I constantly get asked for advice from new writers. It’s difficult to answers those kinds of queries. I can’t tell you how to succeed in this business because so much of it depends on luck. I can give you some advice on how to write better, which will certainly increase your chances of getting lucky.
This is an article I wrote as a guest blog post for one of my fellow authors back in 2011, and the same advice still applies. As with all creative pursuits, rules are made to be broken. So take my words to heart or with a grain of salt. It doesn’t matter whether you follow the rules. It matters whether you break them willingly or unwillingly.
Ten Ways to Improve Your Writing (for New Writers)
(The following article was originally published July 2011.)
We’ve all heard the saying “The best writing is rewriting”, which was first coined by E.B. White and is now regurgitated an average of every five seconds. That’s because it’s true. So, even though the title of this article is “10 Ways to Improve Your Writing”, it really should be “10 Ways to Improve Your Rewriting.”
Editing and rewriting is where all the magic happens in a story. It’s where all the storylines are woven together and all the characters come to life. Improve your editing skills and you will instantly improve your writing.
1. Avoid unnecessary words. We all know those words that seem to make it into every sentence we write. All the “thats”, “justs”, and “reallys”. As a rule of thumb, if you can remove the word without changing the meaning and tone of the sentence you should probably remove the word. I stress the word probably because all writing and editing rules have and will continue to be broken by brilliant writers. With experience comes confidence. With confidence it will be easier to know when to leave the word be and when to delete.
2. Use strong verbs in place of weak verbs and adverbs–most of the time. I know many new writers (and some not-so-new writers) balk at this rule. If you’re writing a novel with a humorous tone, it’s better to say that Mary “yanked off her socks” rather than “pulled off her socks”. Always go with the verb that provides a stronger image and is more suited for the tone of your story. As for adverbs, it’s best to avoid them unless the adverb brings something new to the verb it is modifying. Vanessa tiptoed softly across the foyer is horrid for the simple fact that softly brings nothing new to the verb tiptoed. Now, if Vanessa tiptoed clumsily across the foyer that’s different. This introduces the possibility that Vanessa could be caught.
3. Show, don’t tell. Yes, it needs to be said again (and again and again). If you write Jack was sad about his father’s death, I don’t care. If you tell me Jack’s throat ached as he placed his father’s running shoes into the goodwill box then I’m invested. Even if I haven’t lost my father, I can relate to that painful sensation of being overcome with emotion. Always keep your point-of-view in mind as you write. Even if you’re writing in third person, you can still get inside your characters’ heads and describe what they’re feeling on a sensory level. Always keep your point-of-view character’s five senses in mind.
4. Make sure your characters have goals. Your main characters (protagonists and villains) should have clear goals for each book (main goal), chapter and scene (mini-goals). You’d be surprised how many chapters and books I’ve read for critique purposes where the protagonist had no goal whatsoever. A reader will not care about your character’s story if they don’t know where it’s going. Sometimes it’s as easy as stating the goal: Neil wanted to get over his divorce, but Kelly wouldn’t let him. It’s usually better to convey this information in a more subtle fashion. Once this seed is planted in your reader’s mind, they officially have a reason to stick around and see if Neil gets what he wants. Each chapter and scene must have the main goal simmering beneath the surface as well as a mini-goal.
5. Avoid filters. Filters are those pesky words that get between your reader and your book, disconnecting them from the narrative and allowing them to get up and go run those errands they would have otherwise put off. Filters are words like feel, felt, see, saw, looked, touched, smelled, etc. They are words that describe a sensory experience. Bad: Barry looked at the spaceship and his jaw dropped. Good: The elevator doors opened revealing a spaceship the size of the Empire State Building. Bad: Barry felt as if this was his last chance to go to space. Good: This was Barry’s last chance to go to space.
6. Stay patient.
There may be some people who can churn out a bestseller in one month, but I’m not one of them and chances are neither are you. (Relentless was written in four weeks. Oh, how things have changed.) You may feel rushed to finish that zombie vampire romance novel because the market is hot right now, but before you self-publish or hit ‘send’ on that query letter ask yourself this, “Is this the best you can do?”
7. Be considerate of your reader’s time. Most people don’t have time to read a 250,000-word (1,000-page) novel. If your book is that long (or over 100,000 words) and it is your first book, you need to put it in the drawer to marinate for a while. Then go back to it and cut, cut, cut. On another note, don’t waste your reader’s time reiterating the same points over and over again like the uncle who tells the same war stories every time you see him. If you told me in chapter one that Jessica has curly, brown hair, you don’t have to keep telling me this every time she flips her hair or runs her fingers through it.
8. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. This goes sort of hand-in-hand with the last one. One of my worst pet peeves when critiquing a new writer’s work is they hardly ever give their readers enough credit to figure things out on their own. If you tell me that John walked into Helga’s bedroom and she gasped before she shoved him out, you don’t have to tell me she was nude. A sly grin on John’s face will do. Don’t spell everything out for your reader or they’ll think you have no faith in them.
9. Learn to ask for and accept criticism gracefully. You would be surprised how willing people are to give constructive feedback. Secure yourself a few trustworthy, honest beta readers and be good to them. Learn to identify the good advice from the not-so-good advice. When in doubt, ask for a second or third opinion.
Know when to put your manuscript in a drawer. If you feel you’ve done all you can for your current work-in-progress and you’re still getting rejections or complaints from your writer’s group and/or beta readers, it might be time to put away this manuscript and start something new. Sometimes, we get so invested in a project that we lose all objectivity. Thousands of writers have had to set aside manuscripts that they loved in order to work on something that other people will love. There’s no shame in that. Not everyone has the same taste. Pride has no place in writing. I no longer believe this. If no one likes your book, you could just be surrounded by assholes. Self-publish it and quickly move onto the next one would be my new advice.