Following the Path to Writing Excellence

This is a guest post by Loren Blinde of Writing Power. Loren teaches college English and helps people enrich their lives by improving their writing.

Everything was going according to plan this time. I had arranged myself in a comfortable sitting position, my arms hanging at my sides. All was quiet. A soothing voice in my head chanted, “one…two…three…hold…now, exhale…one…two…three….”

And then it happened.

As though some cognitive telegraph had suddenly come to life, my mind was filled with thoughts. Character ideas. Plot ideas. Argument ideas. Questions to be answered, and answers to be questioned.

Nevertheless, I was resolute. Come back later, I told them. I am meditating. I ignored the ideas now spooling from my imagination into my memory and urged my mind to remain focused.

After a few minutes, however, the calming voice stopped counting and began to investigate the thoughts marching by. “Some of these could be good,” she said, peering at the mental ticker tape. “You should write about them.” Annoyed that the voice in my head had lost focus too, I began to count out loud.

I was doubled over, coughing and sputtering, when I realized two important truths about myself.

  1. It is difficult to speak aloud while inhaling.
  2. As much as I hated to admit it, the voice in my head was right. I am meant to use pen and paper to find the peace and simplicity I seek.

Although I deeply admire many of its tenets, I am not a Buddhist. My passion is writing, and I find great joy each day in learning and teaching about the writing craft. In a way, my interest in Buddhism and my interest in writing are close cousins. Buddhism’s philosophies provide a powerful conceptual approach that, when applied to the practice of writing, can greatly increase a writer’s effectiveness and confidence.

Buddhism appeals to many people because it presents a radically empowered way of life. While many religions focus on one or many god figures, Buddhism focuses on humanity. Moreover, The Buddha taught that anyone could achieve enlightenment.

How does this aspect of Buddhism relate to writing? Simply put, writing is a skill that anyone can learn to improve. You do not have to have a pre-existing talent or aptitude for writing in order to do it well. All you have to do is take control of your writing by consistently applying principles of moderation and diligence.

Admittedly, taking control of your writing is not something many people can do overnight. You must work to develop your writing skills through practice and mindfulness. But you can do it.

Buddhism is centrally concerned with the meaning of existence; the search for meaning is also the crux of the writer’s endeavor. A writer does not write only for himself or herself because the point of writing is to communicate. Whether other people actually read what you have written is immaterial: you are always writing for an audience, even if the audience is only your later self.

As the writer, each piece you write constitutes a little world of meaning, with your main point at its center. You are the creator of this paper world, and the power to determine its meaning resides with you. However, as the saying goes, with power comes responsibility. You have a solemn responsibility to your readers.

You must do everything you can to help your readers understand your meaning, and a great way to do this is to make your writing easy to read. Here are some tips to help you increase your prose’s readability:

  • Vary your sentence length and structure. Reading too many of the same kind of sentence is like listening to a person speaking in a monotone. Varied sentences give your prose vitality and help to maintain a reader’s interest.
  • Make the subject of the sentence the doer of the verb. In sentences, some subjects take action (active voice), while others sit around and have actions done to them (passive voice). Since passive voice is more vague and wordier, choose active voice instead. (For more information on identifying and eliminating passive voice from your writing, check out this post.)
  • Put the subject and verb together at the beginning of the sentence more often. Some sentences, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, don’t do this. The previous sentence is grammatically correct, but it sure is hard to read. By the time you get to the verb (“don’t do”), you have to struggle to remember what the verb’s subject was. To avoid this, put the subject and verb together. Put them at the beginning of the sentence for even more readability. (But don’t do this for each and every sentence. That would conflict with the first tip in this list.)

Just as it is for the Buddhist, the writer’s guiding principle must be compassion. Above all, a writer must show compassion toward his or her reader. Treat a reader the same way you would treat an honored guest in your home: try to anticipate his or her needs and fulfill them.

What are your reader’s needs? To answer that, think about what you value when you read someone’s writing: clear expression, interesting ideas, transparent intention, thoughtful organization, judicious examples, respectful and amiable tone. Show the reader that you value his or her time by constructing your writing with your reader in mind.

As a Buddhist progresses along the Noble Eightfold Path, he or she strives to remove illusion and see things as they really are. The idea of detachment is equally important in writing, and many writers struggle with it. It is difficult not to take criticism of one’s writing personally, for example. Moreover, even if we are able to take criticism in the right spirit, we still may not be able to see our writing as it really is. Nevertheless, a writer must pursue this goal relentlessly in order to improve his or her writing.

To detach yourself from your writing, remember that the goal of writing is to communicate. After all, if we can’t see what our writing is communicating, how can we evaluate whether it is communicating effectively? Here are some tips for detaching from our writing so that we can engage it as it really is:

  • Look at it from a reader’s perspective. Try to step outside yourself and ask, “If I didn’t already know what this was supposed to mean, would it be clear to me?”
  • If method number 1 proves difficult – and it is – then gain knowledge about reader reaction. Give your piece to honest friends or trusted colleagues, explaining that you are trying to improve your ability to see your writing as it is rather than as you mean it to be. Ask for their initial reactions as they read, and record them. Do not try to explain what you meant. Just listen and learn. And remember to thank them for their honest reactions.
  • Put your piece in a drawer. For how long? Generally speaking, the longer you have been working on it, the longer it should stay in the drawer. This is because “writer’s tunnel vision” gets worse the longer a writer works with something.
  • If you speak more than one language, try translating your piece for yourself. This practice can reveal hidden ambiguities in the original.

If there is one overarching piece of advice that a Buddhist and a writer would probably agree on, it’s this: be patient. Don’t be greedy for progress. There is much to learn along the path.