Writers’ Handbook

Introduction

On this page, I intend to provide concise guidelines for writing more effective documents and texts. Writers at all levels should find this guide beneficial. As always, writing involves highly personal choices and preferences, and therefore, no single set of guidelines will help every writer. Nonetheless, the following guidelines have helped my students (and myself) improve their writing though applied practice.

Please feel free to add comments, questions, or suggestions below. [last updated August 11, 2010]

Pre-Writing Strategies

All writers should spend ample time thinking about what they want to write (aka “genre”) and how they would like people to respond to their writing (aka “audience”). Failure to think about genre and audience leads to annoying things like writers block, disorganization, reader misunderstandings, and general boredom. In addition to genre and audience considerations, writers should think about their previous difficulties and successes, other people’s thoughts on the subject, and the knowledge they can bring to the task.

To help think effectively about all these issues, writers can:

  • Outline or map your ideas, focusing on main points first
  • Read other writers’ work on the subject
  • Discuss your initial impressions and ideas with a friend or mentor
  • Commit to writing on the chosen topic

This last point – commitment – helps writers decide if the subject, genre, and desired audience are worth pursuing. Often in school or in the workplace, the writer has no choice but to complete a given assignment. Yet if you can commit to accomplishing the assignment, you may be able to adapt your personal skills to the task at hand, thus enhancing the end result.

In-Process Writing

When gifted writers talk about writing, they refer to the time spent with a pen in hand or with fingers on the keyboard. Less gifted writers – such as you or me – cannot put words on the page without concentrated effort. The key to writing successfully is seeing writing as a process. Pre-writing stands as the first step to this process, and it also serves as a helpful safety net. If you catch yourself pausing before completing your task, review your notes from pre-writing to see where you may pick back up.

You may also want to consider your writing environment. Some people prefer perfectly silent settings to induce writing. Others require some background noise – perhaps music, rustling trees, cafe chatter, or even a mechanical humming – to help set the mood. Lighting and temperature, too, help writers get situated: bright, dark, warm, cool, etc. Other sensory factors like visuals and scents may affect a writers’ mood and work. It all depends on personal preference; an uncomfortable writer may be unable to stay focused long enough to complete her work.

Finally, try to avoid editing your own work until after you finish with a writing session. If you focus too much on what the final result will look like, then you may unwittingly prevent yourself from getting there. Pre-writing is the roadmap and not the process itself, and editing is a polishing effort for later. While writing, do everything you can to keep yourself working and on task.

In summary, while writing:

  • Use your notes from pre-writing to keep yourself on topic. If you pause prematurely or sway off-topic, use your outline to get back on task.
  • Find a comfortable and non-distracting environment in which to work. Also give yourself enough time in that setting to complete your task.
  • Leave editing to its later stage. If your not sure if you’ve phrased something correctly, come back to it later.

Editing

I notice that writers who edit are happy writers, hence, editing helps writers achieve their initial goals and improve their overall ability to put words on the page. I notice, too, that the biggest shortcomings in student writing result from a general lack of editing. Students complete assignments the day before, leaving themselves little time to correct mistakes they would otherwise catch.

When editing, you should:

  • Allow a friend read your work and give comments
  • Read the text aloud to catch awkward phrasings
  • Pay attention to common grammar issues, such as:
    • run-on sentences, comma splices, and punctuation
    • consistent verb tense and subject agreement
    • dangling modifiers
    • authorial voice
    • varying sentence length and vocabulary
  • Ask yourself and your editors: Does the draft meet the assignment objectives? Is more detail needed? Does the draft resemble the original pre-writing plan? What more do you want from this draft? If there are problems, how should they be fixed?

Revision

Once you’ve edited your work, you need to revise. To do this you should take into consideration the responses you have received from editors, and then fashion another pre-writing plan for a revision session. Add or subtract details as needed, polish your phrasing, correct your grammar, and clarify the overall structure of your piece. In essence, the best writers constantly revise their work throughout their lives, so you should look at revision as a mission rather than as a chore.

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