Try not to repeat words.Screenshot: Warner Bros/Hawk Films
The top copy editor at Random House has a book out about what you should and shouldn’t do in your writing, and people are already arguing about it. All writing advice is relative, because language is not physics, it’s something people made up. That doesn’t mean writing advice is useless, so if you like to write and are trying to get better at it, you should read this excerpt from Benjamin Dreyer’s book Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.
In this particular piece, Dreyer mostly focuses on “bad habits” that writers fall into, on the level of sentences and word choice. Some of Dreyer’s advice only applies to narrative writing, but a lot applies to all kinds of writing, down to particularly important emails. For example:
Be wary of inadvertent rhymes, of the “Rob commuted to his job” or “make sure that tonight is all right” sort. By “be wary,” I mean: Don’t do them.
You writers are all far too keen on “And then,” which can usually be trimmed to “Then” or done away with entirely.
As with Strunk & White, you can pick and choose from Dreyer’s advice. You won’t agree with every rule, but you’ll probably find something useful that makes your writing a little more clear or compelling.
If you do write fiction, there are a lot of solid nitty-gritty pieces of advice. My personal favorite is a solution for the awkward sentences required by a flashback:
For fiction written in the past tense, here’s a technique for tackling flashbacks that I stumbled upon years ago, and writers I’ve shared it with have tended to get highly excited: Start off your flashback with, let’s say, two or three standard-issue had’s (“Earlier that year, Jerome had visited his brother in Boston”), then clip one or two more had’s to a discreet “’d” (“After an especially unpleasant dinner, he’d decided to return home right away”), then drop the past-perfecting altogether when no one’s apt to be paying attention and slip into the simple past (“He unlocked his front door, as he later recalled it, shortly after midnight”). Works like a charm.
As a writer I’ve never needed a trick like that, but as a reader, I got a thrill. That’s what’s so fun about writing advice—you don’t have to be a writer to appreciate it.