I read a lot on how to improve my writing skills., because I love to write and I want to be a professional writer. I want to publish works of Christian philosophy, as well as mainstream fiction and screenplays. I need to know how to improve my writing if I’m going to actually sell it. Not that I’m bad; I think I’m pretty darn good. I just want to be better!
I believe writing is part gift from God, part skill. The gift that the Lord has given you can be built on and refined. So, if writing skill was on a scale of 1 to 100 (with 100 being the best possible writer, and 1 being my brother-in-law Chris), and if God has blessed you in his eternal decree with a 22, then you are not stuck there. You can develop to a 30. Or a 45. Or even a 79 or maybe even a 90!
It takes work. It takes time. And if you are willing (as I am) to invest some of both, then you can improve your writing skills as I have.
To that end, I read books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White or On Writing Well by William Zinsser. And I read books specific to style, like Screenplay by Syd Field or (more recently) The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis.
I’m also new to the idea of syndicating writing, which I’m doing with free e-zine articles on sites like GoArticles or ArticleBase. That has increased traffic at Josiah Concept Ministries by quite a bit–when I started I had an Alexa traffic rating of around 7.8 million, which I built to 753,861 in a few months. Quite an increase, going from an average of 20 hits per day to 100+ with regularity!
Since I’m new to that style of marketing, I subscribed to a free e-zine on how to write for e-zines. Yes, I know that’s a bit like buying a DVD explaining how to hook up a DVD player, but it has worked quite well for me.
One thing that is common to the technical books on writing and the how-to e-zine in discussing paragraphs is that they should have a topic sentence that summarizes the paragraph, detail sentences that support the topic sentence, and a concluding sentence that restates the topic sentence.
Each and every paragraph.
My paragraphs have a topics and supporting details, and each expands only a single point. But, they don’t have a clear topic sentence, several details with transitions between (First, …; Second, …; Next ….; etc.), with a concluding sentence that restates the original topic sentence. I try to keep my writing more flowing and interesting than that.
I think every writer does.
And, as you’ve undoubtedly noticed, many of my paragraphs are one sentence. I did that purposely in this post to highlight the absurdity of making every paragraph fit to the structure I described. Moreover, single-sentence paragraphs work well with the style of writing that e-zines need — journalistic. Most newspaper and magazine articles use one or two sentence paragraphs to keep the piece flowing quickly. Often, there’s no need to expand something if a single sentence can cover it.
So, why do the how-to books and e-zines cover the “ideal paragraph” in a way few writers actually write? Because that’s how an ideal paragraph is structured: introduction, detail expansion, wrap-up. Or, beginning, middle, end. Same way an article is structured!
You have to know the rules before you can try to break them. That’s part of building the writing skill that God gave you. So the how-tos teach you the rules. Then, you (the writer) get to decide how (or if) to break them.
An example from fiction might do. John Gardner’s first James Bond adventure, License Renewed, was a straight James Bond story. It featured a villain, Anton Murik, who sought to cause a horrid disaster for his own gain. There was a girl who knew too much, Mary Jane Mashkin, who slept with Bond and gave him the information he needed, later dying for it. A sultry love interest, Lavender Peacock, who got to sleep with Bond next, finish out the story and have sex with him in the final scene. A burly sidekick, Caber, who was immune to pain and Bond had to fight while the world begins to burn — which is high drama, since Caber had bested Bond in each of their last meetings. And of course, two car chases, gadgets, the self-introduction “My name is Bond. James Bond,” and the ordering of a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” from a disinterested bartender.
Everything that happens in every 007 movie.
Gardner started changing things up in For Special Services, with the “Bond girl” being old friend Felix’s daughter (so Bond didn’t sleep with her, for fear of betraying his friend; unfortunately, the daughter had long dreamed of sex with Bond). The villain was a female and the sidekick was originally thought to be the villain (which means The World is Not Enough was far behind the novels).
Gardner started with a straight 007 formula story, License Renewed, to learn the ropes before he started mixing things up in For Special Services. That’s why how-to books and articles teach you the standard paragraph format first. When you know the rules, then you can break them.