Professional baseball players have any number of superstitions they follow to improve their game. They have lucky underwear or a special charm. They don’t change their socks when they’re on a hitting streak. And no one talks to the pitcher throwing a no-hitter.
I’ve developed some of my own weird habits as a way to improve my writing. My ultimate goal is to make my writing as direct and succinct as possible, and I am always trying different techniques to achieve the desired results. Here are three habits I’ve developed over the years as a way to improve my writing.
1. No Orphan Words
In typesetting lingo, widows and orphans are leftover words in a paragraph or page. Widows are the last line in a paragraph that appears on the next page. An orphan is a single word on its own line at the end of a paragraph.
When I’m using my laptop’s word processor, I will often rewrite entire paragraphs just to get rid of that one trailing word. The orphan isn’t actually a problem in itself, but by eliminating it, I make sure my sentences are as tight as they can be.
2. No Sentence Longer Than The Page Width
Back in the 1980s, my friend Bruce Hetrick was the communications director for the mayor of Fort Wayne, and often wrote his speeches. Since he wrote them out on the typewriter, his practice was that no sentence could be longer than 6.5 inches, the width of a single page with one inch margins. He would then rewrite it and lay it out so the mayor could read it (larger type, wider margins), but the original text had to conform to Bruce’s line length rule. This made the mayor’s lines short and easy to say, rather than long sentences that required stopping for a breath in the middle.
This is another sentence tightening technique you can try. By getting rid of extraneous words to make your sentences fit a single line, you can keep everything drum tight. I’ve tried this when I’ve done speechwriting, but I tend not to worry too much about it for my regular writing.
3. Use a Typewriter
I bought an old manual typewriter several months ago, a 1956 Smith-Corona Super-Silent, and started writing my newspaper humor columns on it. Not only is it much slower going — I have to use my index fingers to jab the keys — but there are no delete keys, no copy and pastes, no rearranging paragraphs. I have to yank the carriage return at the end of every line, and there are typos galore.
Everything I do on the typewriter is deliberate and requires forethought. On a computer, I can type and think at the same time, because I type fast. While I’m writing this sentence, I’m already thinking about the next three.
But with a typewriter, it’s much slower. I type out a sentence and because I type so slowly, I can’t think about anything else. I have to sit and think about what comes next. Imagine taking 5 – 10 seconds between sentences before you write the next one. Then when you type it, you either have to follow the direction it’s going to take you, or you have to go back to the beginning of it and start X-ing out the sentence and typing a new one.
While it hasn’t changed my overall writing habits, using a typewriter is causing me to use some different writing muscles that I haven’t used since I was 14 and would play around on my parents’ electric Smith-Corona.
My wish as a writer is to sound more like Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, or Mike Royko, all masters of the short, powerful sentence. These three writing habits have helped me work toward that goal, although there’s always something new I can do.
What are some of your writing habits? What do you do to improve your writing? Leave your ideas in the comment section so
I can steal them we can discuss them further.