11 nuggets of writing wisdom

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In a bid to become better writers, Claire and Ben went to a Guardian Masterclass on ‘What sub editors wished you knew’. The speakers were Chris Waywell from Time Out and James Callow from The Guardian, and they had loads of little nuggets of writing wisdom – here’s a quick 11 for starters.

1. Read, write and work with language all the time. Someone clever* once said that, to be great at something, you need to do it for 10,000 hours. Not all in one go, obviously. (* Apparently, it was Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success.)

2. Don’t say ‘she smiles’ to lead into a quote. It’s impossible to ‘smile’ a word.

3. Avoid hanging clauses. Whatever they are. Or just lots of clauses in one sentence. If you’re using lots of commas, brackets and hyphens, you’re probably going wrong somewhere. One idea per sentence is the general rule.

4. Cook what you intended to cook, rather than imagining what you can make with all the ingredients. Have an idea of the shape of your piece of writing before you start – this will help you to be concise and to keep to your word limit.

5. Don’t show off and don’t waffle. Keep your audience and your publication’s tone of voice in mind at all times. (And always read the publication you’re writing for.)

6. Read your copy out loud. It will highlight anything clunky or something that doesn’t really make sense. And, if you’re editing someone else’s copy, get away from your desk to help you focus on it. Read it once for tone of voice. And then again for grammar and typos. When proofreading on screen, change the font and size of the copy to help highlight mistakes.

7. Avoid ‘see’ as a verb to knit two concepts together. For example: “The budget cuts could see the country fall apart.” As far as we know, cuts can’t see.

8. A few tips to overcome writer’s block:
> Don’t try too hard to think of something funny, different or interesting. Write it straight, and an idea may flow from there.

> Fill three pages of A4 with words as soon as you wake up in the morning. It can be complete nonsense, or just the same word repeated over and over. When you start writing later on, it won’t be the first time you’ve written something substantial that day. (This is from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.)

> Keep a dream diary. It’s an opportunity to capture ‘chance elements’ which are actually rather rare in real life and can be a great source of inspiration.

9. Only use the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the most personal of pieces, and certainly never without warning.

10. Remember that, on the internet, there is no ‘today’. There’s no ‘tomorrow’ either. Or ‘yesterday’ or ‘last week’. Play it safe and use dates instead.

11. Banish the cliché. There are some great words to avoid here. I think we should come up with our own Oxfam list of banned phrases. Any thoughts?

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