Essential writing skills: five tricks to clarify your writing

I don’t know about everybody else, but for me one of the problems with the classic ‘bad first draft’ is that the stuff sometimes isn’t in the right order.

MJWright2011Of course, that’s the intent of the first draft – it’s to get the words down on the page. Then, thanks to the miracle of the word processor, they can be reorganised.

On the other hand, it’s better to get something approximating the right order of ideas in the first place. That old adage of the bad first draft being better than no first draft is very true. My take? Try these tricks. You’ll need some paper, pen scissors and sellotape (yes, writing IS a craft :-)).

1. Jot some notes down before writing anything else. Use two pieces of paper. Write the ideas down in any order, as they come to you, on the first. Then look at them, figure out if they work better in a different order, and write them down that way on the second page. Fifteen minutes planning can save hours of revision. You already have your large-scale plan (you do have a plan…don’t you?) – but that works on smaller scale during drafting.

2. Print the draft out. Spread the pages around on the floor. Paper has more area than a monitor – you get to see the whole of your writing, in a block. Skim-read it. Can you see patterns emerging? Do some parts go better in one place than another?

3. Mark the printout in pen-and-ink to give it those directions. Use arrows, stickies, whatever works, to highlight which blocks go where. Or maybe cut the pages up and tape them together in the different order.

4. Carefully carry the taped pages to the computer. Now transfer those amendments to the version on your computer. OK, yes, that might take some time.

5. And now – the final step. Re-style it again. The cut-and-paste swap around usually leaves jagged edges in the text – they’ll need fixing. Then read it again. Does it still make sense?

I find this approach works pretty well for me. Do these methods work for you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


13 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: five tricks to clarify your writing

  1. Warning to newbies though. Be very careful with moving stuff around on word processing. I tend to copy and paste, then cut the original place (in case if a power outage or something). Once I forgot. I have never found the duplication but I know it is in there somewhere. :((

    1. And back up at the end of a session. A friend of mine had a book 90% finished (with publisher contract and deadline) on a computer he hadn’t backed up. The hard drive died. He had to get his data extracted by specialists off the dead drive at colossal cost. Ouch.

      1. Very good point. I have mine on two computers, a USB stick and an external hard drive. Overkill, but I work on two PCs, the USB is my way of moving between the two. The external drive is the backup of the home computer.

  2. Late to the conversation but yes, this works for me every time. I confess that the ease of the screen and copying to another document sometimes tempt me to forego this process, and when I do, the draft is not as complete.

    However, I have modified this process a bit using speech recognition software, specifically Dragon Naturally Speaking. I still print all out and rearrange but using Dragon allows me to “speak” my changes as I see them so I have notes, sometimes I completely re-do a section within minutes. It has been quite helpful for me. And yes, once again, I am attempting fiction. Oh, dear….

    This is such a critical and succinct post, Matthew, that it is going in my writing file. Thank you!


    1. Glad to have been of assistance! I’m wondering about assembling a lot of my writing advice into a book, actually. I try to pitch it differently from the usual ‘writing help’, of which there seems to be plenty to hand. Whether I could find a publisher is another matter.

      I’m intrigued with Dragon – it is, to my mind, a conceptually different tool because it requires the writer to speak, and there is a whole different approach between written and spoken English. Yet the outcome is still written. As always the framework and tools around which we write shapes the result; and I wonder whether Dragon offers as different a way of writing as (for instance) the difference between pen-and-ink and computer?

      1. The short answer is yes. I have a long history with Dragon and feel it is the best of voice recognition software available. One of my many day jobs was providing services to blind/visually impaired, mostly elders. Two years ago, I began using it as my own health made typing difficult. I mention this because without Dragon, I may have given up writing. I found the introduction to it easy and so did most of my clients but others who do not “have” to use it seem less inclined to work with it. In terms of speech recognition, it has come a long way. It is a 15 minute set up at the most.

        Here’s what I discovered regarding writing. Because I speak my original thoughts, the first draft is broader but I seem to get more of my original intent on the screen. Like pen-and-ink, it is more thoughtful but d I capture more than I would if I were typing or using a pen. Truly, I produce more but I also cull more as I allow myself to explore a tangent because I know all I have to do is cut and paste it as another document for another day. I don’t find it as helpful in final edits or for organizing other than as I mentioned in comment. It is wonderful for research as I can just “speak” quotes with the citation information as I am reading along. For me, there is a distinct difference in the writing that is spoken and the writing that is typed but it is a complementary distinction.

        Your approach to writing is fresh and practical for all writers. What you offer is basic for any writer. I hope you do put together a book. Sorry for the length of the response.

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