How to master the craft of writing

A few years ago, I won honourable mention at a Writer's Digest writing competition, and the prize was a gift certificate to their bookstore. Admittedly, I wasn't sure if I would find anything useful there (I think I was mixing them up with Reader's Digest), but I ended up buying several books on the topics of character development, plot and story development, and in particular, Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write with Clarity, Emphasis, and Style by Stephen Wilbers. I'm happy to say that this book has cemented itself on my shelf of writing implements and style guides, and it is now a go-to writing resource for me. Here's why.

Author Stephen Wilbers is a writing consultant, a writing teacher at the University of Minnesota's Technological Leadership Institute, and a PhD with a doctoral dissertation on the Iowa Writers' Workshop. So yah, he's bona fide. And he sure can tell us a thing or two about writing.

In his book Mastering the Craft of Writing, Wilbers presents 52 practical lessons to improve your writing. The idea is to spend a week on each technique so that by the end of the year you've had a nice and easy ride on the learning train. But of course I had to read the book over a weekend, because once I got started, it was too hard to stop. His lessons and his own writing technique are just so damn good. It's like eating my mom's homemade shortbread cookies at Christmas time...Can't. Stop. 

Wilbers starts you off with some easy lessons, which nicely lift your confidence, to where you're saying, "I got this." Then by the middle of the book, he adds complexity to the lessons, making you think a little harder, testing your writing knowledge and skills, to where you're saying, "Okay, this makes sense." But by the end of the book, he's talking about techniques you've never heard of before, and you're like "Whaaaaat the...?" and you feel like you know nothing at all, all over again.

So as a warning to you, reading the book is a bit of a confidence inflater and deflater at the same time, but it's definitely worth your time, and you'll always have the book as a resource to turn to whenever you need a little pick-me-up for writing prompts. Here are some examples of the great lessons you'll find in the book.

The "I got this" Lessons

Week 3: Appeal to the Senses

This lesson opens with "To write vividly and memorably, appeal to the senses. As Anton Chekhov advises 'Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of the light on the broken glass.'" So as you can see, it highlights the essential "show, don't tell" technique that every writer should understand and use, especially in creative writing.

Week 8: Delete That for Rhythm and Flow; Retain That for Clarity  

This lesson shows how easy it is for thatery and whichery to sneak into our everyday writing, attempting to bloat our sentences and cause our readers the hardship of sifting through unnecessary words. For example, you want to delete that for brevity. Compare "I recommend that you take my advice" with "I recommend you take my advice." Now compare the following sentence, where you would leave in that to avoid ambiguity: "I recognize that your friend may be right" with "I recognize your friend may be right." 

The "Okay, this makes sense" Lessons

Week 24: Delight Your Readers with the Classic Setup

This lesson demonstrates how the one-two combination has a natural appeal. Wilbers explains, "The first sentence makes a statement; the second sentence undercuts it." Here's an example: "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

Week 34: Start with Something Old; End with Something New

The idea here is that the first time information is presented, it's new information. All subsequent references to that idea are old information, and therefore should be presented at the beginning of the following sentence, not at the ending, where it's prime real estate for impact.

For example, here we see how the idea of "eliminating common errors" becomes old information once it is introduced:"You need to eliminate common errors in your writing. Your credibility will be undermined by errors in grammar, word choice, and punctuation."

Now compare it with this example, where in the second sentence we've moved the old idea of "eliminating common errors" to the beginning, to allow the new idea of "credibility" to land at the end: "You need to eliminate common errors in your writing. Errors in grammar, word choice, and punctuation will undermine your credibility." Do you hear the difference?

The "Whaaaaat the..." Lessons

Week 41: Cross Things Up with Antimetabole and Chiasmus

This lesson introduces us to the techniques of the great Greek philosophers and debaters, such as Plato and Aristotle. Wilbers explains it as follows: Antimetabole is the repetition of words in reverse order, as in "Everyone who loves his country is a patriot, but not every patriot loves his country." Chiasmus is the repetition of grammatical structures without repetition of the same words or phrases, as in "It's hard to make time, but to waste it is easy."

Week 43: Create Rhythm with Anadiplosis and Isocolon

Similar to week 41, this lesson explains a bit about word play. The anadiplosis technique is when you repeat the last word of one clause at the beginning of the next, as in "What we need is love; love is what we need." Similarly, the isocolon technique is when you repeat the same grammatical structure and the same number of syllables, as in "How to succeed at business: Have a vision, know your values, and work like crazy."

As you can see from the examples above, there are many ways to improve your writing--some easy, some challenging. But we owe it to ourselves to understand these techniques and to look for ways to use them in our work to not only grow and stretch our own brains, but to learn to write with clarity, emphasis, and style.

Stacey D. Atkinson is a freelance editor and author of Stuck, a novel she published via her independent company Mirror Image Publishing.

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