Friday, May 08, 2020

Five Ways to Kick Your Writing up a Notch

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The path to stronger writing happens a step at a time. 

There's a moment in writing when we know our work is good, but not great, and we're not sure how to get it there. We're doing everything right, our beta readers love the book, but we just can't quite boost the writing high enough to land that agent, get that publishing deal, or sell the amount books we want to.

This is a frustrating place to be.

It can make us doubt our skill, and worry we don't have what it takes to be a writer. It can make us doubt our novels and wonder if the idea is viable. It can make us doubt our dreams.

The good news is, it might only take a few small changes to nudge the writing to the next level.

Here are five ways to give your writing a boost.

Pump Up the Weak Words 

Perfectly serviceable words that say what we mean, but don't do much more than that, can weaken the writing. Yes, they convey what we want to say to our readers, but they lack style, depth, and the flair that takes good writing to great. Let's look at three common offenders:
  • Look: Not so much the “he looked around” variety (though those are good spots to rethink), but the “he looked worried” type. Telling readers how someone looked doesn't actually illustrate what that looks like. There are stronger ways to show someone being worried, especially if your point of view character is looking at them when they make this observation. If it’s about the point of view character, then you have even more options for a stronger sentence--looking worried isn't the point--feeling worry probably is.
  • Need: Stating what a character needs is useful to clarify their goal. “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. Often, combining a need statement with the emotion driving that need rounds it out and makes it more than just saying what the character "needs."
  • 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, and show the longing. 
Consider how these three 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 to watch out for: Wondered, realized, knew, thought, saw, felt, watched, etc. Words that generally describe what might be better implied with specifics. Essentially, it' showing and not telling.

(Here's more on I Told You: Mental Signposts That Tell, Not Show)

Be Subtle and Let the Reader Figure it Out

I read a wonderful post from Edittorrent about making an impact by what isn’t said that really resonated with me. Some details are conspicuous by their lack, and what isn't there is far more telling than what is. For example, the "perfect mom" the point of view character notices never touches her child, or the strange sounds that everyone ignores.

Look for places where you describe things that are missing and see how you might allude to that instead. 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 Up the Scenes 

When I was writing The Shifter, someone in my writer’s group commented that they loved how I skipped the transitional descriptions and went right to the next scene. I do that for a reason. Scene breaks let me control the pacing and skip over often-tedious transition paragraphs--those paragraphs where we describe someone going from one place to another, or a jump in time. In most cases, long transition sections aren't needed and bog the story down.

Look for transitional text you can cut. Sometimes all you need is a line to add a sense of progress, but you can also cut them entirely and end the scene on a strong beat, 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 And...End Scene: When to Add a Scene Break)

To Be, is Not To Be 

We all know those pesky “to be” verbs are trouble spots for passive voice, 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" task is. But if we want to improve our next book, it’s time to put in the work.

Search for auxiliary "to be" verbs (is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, do, does, did, been, being, etc) and rewrite the sentence with stronger verbs. You'll eliminate a lot of passive voice, show more than tell, and find more creative ways to convey the same information. Will it be a pain? Probably. But worth it.

(Here's more on The Real Problem With Passive Voice in Fiction)

Neither Here nor There 

Here and there are words that tend to hang around with potentially meh text. For example, “There was a red wagon on the sidewalk, abandoned, alone” just states what's there. But “A red wagon waited on the sidewalk, abandoned and alone” adds a little more flair with a hint of personification. It's no longer an abandoned wagon, but one waiting for a child to return.

Just like the “to be” verbs, search for here and there and rewriting the sentence to eliminate it if the sentence is better without 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 reads, leave it. But if you think revising it will strengthen the writing, go for it. These are revision opportunities, nothing more.

What areas are you working to improve right now? 

*Originally published July 2011. Last updated May 2020.

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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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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 :)

  22. "In most cases, long transition sections aren't needed and bog the story down." Thanks Janice, that's the permission I need.
    My novel hasn't enough emotions und too many "be", "look" and "go".

    1. Most welcome! On the bright side, you know where the weak spots are, so it'll be easier to fix them :)