I just published a 175-page book called How to Not Write Bad. It will set you back $15, plus tax. But I am here to tell you that if you master just seven words, you will not only not write bad: you'll write good, er, well. (And in fact, there are only six words; one of them is repeated.)
The catch is that these words — and the three bolded sentences they compose — aren't easy to fully grasp. But if you do, you are good to go — I guarantee it.
Almost without exception, good writers read widely and frequently. By osmosis, they unconsciously learn an incalculable amount about vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, style, rhythm, tone, and other crucial matters. They also pick up all sorts of random information, which turns out to be extremely important if you want to be a good, or even not-bad, writer.
William Faulkner put it well: "Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it."
But there's a modern-day catch. People today read huge amounts of stuff… online. I'm talking texts, tweets, emails, status updates, blog posts, Tumblrs, product reviews, and so on. There's nothing wrong with this, and a lot of the stuff is actually pretty good. But it doesn't seem to have the beneficial effects of more traditional reading. The material one is exposed to is too off-the-cuff and unilateral; it's too much like talking. The stuff that helps your own writing can be in print or online. It can be any kind of book or article — the more different kinds the better. But it seems to have to go through the old-fashioned pipeline. That is, selected and processed by an editor, and then "published."
The way I'd suggest going about this is to become a fan. Find a half-dozen writers whom you really like, preferably in different genres and subjects. Follow their work, and read up on their early stuff. Figure out what you like about their style, and what you don't like as well. Pretty soon you'll start reaping the benefits in your own writing.
Read it aloud.
Reading is by definition a long-term project. The most effective short-term way to improve your writing is to read it aloud, sentence by sentence and word by word. There was a spoken language before there was a written language, and good writing has always been intimately connected to the ear, whether the short sentences of Hemingway or the near-endless ones of Samuel Johnson and David Foster Wallace.
Gustave Flaubert, himself one of the all-time great stylists, used what he called la guellade: that is, "the shouting test." He would go out to the avenue of lime trees near his house and, yes, shout what he had written. It's the same principle as scrutinizing a photograph by blowing up its image on the computer screen; you really can identify the flaws.
Reading aloud isn't an immediate panacea, even if you shout like Flaubert. At first, you may not catch the bad rhythms, the word repetition, the wordiness, the sentences that end not with a bang, but with a seemingly endless series of whimpers. You need to develop your ear just as a musician does. But eventually, you'll start to really hear your sentences; as you're reading them, fixes and improvements will suggest themselves to you, as if by magic. At some point, you'll be able to shut up, stop bothering your roommates, and read silently to yourself, attending with your mind's ear.
Show, don't tell.
Yes, it's a cliché. But how do you think it became a cliché? It's true.
For example, a recent New York Times obituary of the porn star Harry Reems, written by the great Margalit Fox (who would be a good writer to follow), described Reems' breakthrough role in the 1972 movie Deep Throat. "For the film," Fox writes, "which was widely reported to have grossed more than $600 million, Mr. Reems was paid about $250."
That is showing. There's nothing "beautiful" or fancy about Fox's version, but because she used well-chosen specific facts, she gets the point across a million times more effectively and persuasively than if she had "told" it, with a dull sentence like "Mr. Reems was grossly underpaid."
"Grossly" is an adverb and "underpaid" is an adjective. Mark Twain said, "When you catch an adjective, kill it" (a quote I borrowed for the title of my book about the parts of speech). He was exaggerating, but not by much. Other writers, such as Elmore Leonard, have famously lambasted adverbs. Those two parts of speech are essential tools in any writer's repertoire — and some writers use them brilliantly — but they're all about the telling. When you find your prose is studded with adjectives and adverbs, try to see if there's a way you can show instead.
That's what John McPhee did in his classic New Yorker profile of Bill Bradley, written when the future senator was still a Princeton undergraduate. At one point, he describes Bradley shooting baskets in the gym of the Lawrenceville School. Six of his shots in a row hit the back of the rim and clang out. Then he makes four straight and says to McPhee: "You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low." McPhee writes:
Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a step-ladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eight inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low. [New Yorker]
McPhee could have told, writing that Bradley was "incredibly observant and dedicated to basketball," or something along those lines. If he had, I would have immediately forgotten it. Instead, he showed (in a passage that contains just one adjective, "low"). I have remembered it since the day I first read it, in 1965.