My college professor handed back my paper with red ink up and down both edges. My heart sank looking at the mess. I walked out of the classroom heartbroken. I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my body.
I skipped the rest of my afternoon classes. I was in no mood for anymore stress or shocks to my brain. I sat on a bench and mulled what to do. I could change my major. I could quit. I looked over my paper one last time, hoping it might give me some answers. In small print on the very last page that I had previously missed, the professor wrote that I should keep writing, that despite all the red, I was making progress and had a lot to say.
Of course, you know the rest of the story, I kept at it and over time became a better writer. At least, I hope I’m a better writer. In any event, looking back, I see now that that the class taught me that good writing rules are a lot like good words of wisdom for dealing with life. Here’s what I mean:
—Punctuation and spelling count. In the same way, promptness and hard work matter, you’ll get nowhere without them. You know the saying: “90 percent of success is just showing up.”
–-Be watchful of wordiness. Omit needless words. The shortest answer is often the best answer. Never use ten words, when one will do. Keep it simple and to the point. Like in life, ostentatiousness will help you in the short-term, but will never bring lifetime friends. William Shakespeare knew. He phrased it this way: “Men of few words are the best men.”
–Use active voice. People understand noun plus verb statements. Active voice gets things done. People don’t understand wishy-washy language that doesn’t tell them what they need to know.
–Words matter. How’s this relate to life? Careless is not the same as care less. Imply is not the same as infer. You can have all the riches in the world. You can drive the fastest cars. You can have fancy houses, but we’re all going to die, everyone’s Earthly body is going to end up six feet in the ground. In the end, you have nothing, but your word.
–Limit use of exclamation points. Use them only when a command is in order. Life is the same way. You can imitate the Boy Who Cried Wolf all you want. You can cry wolf everyday of the week, but like the boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s Fables, the cautionary tale about telling the truth, if you do, when you have a real emergency, nobody will come.
–Write naturally. My college professors would lecture endlessly that the best writing comes from your own words. The same with life, be authentic, be yourself. I’m still amazed all these years later: when I’m most vulnerable in my writing, the more it connects with others. Isn’t life the same way? How do we find out our most treasured friends? Yes, you got it, when we’re most vulnerable!
–Preparation matters. Write a first draft and then another, and another, and another. The same for life, study and prepare so you’re ready for everything life throws at you.
–Everyone’s a critic. As in writing, as in life, critics love to hear themselves talk. Let them. Shut them out. P.T. Barnum had the right response: “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.” Be an original.
Oh and one more thing, practice, practice, practice.