There’s no magic formula to becoming a successful writer. The first step, they say, is to sit down and write. An age-old writer’s cliché goes like this: Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. It’s an adage that’s been attributed to many famed writers throughout history — Stephen King, Dorothy Parker, Oliver Stone — but actually traces its roots back to writer Mary Heaton Vorse, who reportedly fed the tidbit to a young Sinclair Lewis. Vorse, of course, was right. But discipline (or to put it more expressively, derriere in chair) is only half the battle. Becoming a good writer takes a lot more skill — and eloquence doesn’t come naturally to everyone who sits down with a pen and a piece of paper.
But how does one actually become an eloquent writer? Eloquence is subjective, of course, but by and large, we consider eloquent writing those works that are fluent, elegant, persuasive or simply good at conveying what they’re meant to convey. While flowery language can be beautiful — and it certainly has its place in the world of literature — eloquence is about more than just stringing together a series of pretty sentences. It’s also about saying what you want to say clearly and with conviction. No overcomplication. No superlatives. No robotic voice. Here are some great ways to work on the eloquence factor of your work, with advice from some of the literary world’s best.
Read Everything You Can Read and More
If we could hand one piece of advice to every new writer alongside a copy of “The Elements of Style,” it would be this: Read. To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. It seems obvious, but as working writers, we rarely get the chance to do anything but produce. There is some value, though, in taking a step back from execution in favor of inspiration and research. Think of reading, whether it’s for pleasure or for business, as a fundamental part of your writing process.
Many masters of eloquence will echo this sentiment in their advice to budding wordsmiths. Just ask the Portuguese Nobel prize winner Jose Saramago, whose process is to write two pages, then “read and read and read.” Reading helps good writers hone their own voice, learn from the experts, boost creativity, enhance vocabulary and enjoy a little bit of an escape at the same time. For writers, reading is like training for a marathon. You won’t make it past the first mile without spending some time hitting the books, so to speak.
Work on Your Vocabulary Like You’re Studying for the SAT
It’s not enough to just keep a thesaurus alongside your favorite journaling notebook. In fact, readers can tell when you’re relying too heavily on the synonym-finder — oftentimes, it can feel inauthentic when you don’t integrate words that feel natural as part of the greater work. Reserve the thesaurus for preliminary research, not as a go-to guide for finding the right words. To ramp up your vocabulary, the best thing you can do is — you guessed it — read! But you can also use tricks like memorizing quotes and reading things you wouldn’t normally read in order to improve your mental word vault.
Give Yourself Prompts and Writing Exercises
Don’t listen to any writer who says the words constantly flow! Everyone struggles with writer’s block from time to time. The trick, though, is overcoming it and making every minute you have to write a productive one. Giving yourself daily prompts and writing exercises can help you overcome the mental block while also allowing you to hone certain writing skills. Here’s one of the best exercises for improving eloquence:
- Choose a simple sentence, like “I walked through the park to the theater.”
- Rewrite the sentence, word by word, until you have something totally different. You might end up with something like, “I strolled along the promenade until I came to the theater,” or something entirely different from the original sentence. Rewrite the sentence as many times as you can in as many different ways as you can.
- Choose the sentences you like the best and determine why you like them the best. Is it the flow? The authenticity? The cadence? Know why you like certain works on a micro level and try to mimic that with every new sentence.
As we know, eloquence is about more than enhancing language. It’s also about simplifying it. To ensure that you’re saying what you need to say sans fluff — in the writing world, we call it murdering your darlings — reverse the exercise above. Start with a complex sentence and do your best to abridge it without taking away any meaning or poetry. It’s truly a skill to be able to trim the fat. Just take it from Mark Twain:
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Mimic While Honing Your Own Voice
Another wonderful thing you can do to make your work more eloquent is to practice a little bit of mimicry. There’s a secret among good writers: They all copy each other. Maybe you don’t see it in their final drafts, but if you look at an entire body of work, you’ll notice that successful writers almost always take cues from the greats. Voltaire said it best: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed from one another.” Writing a passage in the style of your favorite writer is a great exercise for improving word choice and flow.
Of course, a good writer is also one who has her own voice. The key is to borrow from the greats in exercise and practice until it morphs into something that’s your own. And, as long as you’re writing what’s original and authentic to you, you’ll come away with work that’s imaginative and eloquent.
Bio: Chris Napa writes about creative writing, education and teaching. He is the founder of cross.com