I’ve been writing since the early 90s, though I didn’t get published until 2005. I’ve learned quite a bit about how to be a better writer since I first began. And with each new book, I’m still learning.
What follows are five pointers I’ve learned through mistakes. Incidentally, a mistake remains a mistake unless you learn from it. If you learn from it, it becomes a lesson. Thus learning from your mistakes transforms them from being blunders into builders.
If you are a writer of any sort (from blogs to books), you may find these of help.
1. Use exclamation points rarely if ever. I’m 100% Italian. So I’m a passionate person by nature. When I preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, I can get very passionate. In my earlier writing, I used exclamation points to communicate passion and emphasis. Last year I was talking to Francis Frangipane. I mentioned in passing that I used to use exclamation points profusely, and he said, “That’s funny; I recently noticed how often I used them in my earlier work.” He also happens to be full-blooded Italian.
The problem with exclamation points is that some people misinterpret them as communicating anger. Instead of passion, they interpret the author as being mad. In addition, too many exclamation points can be a distraction to the flow of thought.
For that reason, you’ll find very few exclamation points in my published work. Pagan Christianity contains more than my other volumes, but not nearly as many as my earlier work had. Barna and I didn’t want Pagan to read as a sterile, heady, boring history lesson. Instead, the book was written with the fervor of the prophets of old. And you cannot write a book like that without some emphasis. At least not if you want to see people impacted and changed by it.
So if you are a writer who is passionate, beware the exclamation point. Use them few and far between.
2. Use short sentences wherever possible. In my pre-published work, I gave no thought to how long my sentences were. I later discovered that the shorter the sentence, the easier the read. If you want to broaden your audience, you must write in a readable manner. And shortening your sentences lowers the reading level. So I often break long sentences into two or three shorter ones. Hemingway was a master at this. That’s why his books were so accessible.
I personally struggle with writers who use long sentences. One British New Testament scholar, who is quite well-read, will sometimes use 60 words in a sentence! (I thought that was a nice place to put an exclamation point. :-)) With those never-ending-sentences, you have to catch your breath when finished. I often have to re-read such sentences two or three times to understand what he’s saying. I’m not sure who his editor is, but he’d have far more readers if he strove for an average of 7 to 12 words per sentence.
3. Don’t use fancy, difficult words. I’m fond of obscure, snazzy words. A fancy word is okay now and then, as long as the reader can understand it via the context. But I used to use them far too often. What alerted me to this mistake was that some readers of my pre-published work would complain that they had to read my writings with a dictionary in hand. Sigh.
4. Break up your chapters into sections with sub-headings. I started doing this early on. But when I first began writing, I didn’t. Using sub-headings makes a chapter more digestible. It’s easier on the reader, and it also makes it easy for them to bookmark long chapters for later reading. I’m a slow reader, so I always appreciate it when an author breaks up her or his chapters into smaller sections.
5. If you use endnotes, make sure each section contains the chapter number listed along with the chapter title. For example, you want your endnotes to read something like, “Chapter 10: Beware the Naked Man Who Hands You His Shirt” and then the notes will fall below the heading. Notice that set of notes begins with “Chapter 10.” That’s very important.
I learned to add the chapter numbers in the endnotes because of my own frustration with trying to navigate endnotes when reading someone else’s work. When the heading is present without the chapter number, it makes it very hard to find the endnotes for that chapter. I prefer footnotes myself because it’s less work for the reader. However, most publishers don’t like to use footnotes. Cosmetically, it doesn’t look as nice. And some books that aren’t scholarly will appear scholarly just because of the footnotes. That alone will drive some readers away. So when using endnotes, mark each set of notes with the appropriate chapter numbers.
For more on this subject, check out The Buzz Seminar.