By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
I’m never going to be an expert. I’ve accepted it. The three things I spend the most time doing – being a wife, a mom and a writer – are just too vast for me to figure out how to do them just right.
When I was younger, I thought by now I would’ve analyzed every angle and developed the perfect formula for my life’s work. But lately I’ve realized there is no expert level. There are too many words in the world and too many ways to string them together.
My 17-year-old son is writing an essay for his college application this month, and he, too, is feeling the weight of words. It’s not easy to sum up what makes you “you” in 600 words or less. As his mother and a writer, I wish I had an elusive secret formula that would make his task easier. But I don’t. I still struggle every time I sit down at my writing desk. But often it’s the struggle that turns the work into something special.
Instead, I’m telling my son three things I’ve learned as a person who writes for a living. The tips are straightforward and simple, as are the best essays. It’s not the individual words or their arrangement that makes a piece of writing remarkable. It’s how the writer observes the world, how she makes meaning from it, and how she communicates it with other people.
So, for anyone who wants to write – either for himself, the public, or maybe the dean of admissions – here are my favorite non-expert rules of writing:
- Be honest. This rule sounds easy to follow but often it’s not. In real life and when writing, people get distracted by what they “should” think or say. Just as a face can plaster on a fake smile, writers can hide behind words instead of using them to reveal who they are and what they think.
But here’s the thing about readers: They can always sniff out a fake. Something feels “off” when a writer isn’t being honest. It’s like watching a movie and knowing, deep down, that the characters wouldn’t really say or do what you see on screen. It rings false. The best way I’ve found to be honest is to be quiet and still long enough to hear the little voice in my head. Then I write what she says, ask questions, and go from there.
- Be smart, but don’t try to “sound smart.” One of the best things I learned as a freshman in college was from a professor who held a contest to see who could write the most bloated, pretentious essay that sounded important but had almost zero meaning. By turning a traditional writing assignment on its head, he showed us how obnoxious it is when writers try to sound smart without really saying anything.
That contest helped me realize that the simpler word is almost always the better word. The most direct sentence structure is the one with the most impact. Readers want storytellers, not show-offs.
Whether it’s an email or a college essay, don’t dress up your words in fancy phrases or corporate jargon that only sounds important. Instead, say important things as clearly and honestly as you can.
- Your ear will hear what your eyes can’t see. Over the years, I’ve been a guest speaker for a few high school and college classes, and this is the piece of advice I always leave students with as I close a presentation: After you write, you should let the words simmer for an hour or more, and then come back to it and read it out loud. It’s even better to have someone read it out loud while you listen to how it flows.
Your ear can hear mistakes and awkward phrases that your eye doesn’t notice on the page. A songwriter would never publish a song before hearing someone sing it, right? So read your writing out loud, and the sections that are out of tune will become more obvious and easier to fix.