Ten Ways To Improve Your Writing

Ten Ways To Improve Your WritingIn unabashed, media-pimping, YouTube style, I bring you ten ways to improve your writing. Ta-da!

Inspired by a similar non-fiction list from Carl Natale over on workawesome, I’ve taken on a lot of writing craft over the last couple of years, and here’s the cream of it.

1. Create an outline

Even if you relish a blank page, think about creating an outline. Organise your thoughts, bring some focus to the task. List the ideas you have so far. At best, it provides a skeleton structure to fill in. At worst, it saves you diving down rabbit holes and moodling around tangents and dead ends.

2. Solve a problem

Something in the world is broken. How are we going to fix it? Fiction or non-fiction, the idea is the same. Will we break through Darcy’s Pride and overcome Lizzie’s prejudice? How do we get the ring to Mordor? What recipe produces the perfect souffle? Readers love problems. They love the struggle, the conflict, the drama, the uncertainty, the ‘will-they-won’t they’, be it romance, adventure, mystery, or, indeed, cookery.

3. Start in the middle

Refer back to In Medias Res, beginning the story in the middle. Jim Hawkins has to unravel the events of twenty years ago on the way to Treasure Island. The Bennett girls are already of marriageable age in Pride and Prejudice. The One Ring was already made, lost and found at the beginning of LotR. Jason Bourne was a veteran super-assassin when he was pulled from the sea.

We don’t get the blow-by-blow account of any of these stories from birth. There’s no need.

4. Clarity in all things

You can tell the most extraordinarily complex tales. The reader’s understanding depends on how you tell it. Clarity is key. This isn’t limited to story structure, it includes vocabulary, grammar, sentence construction, point of view, narrative distance and a host of other stylistic choices. Hemmingway is the king of clarity. Tristram Shandy is the Emperor of obfuscation – quite deliberately. James Joyce writes extraordinarily clever and often impenetrable material.

5. Edit Objectively

It can be very satisfying to read back a section of glowing purple prose. Flowing description, cumulative sentences, glorious metaphor. Then you realise it breaks point of view, style, character, tone, and genre. Bask in your achievement, your craft, your talent. Then delete it. Or re-write it.

6. Add Value

The standard rule ‘be concise’ might be re-framed as add value. Yes, always aim to cut two words if one word will do. Tight, concise language is more readable. But weigh the value of the extra words and decide if they add value; emotion, description, weight. ‘A shabby, red-brown spaniel’ is much more specific than ‘a small dog.’ Specifity has power. It makes your world more immersive and engaging.

7. As long as it needs to be (but no longer)

Your story has a natural length. I tend to under-write. I have to force myself to write to the expected length for established genre. Eery time I add material I go back to point six: does it add value? Pointless filler wastes the readers’ time and lowers both the standard and the impact of the whole. Perhaps your trilogy is a standalone, your novel is a novella, your novella is a short story. When you edit objectively (point 5), look for the appropriate length. Cut the filler. Expand for added value.

8. Respect your readers’ intelligence

Readers like to read between the lines. They like a little mystery. They don’t mind working a little, spotting the clues, solving the mystery, getting there ahead of the lead character. They appreciate sub-text: “John said this, but I know he meant that…”

Don’t assume all readers want to disengage brains and be spoon-fed (granted, some do).

This covers plot devices. Readers can spot mystery writers who cheat, Deus Ex Machina solutions, convenient coincidences, character reversals and anything involving twins. “It’s never twins” (Sherlock, Steven Moffat).

“And then she woke up.” Just don’t.

9. Don’t worry about grammar so much

There are tools for grammar and spelling. They include peculiar people called editors. Get on and write. Clean up the wobbly grammar later.

10. Writing is all about choices

Writing depends on choosing words. The best words; the right words. The most specific, the most appropriate, the most expressive. At each step, think is there a better word? Looking at the bigger picture, is there a better sentence, paragraph, scene or chapter? A better character? A better plot? Challenge your choices.

 

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