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Friday, August 15

It’s an Improvement: Five Ways to Kick Your Writing up a Notch

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Revisions and edits are all about making a novel and the prose in it better. I’m sure I’m not alone in my quest to better my writing, and I bet authors who are successful also share this trait. I’m probably also not alone in sometimes staring at my screen and thinking, “Okay, what do I do now to become a better writer?”
Here are five ways you can give your writing a boost:

Pump Up the Words 

There are some very solid and useful words out there, but they are also opportunities to snaz a sentence up.
  • Look: Not so much the “he looked around” variety (though those are good spots to rethink), but more in the “he looked worried” type. There are better ways to show someone being worried, especially if your POV is looking at them when they make this observation. If it’s about the POV, then you have even more options for a stronger sentence.
  • Need: This falls in line with my “don’t be too obvious about the goals” idea. “I needed to get out of there” is a fine goal statement, but it can be better. There are ways to show that need, dramatize it so it fleshes out that serviceable line and makes it sing.
  • Want: Ditto here. “It wasn’t enough, he wanted more” can go deeper and make the reader feel that want, that desire. Tap into the emotion that makes the character want what they want.
For all three of these, try thinking about how those words would make someone feel or think. What would someone look like if they were worried, how would they feel if they needed something, what would they think about if they wanted something.

Other words along this line to watch out for: Wondered, realized, knew, thought, saw, felt, watched, etc. Words that generally describe what might be better implied with specifics.

(Here's more on mental signposts that tell, not show)

Be Subtle 

I read a wonderful post from Edittorrent about making an impact by what isn’t said that really got me thinking. This is a great way to add depth and let the reader figure things out on their own.

Try looking for places where you describe things that are missing and see how you might allude to that. Or things that are there that maybe no one wants to come right out and say, like the elephant in the room. Look for any place where you can cut a stated detail and suggest more is going on without coming right out and saying it.

Break it Up 

I remember when I was writing The Shifter, someone in my writer’s group commented that they loved how I skipped the transitional stuff and went right to the next scene. I’ve always loved scene breaks and how they let me control my pacing.

Try looking for transitional text. You know, those paragraphs where you describe something going from one place to another, or a jump in time. Sometimes all you need is a line break to add a sense of progress, but often you can cut them entirely and end one scene on a cool “ooo” moment or line, then jump ahead to the next scene when things start happening again. You trim out the boring stuff and tighten up the story.

(Here's more on making the most of your adjectives)

To Be, is Not To Be 

Yeah, we all know those pesky “to be” verbs are trouble spots, but how often do we really go in and edit them out? I’m like everyone else, daunted by how tedious that find and rewrite can be. If we want to improve the next book, it’s time to dig a little deeper.

Try doing a find for to be verbs. (is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, do, does, did, been, being, etc). Get rid of what you can and rewrite the sentence with stronger verbs. Will it be a pain? Probably. But worth it.

(Here's more on eliminating prepositions)

Neither Here nor There 

Here and there are worlds that slip in and we don’t notice, but they do tend to hang around with potentially meh text. “There was a red wagon on the sidewalk, abandoned, alone.” You can snaz up something like this easy: “A red wagon waited on the sidewalk, abandoned and alone.”

Just like the “to be” verbs, try doing a find for here and there and rewriting the sentence to eliminate it.

Not Everything Has to Go 

Bear in mind that not every instance of these words or situations needs to be changed. These aren’t must-dos or anything, but places that commonly flatten than the rest of your prose. If the sentence is strong, fits the story and you like how it works, leave it. But if you think you can make it better, go for it. These are revision opportunities, nothing more.

What areas are you working to improve right now? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Excellent advice. Cutting transitions is especially useful.

  2. By the way, Blue Fire arrived in my mailbox yesterday :D

  3. Great advice. I've cut a lot of words trimming transitions. Also your list ofv worfds to avoid is always helpful.

  4. I love these posts on editing. Great, concrete examples that really helped me single out the things I should be editing.

    You really explain these points well.

  5. Thanks for this! Those are some really helpful examples of things to look out for. I am in the middle of some major edits and reading posts like this help keep me focused.

  6. I'm especially glad that you mentioned there is no `have too' because I tend to over-edit (as in, kill all interest in the story and take out stuff that belongs).

  7. One of the hardest phrases for me to write when I was starting was, "Three days later ...." You don't need to be with your characters 24/7.

    However, I would say that it's important to know which scenes are better on the page than handled in transition. I read a book where there was this huge buildup to a SCUBA dive trip, and then none of it appeared on the page except as a brief transitional recap. I felt cheated.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. Oh this is excellent. This is exactly where I am in editing and the kinds of things I'm hunting for. This post just helped a ton.

  9. Excellent post! I've been keeping a list of seek-and-destroy words, largely from your posts, plus a few of my personal overused ones -- now I have a few more to add. Sometimes they get to stay, but usually changing them makes the writing better. The best thing is, I'm now noticing them as I write and keeping them out more and more, making these kinds of line edits faster. Thanks so much!

  10. Great post! Strong verbs make all the difference. About a month ago, I started a verb list: when I read, I list interesting verbs other writers use. It has energized my writing!

  11. Thanks Janice! You're a writing ninja :)

  12. I had an epiphany lately (after a mere 20 years as a writer) when I realized that it's easy to eliminate phrases such as he wondered, he thought, etc. by just using the direct thought. In other words, instead of: He wondered what to do next, you can just say: What should he do next? The latter seems much more immediate and keeps you closer to the character, even in third person point of view.

  13. Timely post as always, Janice. I'm heading into revisions right now, and this list of what to look for is really helpful.

  14. Good advice and I agree with Chris, you can just leave out the 'wondered' and similar words. I'm removing adverbs in the sequel to Lethal Inheritance at the moment - searching for ly. You've reminded me to de-was etc next. I discovered last time that it's well worth it.

  15. Great tips! I especially get bogged down in transitions, so that's a good one to remember as I finish editing my current project.

  16. I'm about to start line edits soon so this post has appeared just at the right time. Bookmarking!

  17. Thanks all! Reminder lists for edits have always helped me (still do) so when I find new things to add to that I like to share :) And for new folks, Wednesdays are Re-Write Wednesdays, so there are weekly revision and editing tips. Maybe I should start adding that back to the titles? Maybe RWW? I don't want to make them too long.

    Oo very cool Christine! Thanks so much and I hope you like it!

    Terry, that's a great idea for a post, thanks! Finding that balance. Now, would that be a pacing issue or a plot issue. Hmmm. I'm thinking plot. Those posts are always harder to come up with!

    Barbara, I love the verb list idea. What a great way to shake yourself out of a rut.

    Angie, Oo writing ninja. I might just start putting that on my business card (grin).

    Chris, I do that in most cases, and I do prefer the immediacy of it. Every once in a while one just fits better, but it's rare.

  18. Great post, Janice! And timely, as usual. You always bring up the topic I need, just when I need it. Speaking of "need," that's the word that's been giving me the most trouble lately. I'm constantly switching back & forth between "had to" or "should" or some other lame phrase and none of it feels right.

    1. My writer gremlins at work :) What I do to get rid of "need," is to phrase it through internalization when possible. For example, instead of "I need to get out of here" I might say "Where's the exit? Where's the freaking exit?"

    2. Excellent! That's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I just wrote: "She had to escape." Now to make it stronger....

  19. Thanks for another enlightening post, Janice, and for the link to the blog post @ edittorrent on what I call 'framing the negative'. Whether in writing or painting or good ol Don Juan telling Carlos to meditate on the spaces between the leaves - framing a negative space - making the reader/viewer stretch to a new perspective is really fun stuff.

    Enjoyed having that favourite tidbit brought back to the surface for me.

    1. I have a background in graphic design, and the negative space is often what pulls a whole piece together. Love it when it works in my writing.

  20. Great tips here, Janice. Thanks! I will be posting this link on my blog.

  21. Love these tips, Janice! I have a loooong list of slash and burn words...words I use WAY too much that don't need to be there.

    1. Same here, and I KNOW I'm using them as I type them and half the time I leave them in until revisions. It all depends on how into the groove I am :)