Spelling and grammar are important, but some problems are harder to find until you’re aware of them. Try these top 10 tips, they will make your writing better.
Tip #1 – Filtering
New writers often want the reader to know that their character is thinking, looking, or realizing, without describing what they are doing. For example, “Jack looked over at Jill who was also climbing up the hill.” This distances the reader from the action, the animation. Filter words are words that remove the reader from the story and focus on unnecessary details.
He looked at. He felt that. She realized that.
A reader is part of the story, not just one character. Rather write “Jack and Jill went up the hill.”
The narrator is a separate character in the story. They have a unique personality and opinion about the events, and it is usually the narrator’s opinion that makes the story entertaining.
Tip #2 – Write once, Edit twice.
Edit structure boldly. Are you able to delete an entire page without flinching? If the story needs it, it must be done. Does the story make sense? Are the events clear and well illustrated? Get your story flowing and fix up paragraphs that skip important details. Fix events that are out of sequence.
Don’t waste time polishing details until the story, the backbone, is strong.
Tip #3 – Show, don’t tell – Use your reader’s imagination
A book is not just a collection of events, it is a doorway into a different world. A dream.
Imagine you are an observer in the scene. What do you see, hear, smell?
Don’t explain what your characters are thinking. Rather describe their body language, their actions, and words.
Don’t tell the reader about something before it has revealed itself in the story. If you don’t have something to say, don’t fill up the space with unimportant words. Come back to it later.
There was no one in the road so he went to the window and opened the blinds. He looked out of the window and aimed the gun. He shot four people.
He pried open the old blinds, dust falling everywhere. Standing out of sight he leaned forward until he could make out the road below. Satisfied that no one was looking his way he perched his rifle on the window sill, breathed in, and squeezed the trigger. Four shots. Four muffled echoes. Four people lying crumpled on the ground.
Get our of your character’s mind. Don’t explain what they are feeling, rather give the reader clues. Let the reader figure it out for themselves. Don’t tell the reader what is right or wrong, let them decide based on the events and dialogue.
I ate the ice cream. I loved it.
The cold ice cream melted in my mouth. I closed my eyes and smiled.
Here the reader could imagine what you want them to feel, and perhaps feel it too.
Tip #4 Avoid cliches like the plague
Avoid starting your story with
-the character waking up or having a dream.
-running away from something.
-a weather report (unless it is relevant)
-looking in a mirror and describing themselves.
Avoid wizard/elf/mutant/vampire/werewolf stories. You have the power to create a new world, use it! Fan fiction has its place, but don’t expect success based on someone else’s world. You may also end up in hot legal trouble if you infringe on someone else’s lore, even if they based it on other lore.
Avoid making your lead character perfect. Give them interesting conflicts we can relate to.
Avoid prophecies – we may as well just skip the story and read the last page.
Tip #5 – Talk to me
Has it been five pages since someone spoke?
The reader might be getting lonely and bored. Entertain them. When characters talk the reader feels like they are in the room. Keep the reader in the room. What do your characters do when they talk?
The danger here is your characters talking about things just to pass the time. If a dialogue isn’t helping the story or your character, delete it.
Tip #6 – Unpack your bags
Reveal the nuances of your characters and locations through their actions.
Is your character a bit quirky? Use this to move the story forward. Let your character’s unique traits be important, it’s better than simply telling the reader your character is quirky for no reason.
Tip #7 Silence the passive voice
Passive sentences sound like they are being read out by an accountant.
Passive: He was driven to the house by the cab driver and then the car door was opened by him.
(something was done by something)
Not very interesting, it’s a shopping list of events, not an animated image.
Active: The cabby took the money and grunted a thank you. John grabbed his broken case and stepped into the rain.
(something did something)
Tip #8 Trim the fat
You don’t need to write every movement and direction unless it reveals character or plot.
Fat words are words that don’t add anything to the sentence.
If cutting them out makes no difference, cut them out.
Adjectives are like jewelry – Adding a few is stylish, but don’t overdo it!
He started walking to the shop. When he got there he bought a loaf of bread.
He walked to the shop and bought a loaf of bread.
Readers know how walking works, you don’t need to explain it, unless there is a good reason.
He turned left into Picard Street, looked up and to the right, and turned right into Doris Lane.
He drove down Picard Street, looked around, and stopped in Doris Lane.
Readers know how driving works. Explaining it is boring. Why did the character need to look around? Explain why or delete it.
“Hi.” he said.
“Hey.” she replied.
“Can we talk?” He asked questioningly.
“Shh. It’s Gary,” she replied and walked away.
Readers know how talking works, you don’t need to tell them. Leave out dialogue attribution unless it would confuse the reader. (e.g. if a character talks out of turn, or at the beginning of a paragraph)
A better attribution is to reveal more about your characters’ state of mind:
“Hi.” John fidgeted with his blazer, avoiding June’s gaze.
“Hey.” She pulled out her cellphone and walked to the car.
“Can we talk?”
“Shh. It’s Gary.” She walked away, giggling at something Gary was saying.
Tip #9. Write up, not down.
Readers are clever – you don’t need to ‘dumb-down’ concepts or use smaller words unless larger words obstruct the flow of the story. Find the best word. If you can’t think of the best word use a thesaurus, of course don’t overdo it and use words no one understands. You should write for yourself, until you feel each page. There is no one more interested in your story than you, so if you are not getting emotional reading it you can almost guarantee that a reader will be bored reading it.
Tip #10. Read it aloud
Most problems are discovered by reading aloud. Better yet, reading to a friend or another writer.
Grammar exists to help people flow through a book as if they are listening to it, anything that you struggle to read your readers will struggle to understand.
Join a writing circle.
Give a reading. Listen to a reading.
Of course, all advice is deadly. Only take advice that improves your writing and your story and never lose your unique voice! If there was only one way to write engaging stories all writers would follow it.