I’ve been writing everything from non-fiction essays to poems since I could string a sentence together. I was a prolific writer as a kid: little me would scribble notes and the beginnings of many (many) novels on scraps of paper, napkins… anything I could get words onto.
A few years ago I convinced my Mum to whittle down her enormous box of my ramblings and I took away a small folder of some of the best* things I’d written. Reading them was very revealing, and it highlighted some of the bad writing habits I’d managed to nurture and grow over the years.
Seeing my bad habits in black and white really helped me squash them.
Planning is a really important part of the writing process. Knowing where you’re going with an article, story, report, book or poem helps you structure it properly, providing the best possible support for elegant, well thought-out writing. Skip the planning process and you risk your work caving in on itself.
The little version of me didn’t know this. Take my caterpillar “poem” for example. (Come on, it’s not really a poem, is it?) I had one side of A4, minus some pretty generous margins, to work with. I knew this; I’d drawn and decorated the margins myself. What I should have done was draft the “poem” somewhere else first, then work out if it needed to be shortened.
I didn’t do that.
What I did was this: I saw a glorious blank page and started filling it with whatever spilled out of my head. It was going (relatively) well until I saw the end of the box and panicked, shutting the whole thing down abruptly (see the next bad habit).
Reading my caterpillar story made me laugh, but it also put a spotlight on my problem. Of course, I’m not restricted to pencils and paper these days, and typing makes it much easier to play with words on a page. But I really had to force myself to focus on planning.
Now when I start working on something, I begin with a skeleton structure: a word or two to represent what each paragraph or section would contain. Having a skeleton helps me organise notes – I can cut and paste them into the relevant section – and then all I need to do is add flesh to the bones. Planning in this way means I know how many words I have to play with in each part of a piece of writing, and it means I don’t have to cut the work from the bottom.
As you can see from my amazing caterpillar masterpiece, I had a big problem with endings. This was partly because I would get really excited about every book I was writing, only for my excitement to dissipate by mid-way through chapter two (confession: this still happens, I have countless partly written novels floating around). One of my biggest issues was finishing everything I wrote far too abruptly.
The ending of a piece of writing is really important. Sure, not everyone will make it to the end of an article, but those who do will remember the last few sentences they read better than the rest.
Again, little me didn’t know that. Take “At the end of the bridge” for example. Even the title suggests that something brilliant is awaiting the protagonist at the other side of the bridge. But when she gets there she is “amazed”. I don’t go into detail, despite there being plenty of space in which to do so.
“The girl that traveld [sic]” ends rather cryptically too: suddenly, in the final sentence, the girl can talk to the animals. Nothing like an unexplained revelation to end a story.
Ok, so I’m not that bad any more, but endings weren’t my strong point for years. Reading these stories, I was so disappointed when I reached the end that I realised how my readers must have felt in the past, albeit less obviously. I now include my endings in the planning process, making sure they reflect and build on the introductions, and leave the reader with something to think about.
I love exclamation marks! Really, I’m pretty sure you can find one in just about everything I’ve written. I tend to over-use them – and superlatives – in emails to this day, but it’s only because I write the way I speak. And I speak enthusiastically.
In the lovely (untitled) story about John, little me got over-enthusiastic without getting creative, and emboldened the word “very” a couple of times. Over the years, my vocabulary improved, and with it my enthusiasm became more colourful. Things were “really brilliant”, “totally awesome” and “completely amazing”. Add a sprinkling of exclamation marks and you get an out-of-breath reader.
In my head I was just excited and optimistic; on paper, I looked like a lunatic. Reading John’s story reminded me how important it is to check the tone of what I write. These days I write however I feel like it at the time, then make a point of checking for tone when I run back through what I’ve written. If I seem a bit nutty, I cut adjectives and exclamation marks.
Actually, my over-enthusiasm was part of a bigger problem in my writing: I wasn’t editing my own work properly. This was probably the toughest habit I had to break.
Check out my treatment on “Cat’s”: a little intro, a song, a poem and a couple of cartoons. Cat’s what? Cat’s disappointed that I used several grocer’s apostrophe’s (that one was on purpose). Even as a kid, I knew how to punctuate and spell properly. Reading this it was obvious to me: I was being lazy.
Editing a piece of writing is almost as important as doing the writing in the first place; it can make the difference between an ok article riddled with mistakes and a compelling article that’s polished and professional.
Of course I want the latter, so now I make sure I factor editing rounds into my writing process. If it’s possible within the deadline, I schedule time to sleep on a piece of writing (figuratively speaking) so I can attack it with fresh eyes the next day. It’s definitely improved my work, and I’m happy to say those painful apostrophes don’t litter my writing any more.
What terrible writing habits did you develop as a kid? How have you tackled them? Share your stories in the comments!