We taste with four of our five senses: sight, smell, taste, and touch. (We don’t use our ears to taste, but you may have noticed that noise is antithetical to tasting. You cannot taste Burgundy in a noisy bar.) Our job as writers is to interpret the signals entering our sensorium and to apply language to make our experience understandable to others. I call this ability to translate taste into words “taste literacy.”
There are really only two things you need to know to improve your writing. The first is to read, and the second is to write—and to pay attention while you do. Still, here are a few other maxims to keep in mind.
1. Writing is thinking, and thinking is hard.
2. Write for the reader, not for yourself.
3. Assume limitless intelligence but no prior knowledge.
4. Tell a story nobody else can tell.
5. Position yourself in the narrative. How do you know what you know? Show the reader.
6. If you write on behalf of a business, remember that organizations don’t talk; people talk. You are the person who gives the product a voice.
7. Find your lede. If you pose a question at the top, answer it by the end. If you find yourself pursuing other questions as you write, perhaps your lede is wrong.
8. You may not know what you think at the start of a piece, but you’d better know by the end.
9. Eliminate throat-clearing, needless disclaimers, excessive modifiers. Get to the point. Condense your prose.
10. The stronger your position, the more sober your prose.
11. Exclamation points should be reserved for exclamatory remarks.
12. Writing is therapeutic, but it is not therapy.
13. If you don’t know something, you may need to find it out. Also, you may have an opinion about these facts; this is welcome to your readers.
14. Through-action is the essence of drama. Who, or what, is your protagonist? And what’s afflicting him? Help him battle his way to the point. Dispatching aggressors is the stuff of compelling narrative.
15. Put everything about a subject in one place. And, add texture to your prose.
16. Generate questions in your reader’s mind. If you can keep the reader asking Why?, the reader will keep reading.
17. Don’t assume your experience is the same as your reader’s. Don’t resort to clichés. Nobody’s interested in reading clichés.
18. Be ruthlessly authentic about your own experience. Don’t over-rely on metaphor, especially sexual metaphor. Wine is an experiential product, so find, focus on, and talk about your own true experience in your most authentic voice. This is the story only you can tell.
19. Your voice comprises your vocabulary, tone, syntax, attitudes, and opinions. Each article has a voice, your site has a voice, even a collaborative publication has a voice. And if you’re doing things right, your voice will evolve.
20. Re-read your work the next day, then publish. If you proof instantly, you’ll still be in love with the person you were when you wrote it.
21. Learn to work with an editor. A good editor is on your side, trying to coax out your best story.
22. You need a good ending, but not a clever ending. Don’t trick your reader at the end; they will never forgive you.
23. The end will change the beginning. This is why you cannot write a story in only one pass.
24. If you succeed at this, and if you tell the truth—your own truth—you will have achieved one of the most intimate and beautiful of acts: you will have penetrated another mind.