Writing a book is hard work. I’m sure there aren’t many who will disagree with that statement. Having your book edited is tough too. In fact, it can border on painful because your editor isn’t going to love every scene or character you worked so hard to create. There are a few things that can help you improve your writing. I mean, really, wouldn’t you rather fix it yourself than have someone else call attention to it? I’ve put together a list of five things you can do to improve your writing.
This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Dialogue, or Maybe It Is…
It should be simple to write a conversation between two characters, but it’s not. Dialogue is tricky.
One of the best ways to learn how to write believable dialogue is to pay attention to real conversations. Listen to your own conversations and eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers. Take notes—covertly, of course—and pay attention to slang and poor grammar. When people talk they interrupt each other, switch topics often to follow tangents, don’t constantly refer to each other’s names, and don’t over-explain anything.
If you characters are in high school then listen to how teenagers talk to each other. It’s difficult for a middle-aged author to write a YA novel and sound legit. Add too much slang and you’ll look like a poser. Add too little and your characters will sound like their parents.
Writing historical novels has its own set of problems: mismatched dialogue and narrative, forward thinking characters, flowery dialogue, too much slang, etc. Part of the author’s job is to make the story easy to follow. The writing should never call attention to itself. And since you can’t eavesdrop on a conversation from the 1700s, I recommend finding well-written books set during the same period you want to write about and pay attention what the author did and didn’t do with the dialogue.
Cut Out Wordiness—It Grows Like a Cancer
Ah, wordiness. As long as this little gem is still around, I’ll have a job. Wordiness bogs down the narrative, dialogue, descriptions, pacing, etc. Basically, every aspect of a story can be infected by it, and it’s one of the hardest things to self-edit. I know when I started writing, a little voice in the back of my head—self-doubt—kept nagging me to describe everything or over-explain so that the reader knew exactly what was happening.
Avoid making your readers spectators with the phrases he watched, she saw, they stared, he reached out, etc. This only leads to telling instead of showing. Yes, I know! You’re sick of hearing show, don’t tell, but an author who leads his reader around by the nose and tells them what’s going on will lose readers because readers don’t want See Jane run writing as the author tells what’s happening. They want to experience it and watch as the story unfolds.
Write In Active Not Passive Verb Tense
Active voice puts the action on the person who is acting. What does that mean exactly? Take this example below:
The shoe was thrown at Frank by Sally.
If Sally threw the shoe, then Sally should be the subject of the sentence. This sentence isn’t wrong, but it’s cumbersome and wordy because it has shifted the focus on the shoe instead of the person who performed the action. The active version of this sentence is:
Sally threw the shoe at Frank.
Notice how much easier that was to read than the first sentence? It has fewer words and the message is clear. Now, imagine reading a book full of sentences written like the first example. It will have a higher word could, that’s for sure, but the reader will not enjoy reading it for long because passive voice shifts the reader’s attention away from the person who is acting and bogs down the story with unnecessary words.
If you read a sentence and need to ask by whom or by what, it is passive voice.
Throw Out The Fluff
If it’s not an important part of the plot, it should be dropped from the book. If it can’t be used to build your characters or setting or bring the story forward, it should be cut. A scene has to show the reader something important. A story is like a trail of breadcrumbs. When a scene lacks the necessary clues for the reader to discover, any plot twists and the ending can feel contrived because it comes out of nowhere. On the flip side, too much detail will overburden the story, leaving your readers frustrated.
No one wants to read about the main characters taking a break from the story to go on a cute date to Disneyland just because the author thinks it would be great fun. And using it to bring your characters closer together, especially when they’re already close, doesn’t count. Remember, if something doesn’t move the story forward, shouldn’t be in the book. If you have your heart set on including a particular detail or piece of fluff, revise it and use it to reveal something else about the characters and plot.
Murder the Mundane
Break free from the need to describe every mundane movement, facial expression, sigh, breathing, over-long descriptions, etc. I see this a lot and it boils down to a lack of trust. Authors simply don’t trust their readers and feel the need to spoon feed everything. Authors don’t trust that their words are good enough for the reader to understand what’s happening.
Take the leap and learn to trust that your readers are intelligent enough to understand what’s happening without describing every turn of the doorknob or how to get dressed.
Another reason mundane content makes it into stories is to add padding to fill out anemic scenes or to increase the word count. I’m going to call this what it is: laziness. Harsh, I know, but that’s exactly what it is. When your editor, critique partner or beta reader advises you to fill out a scene and give it more detail, add more to your characters and show what’s happening. Do not add mundane detail about things that have nothing to do with the plot. Lists of chores and groceries are boring. Add something interesting.
What do you do to improve your writing? Share your tips in the comments below. I’d love to read about them!
Now… go write something!