Writing Like A Pro

November 7, 2020

Here are two things you can do with relatively little effort to look like a pro when you write: (a) learn punctuation, and (b) start using pronouns. I mention these two odd items (I’m sure you weren’t expecting them when you read the headline for this blog!) because people invariably overlook them, yet they each mark a boundary between amateur writers and serious ones.

For me, the word “professional” means simply that you are earning money from your writing or actively trying to. I once heard Ansel Adams give a talk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. He was asked by someone in the audience whether he thought the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional had to do with making money. He pointed out that he and Edward Weston were both poor guys who needed to make a living with their cameras, while, by comparison, Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand had wealthy parents and didn’t need to. “Could anybody argue that Stieglitz and Strand were amateurs?” Adams replied. “A professional is a person with a serious interest in a craft.”

Amateurs don’t know squat about commas, semicolons, colons, and em-dashes. I’ve never met a serious writer who didn’t know. You can look up the rules and master them in an afternoon (maybe the comma will take two afternoons. And I do mean master them.

Pronouns are even easier to master. Unless you have problems with agreement errors that have lingered since junior high school, you already know all the pronouns there are. All you have to do is remember to use them whenever and wherever they won’t cause confusion for a reader. As Gertrude Stein put it, “Once you have named something, why go on naming it?”

If you have two guys talking in a scene, you will probably have to keep repeating their names (unless you do what Hemingway did—since he wrote mostly about men and had to avoid naming them over and over, he’d call Nick “the man in the checked shirt,” and then “the checked-shirted guy rolling a cigarette,” “the man with the cigarette, who was walking into the kitchen,” and so on).

But if you have a guy and a gal, “he” and “she”, “him” and “her”, “his” and her”, will do just fine.