I judge in a few writing contest, and it amazes me that I see the same mistake over and over—it’s almost like they’re contagious. Of course, as writers, we have to learn our craft. That means lots of writing to figure out how to put a sentence together, and make a paragraph make sense, and then construct a scene. These basics may seem too basic, but good writing technique makes the writing disappear so the story and characters can captivate the reader. That’s the goal. Truman Capote called it ‘the voice by the fireside’. How do you get writing that puts the focus on the story?
1) Read your work aloud. This is a simple way to catch a lot of problems. If you stumble as you read, so will the reader. Reading your work aloud will help you catch sentences that don’t really make sense, places where you have too many sentence fragments, awkward constructions, weird staging, typos and even plot holes.
2) Stage action to make sense. In general, actions reveal thoughts. This means you want to show how your characters express emotions with actions. Also, most people act first, and then speak. This means it makes more sense to have action followed by dialogue. Finally, watch use of ‘as’. Slamming the door as you pull off your coat is really hard to make happen because they are two separate actions. This will trip a reader. Use ‘as’ for comparisons, as in as light as a feather. That’s where it belongs.
3) Do an edit for wandering body parts. Sometimes I have to laugh at these—I do them, too, and have to edit them out. This often happens due to passive voice, where the subject is not active. You end up with things such as, ‘Her eyes wandered over his body’ or other phrases that belong more to a horror movie.
4) Let strong verbs put the reader into the world. Was and were are perfectly good words, but they can be weak when it comes to description. Saying ‘the sun was hot’ doesn’t really do a great job of putting the reader into a scene where the heat is shimmering up from black asphalt and sweat drips off your skin and you have to squint behind sunglasses against the glare. Make your descriptions vivid and visceral.
5) Avoid semi-colons and colons. If you’re writing fiction, and you’re not sure when to use a colon or semi-colon, just avoid them. Let commas and periods do the job and go for those simple sentences. The goal is invisible writing that pulls the reader into the story.
6) Know your tenses. When in past tense and talking about the further past, past perfect will help keep the time-line straight for your reader. You may see every “had” in the story, but these disappear for the reader.
7) Know dialogue punctuation. This may seem simple and basic, but this is a place where a lot of writers just don’t seem to know how to use the tools of commas and periods. If the action modifies the dialogue, you want a comma in there to connect this into one though. If the action is separate, you want a period. This also means people can’t really sigh out words, or moan dialogue, or huff a word, or otherwise do two things at once that require two different breaths.
8) Do more than one edit. Do one edit just to look for typos (and print out the story to help you with this). Do another edit on viewpoint. Do yet another edit to see if you are weaving in all the senses. Do another edit to make sure every character has a unique voice. Do another edit to make sure every scene has conflict in it. You don’t want to edit out emotion, but you also want to make sure the story is as solid as possible. Save all these edits for when the story is finished, but don’t be satisfied with just one pass through the writing.
9) Get motivations onto the page. The reason why characters do things is important. A reader will better sympathize with a character if the reader understands what’s motivating that character.
10) Use a thesaurus—edit out incorrect word usage. If you’re uncertain of a word, look it up or don’t use it. One I see too often is the use of reigns instead of reins—the former is for kings and queens, the latter for horses. That’s not just a typo, that’s the wrong word used and will throw a reader right out of the story.
11) If you add anything, that now needs editing. Too often I’ll see a really great first ten pages, and then something goes wrong. What’s happened is that the first ten pages have been polished, then the writer added in something but forgot to do the editing.
12) Get a copy of King & Brown’s Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. This is a great little book that will do a lot to help you learn how to edit your own writing. Don’t lean on others to ‘fix’ your writing. Yes, you may want to have an editor look things over, but first make sure the writing is just what you want and as good as you can get it.
Remember there is the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head—the goal is to get these as close together as possible. Strong technical skills will better help you realize the story that’s in your mind so that most of it reaches the reader’s imagination.