Out of the Writer’s Block

3 March 2020

Grant writer Christopher Tassava spends his days at Carleton writing and editing everything from inquiry letters and announcements of grant awards to proposal narratives and budget justifications. Inspired by an October presentation in Gould Library by Joli Jensen, Hazel Rogers Professor of Communication at the University of Tulsa, on maintaining what she calls a “craftsman attitude” toward writing, Tassava suggests five ways that you can write and edit better.

Illustration of people writing

1. Limits are beneficial. Prompts and questions, formatting requirements, word and character counts, and deadlines are invaluable. They spur thinking, fuel creativity, set boundaries, and suggest when a piece is done — or when it is still incomplete. Self-chosen limits — write for 15 minutes, get 200 words down, explain this concept in one sentence — can be just as useful as a directive from on high.

2. Your hitches are detrimental. Every writer needs to recognize and escape habits such as relying on cliché or using unnecessary punctuation. I strive to catch myself before constructing another sentence that pivots on but or includes the word quotidian, but I don’t always succeed.

3. Revising is writing. Editing, proofreading, and revising are all key stages in the writing process. Trading adjectives and adverbs for better nouns and verbs almost always improves prose. “Killing the darlings” is usually good too: eliminate as many precious or favorite words and phrases as possible.

4. More eyes are better — to a point. No writing is so good that the responses of a few trusted readers won’t make it better. Be careful, though: following the advice of either the wrong readers or too many readers will dilute the writing until it loses all flavor.

5. Shorter is almost always better. Cutting a quarter of the words in any piece will probably make it better. The goal isn’t shortening for the sake of shortening, but to make meaning more obvious and accessible.

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