When I’m not editing, I’m teaching writing classes for 7th-12th grade students at a homeschool co-op. It’s a lot of fun—the students all have unique minds and different writing abilities, and I love watching them grow in their academic and creative writing.
As different as the teens all are, there have been specific issues that tend to repeat in their writing. As I’ve taught them to grow in these areas, I’ve realized that it’s not just kids making these mistakes. They’re common to writers of all ages, and if the weaknesses can be universal, so can the lessons on how to fix them.
Here are six of the lessons for better writing that I taught my students. I’ll be covering each of them in more depth on my personal blog in July, but this overview will hopefully get you thinking about what you can do to kick your own writing up a notch.
- Write like you talk.
I had a handful of students, especially in 7th and 8th grade, who had a logical, engaging tone when speaking and writing responses to readings. However, as soon as they started writing an essay, that was tossed aside in favor of an awkward, pseudo-academic tone. The result was not a better paper; it was a less interesting, more awkward paper. I’ve seen the same thing happen with new authors: they have a great voice that comes across in their emails, websites, etc., but once I start to edit their novel, I see that they’ve slipped into a “this is what novels sound like” voice. Don’t write in the voice everyone else is using or the one you think all novels use; write in your own voice, with the style that comes naturally.
- Don’t write like you talk.
This doesn’t contradict the first point as much as it appears to. While you should keep your writing natural and in your voice, you should also make sure that it stays clear and grammatically correct. I had some students who had no trouble writing in their own creative, engaging voices. However, they went a little too far and started to write what was practically stream-of-consciousness on some of their assignments. Not only was it too casual for academic work, it also ignored all conventions of keeping paragraphs on topic and avoiding run-on sentences. I’ve seen authors slip into something similar, so be careful! When you write, it’s good to use your own voice. Just make sure that you’re using your writing voice, not your speaking voice.
- Don’t change the subject.
Speaking of keeping paragraphs on topic, well, keep your paragraphs on topic. I had students who would often switch from one idea to another while they were still in the same paragraph, making it hard to see where their focus was. I had to work with them on identifying and sticking with a single focus. This goes for fiction writing, too. Just because something is related to your overall topic or story doesn’t mean it belongs in a certain paragraph or scene. Know what you’re trying to express with each unit of your book, and don’t wander away from that.
- Keep an eye on paragraph length.
I had some students who thought that a paragraph had to be a certain number of sentences. Others took their freedom too liberally after I told them, “A paragraph is everything you have to say on one specific idea or thought.” I started seeing paragraphs that were a full page long juxtaposed with ones that were a single sentence. The long paragraphs were focused on specific sub-points of the papers, but they shared multiple ideas about those points and should have been broken up into multiple paragraphs. The single-sentence paragraphs were certainly not off-topic, but there was no information to support or expand the ideas they contained. Fiction is more fluid when it comes to what makes up a paragraph, but consider starting a new paragraph when you switch character actions, locations, etc. Whatever you do, make sure that your paragraphs are consistent, logical, and easy-to-follow.
- Use clear transitions and connections.
Transitions are more than inserting the word “then” or “next” into your writing every so often. They’re the glue that holds ideas together. It was common for me to see student paragraphs that gave one example and then moved on to another without explaining the first or hinting that a new subject was coming. The students had to learn to practice their transitions, making sure they flowed naturally and logically from thought to thought instead of just hopping abruptly to the next idea. As you write fiction, are you also hopping from sentence to sentence or scene to scene? Work on using phrases and content to take the reader by the hand and smoothly guide them through the story.
- Take the time to learn about parallelism.
Despite our in-class practices, I had some students who dreaded seeing the phrase “Not parallel!” scribbled in the margin of their essay. No matter how many times you write a sentence in the form of “I wrote a story, edited it, and my mom read it,” though, it still won’t be right. See the list of verb phrases in that example? The first two are both things that “I” did, but the third, instead of continuing the list of actions, starts a new clause, breaking the structure of the sentence. Try “I wrote and edited a story, and my mom read it” or “I wrote a story, edited it, and gave it to my mom to read.” Either/or and not only/but also phrases can also trip up your sentence construction, so invest time toward understanding parallel structure. Your copyeditor will thank you, and you’ll feel better about your own writing.
Writing, like most skills, grows through practice. My goal as a teacher is to help the teens get the practice they need to become better writers. As an editor, that’s my goal for you, too. As you continue writing, continue to push yourself. With practice, you can have the clarity, engaging voice, logical structure, and smooth transitions that your story deserves.