by Editor Rie Langdon
I’m an editor who also teaches writing workshops. As you’d expect, I get asked, a lot, what’s the most important thing an author can do to improve her writing—and by the looks on the faces in the room, they’re expecting me to say something like learn a new vocabulary word every day, or never split an infinitive, or know how to diagram a sentence.
And yeah, those’ll work. Can’t really go wrong with the sentence diagramming.
But if you’re ready to move beyond the obvious, here are three things you can do to dive deeper into the craft of writing.
First, make sure you know the correct way to use a semicolon. Then, once you know the correct way—and it’s a very narrow path—your next job is to fall out of love with them. Don’t get me wrong, because I love semicolons, too. But they’re the writing equivalent of dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate is great! Who doesn’t love chocolate? You’re absolutely right, dark chocolate is great—but if you mix it in with every dish, sprinkle it over the grilled salmon with dill sauce and the mashed potatoes and the side of caramelized Brussels sprouts, absolutely nothing will taste good.
Second, learn all you can about point of view. The authors I speak with tend to fall into two groups: either they’ve never heard of point of view, or they’ve heard of it and loathe the entire concept and wish their editors would stop yapping about it in the comment balloons. But writing from a specific, deep point of view can actually make your work easier. (The how of this is pretty detailed, so it’s best saved for another post.)
Third, read. And here, my advice is very specific: read as many biographies as you can.
Do you need to research 1930s Harlem? Try Alan R. Shucard’s biography of Countee Cullen, or Valerie Boyd’s bio of Zora Neale Hurston.
Want to know what a prima ballerina does every day? Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief, and Suzanne Farrell have all written autobiographies. You’ll learn everything you need, right down to what not to eat and how to sew satin ribbons into a toe shoe.
What’s it really like in outer space? Deke Slayton, James Lovell, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Sally Ride are all experts on the subject.
A biography provides a detailed look at the way a character in a particular role thinks, acts, and speaks. Sometimes, you’ll also get photographs of a person’s homes and families, their friends and contemporaries, and the objects and places that are important to them. You learn what makes them laugh and cry, how they respond to pressure, what they say, and how they say it.
Biographies are the absolute best way to immerse yourself in the life and times of a character, and give yourself all the raw material you’ll need to build a believable, three-dimensional one of your own. And better yet, a bio is a heck of a lot more interesting than diagramming sentences.
Rie Langdon is a freelance editor and the author of the soon-to-be-published Bulletproof Your Book, designed to help authors avoid the common writing mistakes and turn rejection notes into acceptances.