Writing Done Right
The main thing about writing is to know when you’re done. First drafts, second, third… they can all be less than perfect. It’s the final copy that counts. Some people get almost everything right second time around. Some take ten or more drafts. No one gets it all right the first time. Editing is essential; writing is more than choosing that brilliant idea and running with it.
The following are a few of the generally accepted rules of writing.
Don’t use adverbs
This isn’t an absolute but it’s pretty close. An adverb is a word which usually ends in ‘ly’; slowly, prettily, reluctantly, gracefully… there’s a whole lot of adverbs out there to erase.
The reasons these words should be avoided is that there are better ones to use. A stronger verb or more vivid description can be used instead. It is the old adage of “show don’t tell”. If a character is reluctant, don’t tell the reader they are. Readers are intelligent: they like to work out that a character who is rubbing their arms and avoiding eye contact is reluctant. Spoon feeding isn’t what good writers do.
Someone once told me that writing clichés and other often used phrases isn’t really writing at all; it is mere pastiche. Publishers and readers alike hate that unless it’s for comedic effect.
Instead of describing a room as “dark”, talk about what is there. Maybe there’s a smell or a temperature, a sound or taste. Bring the reader into the story with the senses. Instead of describing somewhere as being like a ‘pig sty’ talk about what actually is there. Show us how messy the room or area is. Maybe there are mouldy crisp packets dotted about or shrivelled orange peels. Maybe the stench of rancid milk, too. Letting the reader know the specifics also lets them know what sort of character lives in or utilises that space.
Following on from this…
Use the senses to engage your reader.
Use taste, smell, touch and sound in subtle ways to make a text more realistic. Sight alone is used far too often in stories.
Don’t use stereotypes “as is”
So don’t write about a soppy girl in love with a mysterious male vampire. Don’t talk about the girl who gets bullied by a group of catty, preppy teenagers or a sci-fi Adam and Eve. Try to mix stereotypes up. Maybe write about a gay vampire couple or a transvestite bully, or even the biblical story turned on its head; perhaps the snake populates the world. Look at what has been written already, (read, read, read), and don’t carbon copy what other writers have produced.
In most circumstances, don’t use passive voice
Passive voice, unless used for effect, slows text down and reduces the potency of an image in a reader’s mind. It clogs up the imagination. It’s often used by writers without too much confidence or those who’ve written too many essays.
Passive: The cargo was damaged. Laura has been to the shop.
Active: The army damaged the cargo. Laura went to the shop.
Sometimes passive voice is useful, especially if the ‘do-er’ or subject of the sentence is unknown. It can also be useful to create certain tones in prose. However those who don’t know it well should avoid it to be safe.
There are many grammar Nazis in the world now. A jumbled sentence or misused punctuation can really stick out and jar the reader. The best way to avoid these issues is to grab a copy of a good grammar book such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. In addition to this, read your work aloud; many issues aren’t noticed in a quick skim read but are tripped over when they are read aloud. Also, it is essential to proof-read your work on paper, printed out, before you submit it anywhere.
Start paragraphs in different ways. Don’t always start a paragraph and every sentence with ‘he’ ‘she’ or ‘I’. Make sure there is a good mix of different sentence structures, too. Use subordinate clauses correctly to improve the flow and pace of your writing. Try to use longer, convoluted sentences for effect and shorter ones for tension or anger. Try listening to everyday speech to get an idea of the flow of language. This will help with dialogue. Then, get out the books you’ve been reading and study those for variation. Note what types of sentence structures they’ve used for what effect and how they have varied labels for things so they don’t bore the reader.
Some writers’ guides will advise only to use ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ and never verbs such as ‘replied’ ‘shouted’ or other more detailed tags. This is correct, to a point. In an ideal world, characters should be discernible from one another by their dialogue alone. Their speech should have attributes that direct the reader to who’s speaking. In the cases where it isn’t easily apparent, stage directions can be used. What are the characters doing when they agree to something? Are they nodding, maintaining eye contact, staring out of the window, listening to classical music on vinyl? The background, gestures and environment around dialogue often says far more than the dialogue in itself. It adds extra dimensions to a story.
Don’t keep inconsistencies
Check your work for errors. Make sure that characters always use a similar standard of vocabulary, that they always have green eyes or blue hair or a tail. Make sure that their reactions reflect their physiognomy. At the punctuation level, make sure you always use either double quotes or single and that the spacing conventions, font and font size are the same throughout a piece. Finally, make sure there are no unintended loose ends in plot.
Don’t overuse words
A great tool for avoiding a lot of repetition is smart edit (http://www.smart-edit.com/). If you save your work to .rtf or .txt format and open it within the programme it will check for passive voice, repeated words, clichés etc., and if you double click on the entry it will take you to that exact point in the text so you can find and change the problem. This is especially good for really long pieces, where it is easy to lose track of how many times you have said ‘dark’, ‘nodded’ or ‘beautiful’. It points out where your problem areas are quite quickly. It is not a substitute for editing though.
Having said all this, an idea and a plot are still the most important parts of creating a story. You’re a storyteller, after all. Think of something original and relatable that people will love to read.
Overwriting and underwriting
Going back to the original drafting process, it’s important to know if you overwrite or underwrite. Do you need to add in more of the senses, more variation and more scenes, or do you need to cut up your work with virtual scissors? Are there three words in a row that mean the same things, loads of adverbs and clichés or is there paragraph and paragraph of metaphor?
Make your work readable and yet beautiful, vivid to life. Then it’ll be a great read.
Another useful resource for fiction writers
Often it’s difficult to come up with names for characters. Another really useful piece of software is http://www.characternames.org/ It can produce some amazingly strange names for fantasy, or unusual combinations for mainstream fiction. Definitely fun to play with and very helpful when creating characters. A name itself can suggest the personality to go with it.