How To Be A Better Writer

So you want to learn how to be a better writer? It’s not as hard as people make it out to be.

How to be a better writer begins with Hemmingway

Let’s start out with the world’s shortest short story:

For Sale

Baby shoes

Never worn.

This story is courtesy of Earnest Hemingway. It has all the elements of a good short story (although today we call this “flash fiction”).

Hemingway’s story contains three elements that make it a story.  The first “For sale” calls to mind a common figure of speech, creating a familiar “base” or framework for the story.  Next, “baby shoes,” again something we are all familiar with, narrows the plot further and evokes emotion.  But the twist ending, “Never worn,” makes this story a tragedy by evoking the pain of child loss without even saying so.

If you go back and read his novels, they aren’t that big of a deal today.  There are plenty of
awesome writers around who can easily compete with him.  Or write better than him.

But if you compare him to the writers who came before him, he’s an absolute revelation.

How to be a better writer

Photo by Ana Curcan on Unsplash

Writers before Hemmingway: Windbags

Before Hemingway, most writers were intolerable windbags.  Flowery and pompous, they could
drag out endless sentences that they strung into massive paragraphs.  It’s a wonder anyone had
the patience to read them.

But here’s why they were so long-winded.  One, most of them learned to read by reading the
Bible, since almost any well-to-do English-speaking family had one.  And most writers came
from well-to-do families since they were the only ones that got a decent education and also had
the free time to write.

Additionally, most of them got what was called a “classical” education, which meant they all
studied the same windbags that had gone before them

How Hemmingway changed the definition of good writing

But Hemmingway? He was a newspaper reporter. He had to communicate the facts as quickly
as possible with no adjectives or adverbs. He was also constrained by having limited space in
the newspaper to fit his story. And he had to deal with the limited education of his American

And lest we forget, his reporting was done on a battlefield, not a place you want to do more than
scribble extremely brief notes.

So when he set out to write a novel, his set of writing skills came from the hard-nosed, real-
world, tell-it-straight language of the newspaper hack

How to be a better writer

So, what kind of writing advice will keep you within throwing distance of the person who
single-handedly changed fiction writing for the 20th and 21st centuries?

Ever heard of Scott Adams of Dilbert fame? Let’s see what he had to say in one of his blog posts
about how to be a better writer (from 2007):

Adam’s post: The Day You Became A Better Writer

“I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in “business writing.” I couldn’t believe how simple it was. I’ll tell you the main tricks here so you don’t have to waste a day in class.

Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it.

Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don’t write, “He was very happy” when you can write “He was happy.” You think the word “very” adds something. It doesn’t. Prune your sentences.

Humor writing is a lot like business writing. It needs to be simple. The main difference is in the choice of words. For humor, don’t say “drink” when you can say “swill.”

Your first sentence needs to grab the reader. Go back and read my first sentence to this post. I rewrote it a dozen times. It makes you curious. That’s the key.

Write short sentences. Avoid putting multiple thoughts in one sentence. Readers aren’t as smart as you’d think.

Learn how brains organize ideas. Readers comprehend “the boy hit the ball” quicker than “the ball was hit by the boy.” Both sentences mean the same, but it’s easier to imagine the object (the boy) before the action (the hitting). All brains work that way. (Notice I didn’t say, “That is the way all brains work”?)”

In 250 words, Scott Adams gives you a foundation that will make you a better writer than most people.  You could write your first novel based on this.

PS: I met a fellow who had no writing education and had never written anything in his life besides high school reports.  Somehow, he wrote a best-selling thriller and the advice he used to get him through the entire process was, “Vary your sentences.  Make some of them short and some long.” Sheesh!




0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Skip to content