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When someone once asked Michael Jordan the secret of making clutch baskets in high-pressure games, his answer had nothing to do with the games themselves. “The only way to relieve that pressure is to build your fundamentals,” Jordan said. “Practice them over and over.” It’s the same in any endeavor, including writing. Even the greats need good mechanics.
When you’ve done it right, your writing mechanics are the foundation you use to build everything else. You’ll be free to focus on higher concepts: characters, the central themes, and what you’re trying to say with your writing.
But you can’t win the championship until you can sink a few free throws.
The basic mechanics of a car are what make it go: injecting fuel, pushing the pistons, creating motion.
The mechanics of writing are similar. Think of them as the instruments that make your writing “go.”
The only difference? Rather than pistons and spark plugs, we’ll be talking about grammar, spelling, dialogue, punctuation, and sentence structure. In short, you can’t learn how to write well until you’ve mastered the writing basics.
The Importance (and Benefits) of Mastering Writing Mechanics
Brush up on your mechanics and it will reverberate to every area of your life. If you’re a strong writer, you’ll imbue all your communication—every email, every job application, every tweet, every love letter, every text message—with something akin to fairy dust.
In a world governed by text, knowing the basics of writing is a major competitive advantage.
The Consequences of Poor Writing Skills
For all the magic that good writing will do you, poor writing will steal your thunder. Confusing “its” and “it’s” on a resume? A red flag, even if you’re otherwise perfect for the position.
Josh Bernoff estimates that poor writing regularly costs U.S. businesses $396 billion. The top reasons for the cost? Writing that was too long, poorly organized, or unclear.
Brushing up on your mechanics solves all three problems.
Examples of the Importance of Writing Mechanics
- Spelling. One headline once read, “Missippi’s Literacy program shows improvement.” They meant Mississippi. The irony led the headline to “national punchline” status.
- Clarity issues. Robert E. Lee once ordered a general to “take the hill, if practicable.” The phrase if practicable might seem to add clarity through specificity. But it did just the opposite: it added too much room for interpretation. The general didn’t feel it was practicable. In the end, Lee’s unclear orders helped the Union win the war.
- Length issues. Ever come across a lengthy Internet post, only for commenters to respond with “paragraphs, please”? A simple lack of attention to writing mechanics can cause people’s eyes to glaze over before you’ve even made your point.
When you get in a quibbling argument, people will dismiss you with claims of “mere semantics!”
But the hidden meanings of words are one of the most important writing skills you’ll never notice.
Consider the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man.
Examples of writing skills like these are hard to spot. But dig deeper. The narrator meant invisible to society. It would have the same literal meaning if the opening line were “People tend not to notice me.”
But the clear difference in semantics explains why one sentence is thought-provoking, while the more literal semantic version is only so-so.
Think of grammar as the rulebook for writing. True, there are no “grammar police,” so you’re free to break these rules. But you’ll be far better at it if you master them first.
For prospective employers, your skill with grammar alone might be their definition of writing skills. It’s worth taking the time to learn it.
To get clear on when to use grammar to break the rules, read the work of Ernest Hemingway. He often wrote clear, crisp, grammatically correct sentences. Most of the time.
But when he didn’t, it would draw even more attention to what you were reading. If a character’s thoughts took up space in the sentence, Hemingway’s grammar would break down, closing the distance between us and the character’s psychological world.
Spelling is the easiest of the writing mechanics to master because it’s the easiest to look up. Today you have apps and software that will spell-check for you. In that environment, there’s even less excuse to spell a word wrong.
Why does it matter? Let’s answer that with another question: How credible would this blog be if I had spelled “Michael Jordan” with a G instead of a J?
Dialogue takes place any time a character speaks to another. There are a few basic rules to keep in mind:
- Tag your dialogue at first. A “dialogue tag” is simply a notation of who’s saying what. Consider this example: “I love writing dialogue,” the writer said. In this case, “The writer said” is your tag. It’s vital that you set the scene so leaders know who’s saying what.
- Start a new paragraph. In most cases, dialogue opens a new paragraph. If there are only two characters speaking to each other, you can start placing dialogue without tags. “My name is Janet, what’s yours?” “Tina. Good to meet you.” In that case, we don’t need to know who said what—we get it from the context.
Punctuation comprises the little symbols we use to direct our writing’s traffic. A period at the end of the sentence, to tell you we’re finished. A new paragraph to start a new idea.
True, some people ignore punctuation. Poet E.E. Cummings routinely broke the rules of grammar and punctuation to visually “paint” with words.
Cummings was also a Harvard grad, essayist, author, and playwright. His ability to use punctuation as he did—or didn’t—was a result of mastery of punctuation, not ignorance of it.
The basic sentence structure we use in English is subject -> predicate. In the predicate, you typically use a verb to indicate what it was the subject did.
Take this sentence: The dog jumped over the fence. The dog is the subject. Jumping over the fence is the predicate.
It may not be the most impressive of writing skills examples you’ll come across, but it’s important. It’s an example of active voice. The dog is being active by jumping over the fence. This is intuitive and makes our meaning clear. We picture a dog, then we picture what the dog did.
If you reversed the subject—the fence was jumped over by the dog—you would then have passive voice. You can use passive voice, but it’s easy to see why people try to avoid it for clarity purposes.
Sound tricky? It can be. What are writing skills if not tricky? However, you can work on this skill with Hemingway Editor. It points out long, hard-to-read sentence structure and instances of passive voice. Generally, your writing is crisp and clear if you reach about a 5th-grade level or lower.
That isn’t to say you can’t have fun with sentence structure and create complicated paintings out of your descriptions. But master this first.
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Take Writing Courses
The easiest way to build good writing skills is simply to practice. Like a basketball player shooting free throws after practice, you have to put in the time.
But you shouldn’t waste that time, either. It won’t do you much good if you write without coaching, feedback, or specific goals to help you improve.
The fastest way to effective writing skills? Take a writing course and complete its exercises. Work on specific writing mechanics until they become habits. Once you master the basics, you can focus on higher-level challenges.
Practice as Much as You Can
There’s no getting around this one. Your writing skills are like muscles; challenge them and they’ll respond. But if you never sit down and fill up a blank page, you’re never going to get the improvement you otherwise could.
To paraphrase Stephen King, there are two ways you can improve your writing: writing a lot and reading a lot. Like baking soda and vinegar, you’ll only get the reaction you want if both ingredients are present.
Have you ever traveled with extended family for a period of time, only to notice yourself picking up their inflections or their regional accents? Reading good narrative writing often works the same way. It gets the “voice” of good writing in our head.
If you live in a world of beautiful paragraphs and exciting story twists, your own path to creating engaging writing will seem much more clear.
Give Your Writing Mechanics a Quick Boost
The first time you write, the mechanics will seem difficult. But over time, every tool you master moves from a place of conscious incompetence to unconscious competence.
The better you know the mechanics, the more you’ll know when to break the rules. Rather than them thinking about how you misspelled your first word, you might have them asking the thought-provoking questions you want them to ask by the time they read “The End.”
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