are two people who have changed my life” with “Two people have changed my life”: The first one hesitates; it backs into the room. The second makes you sit up and listen.
It seems almost obligatory these days for books to have an epigraph—a resonant quotation at the start of the first chapter (often before every chapter, come to think of it), but more and more I see it on essays and articles, too. Epigraphs can be powerful and enticing. (Hmm, how is this intriguing quote relevant? Guess I have to keep reading to find out!) Yet might you be in effect borrowing someone else’s gravitas, poetic facility, or name recognition? If the other person’s words do actually help deepen your narrative—and judiciously used, they can—could there be a way to integrate them with it rather than setting them atop it like a burnished urn?
Ask yourself if an epigraph really adds a note that your writing can’t strike on its own—and with originality at that. Remember: Your work has the potential to say everything you want it to, all by itself.
Ever thought, “I could never publish this while my mother’s alive” or “in a magazine where someone who knows me could see it” or “because my kids would think I was a monster”? Or maybe “I’m not telling the full story because it would hurt X, so I’m only going to tell this small part [which is not really a story but a tantalizing yet unsatisfying crumb]”?
Write it anyway.
I said write, not publish. Too often we leap ahead to the nightmare scenarios—“Everyone will see it and never speak to me again!”—that scare us off from the story that wants to be written. Funny how we seem to assume our most sensitive, potentially hurtful stories WILL be published—yet are plagued with doubt that anyone will be interested in the equally well-written but non-life-ruining ones.
Write it, then decide if you even want to seek publication. Maybe you’ll feel more confident once you put the words down and get feedback from readers you trust. Or perhaps you’ll decide you were right all along and aren’t ready to go public. But here’s the thing: You can learn something from writing it—about both the story and writing itself.
So write it. It won’t be wasted time.
Writing daily or once a week or on some other schedule is great. It can only make your writing and your commitment to it stronger. But if you can’t manage to sit at your desk with anything like a routine, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. Those who say otherwise are ungenerous and, by the way, utterly ignorant about your life.
People go through periods when they can stick to a writing appointment. Then there are stretches when work, children, relationships, aging parents, illness, other projects, or myriad distractions prevent them from doing so. You might write occasionally, often but in snippets, or not at all (even so, you’re still thinking; something is happening you can use later). Then your life changes: You get a new job, you move, you take a class, you make friends who are also writers (encouraging ones), your kids get older, something in your right brain—or your calendar—just clicks. You rearrange things and find you’re sitting down to write every Wednesday morning or for a half hour before bed every night.
Someone tells you, “I wish I could write that often. Maybe I’m just not a real writer.”
You say, “If you write, you’re a writer.”
If it’s an expression “everybody uses,” it’s a cliché.
If it’s the first phrase that comes to mind, it’s probably a cliché.
“It’s a cliché because it’s true” is no excuse. And it’s a cliché.
If a sentence contains a cliché, no one will ever remember you’re the one who said it.
I tweeted those lines a few months ago, without much forethought, probably triggered by coming across a stale expression one time too many in something I was editing. It was no shock to me how I felt—I’m constantly telling students, “You can always do better than a cliché.” (Actually, that could be the fifth point.) What surprised me was the admonition that if a sentence contains a hackneyed phrase, no one will ever remember you’re the one who said it. The idea you’re trying to express, that is—plenty of people may remember you’re the writer who settles for clichés!
We all want our writing to be memorable. For the right reasons.
Just because it happened or is there doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
I hesitate to say that because it wakes up every writer’s doubts—even mine—that the story we have to tell is worthwhile, whether it be a personal narrative, a profile, an opinion piece, or a mystery we think merits investigation. On its own, the truism can sound like a mean-spirited obstacle to creativity, not a spur.
But the second, key part is this: You have to make something of it.
Just because it happened or is there doesn’t mean it’s interesting. You have to make something of it.
That requires, first and foremost, asking questions—either of yourself or someone else or through research. Keep asking them, even if it makes you deeply uncomfortable. That’s when you’ll get to the answers—or possible answers—that transform the idea from essentially a dinner-party anecdote or mere statement (this thing happened, this person exists) into something genuinely interesting.
People sometimes ask me how to edit. Being naturally detail-oriented helps. Reading good articles (online and in print) and books—really paying attention to how paragraphs move and build on each other—can teach as much about editing as it does about writing. But when it comes to tightening your work sentence by sentence—because tightening almost always improves drafts—an exercise can help.
Give yourself an assignment to write about 500 words. In a class I taught, it was a review of a book or movie, but it could be a profile or an account of a meaningful experience. (A review works well because you don’t have to do much research for the exercise—just pick something you read or watched recently!) As long as it’s not free writing or a journal entry. It should be something with a beginning, middle, and end. If it’s a bit more or less than 500 words, no big deal.
My students didn’t know what was coming next as they wrote the review, but it can still work. What comes next; Write a new version of the piece that’s no more--not a word more—than 250 words. It should have as much shape and intent as the original.
This is a forced march in making every word count, figuring out how else to say it without losing your voice, and, yes, fulfilling the assignment. Which in life can mean getting the job.