I invest a lot of time and effort into my culinary knowledge. Most of you know this, because this site chronicles the self-education I've pursued for the last few years—from competent cook to opinionated gourmet, from occasional wine drinker to wine educator.
But in the last two years I've also focused on becoming a better writer. Perfect writing may be an impossible dream for me, but I nonetheless dream it every day. Compare this entry to my early posts and I hope you'll see a difference. Some of you have written to me and asked for advice on enhancing your own writing skills, and I decided to put my private answers into this public forum. These thoughts come from my own experience; add your suggestions in the comments so that we can all benefit from the knowledge.
You need internal motivation to effect change in your writing. Careful writing is hard work, and there's no promise of fame and glory for competent wordsmiths. Indeed, given the large number of sloppy writers with legions of fawning fans, I might predict the opposite. I can only offer personal satisfaction, a lifetime of annoyed spasms whenever you see obvious mistakes and slipshod grammar, and a background irritation about published text that would be a notch better with one pass of red ink.
Get a Second Opinion
Find someone who knows how to write and will give you an honest opinion of your work. Everyone likes praise and flattery, but if a friend always says, "This is really great," you won't learn anything. A good editor—not all of them qualify—fills this role, but so does a writing group where the members speak freely, pointing out the good and bad in each other's work. Thoughtful editors don't just move and cut words. They tell you when you need to flesh out one topic or whittle down another. They identify problems in tone and style. They see the problems you don't. They represent all the readers who will have the same questions and reactions when they read your piece. Negative comments sting, but they make you a better writer.
Shape Your Text
Understand that "writing well" means "rewriting a lot." I edit and revise countless times before I submit any text, whether it's a full-length feature, a blog entry, or a 100-word assignment. The only exception to this rule is a post for my casual blog OWEE, where I edit and revise just once or twice.
When I rewrite, I focus on clarity above all else. Text should communicate. If your readers can't figure out what you're saying, you've let them down. A word-geek friend of mine sent around a line from an ad for a show called Wine Country: "Why beer might just go better with chocolate than wine." I couldn't have constructed a better example of a muddled sentence. The show wants to point out that beer may trump wine as a partner for chocolate, but you'd be forgiven for thinking they meant that beer and chocolate works better as a pairing than beer and wine. (As an aside, this blanket statement annoys me—some beers go well with chocolate but so do some wines.)
When I edit a sentence, I ask myself if every word has a clear meaning. I check my pronouns to make sure any reader could figure out the nouns they replace. Consider the sentence "Jane wanted to meet up with Sue, but she couldn't fit it into her schedule." Whom does "she" refer to? What does "it" replace? I push my main point to the front or end of a sentence where the reader will notice it. I try to keep all related words together in a sentence and all related sentences together in a paragraph, tricks I learned from Ed. I give specific examples if I think I've made too broad a statement and try to use the most specific word for a given context. "Lassie jumped through a metal hoop" works better than "The dog jumped through an obstacle."
I also strive for brevity, which often coincides with clarity. I smile when I figure out a two-syllable word with the same meaning as a four-syllable word in my text. I thrill when I cut words from a sentence. I give a mental cheer when I remove a sentence from a paragraph. Don't get attached to your words; nix them when they're pointless. As you edit, examine each word and phrase and ask what it adds to the text. Some critics suggest you cut all your adverbs, which I find too pat a rule. Many writers lean on adverbs, and the constant "-ly" sound wears on a reader, but they do have a place in the English language.
I try to add color, or flair, to my writing, though I'm not great at spotting drab text. David Kamp, of The United States of Arugula, and Rowan Jacobsen, from The Art of Eating, both have a controlled flamboyance in their writing that I look to for inspiration. My original draft of the Vinovation article mentioned natural yeast "drifting through the vineyard like morning fog," which my editors liked but didn't fit after we cut that debate from the piece. We left in my description of microoxygenation: "bubbles that tiptoe through the adjoining stainless-steel vat."
Books I Like - Writing Philosophy
When I set out to improve my writing, I couldn't articulate what I meant by "good writing." I knew it when I saw it—reading sits high above food and wine in my pantheon of hobbies—but I couldn't always explain why one sentence worked and another didn't. Fortunately, thoughtful writers like to write, and many have published books that will teach you to identify and explain these very concepts.
On Writing Well - William Zinsser
One editor described this to me as "the bible for modern nonfiction writing," and I'm sure other Zinsser devotees would agree. He writes in a warm, humorous style and gives example after example to illustrate his points. He covers writing in general but also focuses on specific nonfiction genres: sports writing, criticism, and more.
Writing Fiction - Janet Burroway
Don't let the title fool you. A story is a story even when the characters are real people and the events actually happened. Burroway discusses plot, character development, dialogue, and every major element of fiction writing. After reading through her book, I spotted and admired those elements in nonfiction pieces as well as the short stories I was reading at the time.
The Art And Craft Of Feature Writing - William Blundell
It's about time for me to re-read this book, based on Blundell's time as a feature writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal. He discusses every facet of features, from coming up with ideas to structuring your text for the best effect. Read it once, read it twice, read it often.
Books I Like (And One Podcast) - Mechanics
Art requires craft: Painters need to mix colors, woodworkers need to understand wood grain, and writers need to use proper grammar. You probably can't memorize all the rules, but once again, books come to the rescue. Got a question? Look it up.
About once a week, the Grammar Girl podcast presents a five-minute episode that clarifies some confusing grammar point, whether it's the difference between "affect" and "effect" or the reason for the unusual predicate in "Joy to the World, the Lord is come." I discovered the show a few months ago, and I've since downloaded all the back episodes. I just wish that new episodes came out more often.
The Chicago Manual Of Style
Style guides give all the usage rules that the authors thought to include. For my bacon toffee post, I used the Chicago Manual of Style to determine if I should write "1970's" or "1970s" (the latter). I get the sense that choosing a style guide is the writer's equivalent of the text editor battles among programmers, but I allied myself with the Chicago camp the same way I became an Emacs user: It was the first one I got to know. I own the competing AP Style Guide, but I always go to the big orange book first.
The Elements of Style - Strunk & White
If you think I'm a curmudgeon, try flipping through this tiny treatise. E.B. White touched up his university writing instructor's guide for students, and the result is a blistering assault on lazy writers that rings true decades later.
Books I Like - Inspiration
Writing is like any art, a swamp of disappointment and frustration lit up by will-o'-the-wisps of success and idealism. You need inspiration and hope, and these books provide it.
Best American Essays
(Note: If you clamber far enough up my company's corporate hierarchy, I work for the publisher of this and the other Best American books.)
Whenever I see the newest edition of Best American Essays, I buy it and bump it to the top of my bottomless reading queue. Essays are my favorite nonfiction genre, and the annual collection never fails to provide samples that intrigue, inspire, and instruct. The 2006 collection has an essay entitled "Why I Write" that regrounded my goals as a writer. I toyed with submitting some work to the James Beard Awards this year, but this essay pushed me back over the fence.
Bird By Bird - Anne Lamott
At some point, every would-be writer gets a copy of this book. Lamott talks about the reality of writing: It's hard work, the rewards are scant, and constant hopes mean constant disappointment. But few activities are more rewarding on a personal level. Knowing that a well-regarded novelist goes through all the same pain as I somehow makes it easier for me to bear.
The Writing Life
If Anne Lamott's musings aren't enough, this book collects essays from 50 writers who have contributed to the Washington Post's Book World. Each author gives insight into the weird world of writing. Ups, downs, lefts, rights, overs, and unders all find their way into this book.