I was listening to an interesting podcast the other day – I think it was Story Studio – where the author being interviewed was asked to give her best writing tips. I was pleasantly surprised to hear her supply, rather than vague platitudes like ‘Never give up!’ or ‘try to put yourself in your character’s shoes’, actual writing advice. As in, things to do with words that I can actually directly apply to my own writing to make it better.
I love this kind of stuff. To me, there is nothing more infuriating than receiving advice that sounds awesome and is ultimately useless. It’s like, imagine asking someone to teach you how to surf and they say: ‘You just gotta feel the wave, dude.’ I just want to shake them and be like ‘How? How do you feel the wave?’ No, no, you want the guy who says something more like: ‘Try to have your hands a shoulder width apart on the board, and plant your front foot in the middle when you stand.’ That’s something I can act on, god damn it.
I don’t know why I chose surfing as an analogy. I haven’t been in a while, I guess.
Anyway, I’ve had a great time testing out these lessons in some of my recent stories, and been happy with the results. When I thought about it a bit more, though, I realised that I’ve actually picked up a bunch of these useful things, small adjustments you can make on a nuts-and-bolts basis that immediately strengthen your writing. One of my favourites is the old 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10% rule stated in On Writing. There are a bunch of other well known ones, but I wanted to make this post specifically to talk about things I’ve learned in recent times that have helped.
Of course, as always one should remember that not all tricks work for all writers, and certainly not all the time. But I can pretty much guarantee you one of these will level up your language skills in a single blow. Try ‘em out and see.
- Put the most important word of the sentence at the end.
This is not so much a technique as a useful piece of knowledge. Specifically, that whatever word you put at the end of a sentence has more impact than any of the others. When you read a complete sentence, there is a split second during the full stop when the final word hangs in the reader’s mind, emphasising it. It is the same effect that also occurs at the end of paragraphs, chapters, scenes, parts, and books.
You could write: ‘A thunderous shot sounded over the rolling hills’, or you could write: ‘Over the rolling hills came the sound of a thunderous shot.’ The second is stronger because the shot, being the last word, rings in the reader’s mind for a split second after the sentence finishes, giving it more impact.
Rather than trying to figure out which word is the most ‘important’, just ask yourself which word you want to be the most important. You might think, for example, that in the sentence: ‘he fired a bullet into her head.’ The word bullet is the most important. But if you were to structure it that way you’d end up with ‘Into her head he fired a bullet.’ Passive, and terrible.
Also remember that context is everything. Maybe you happen to be writing a story about hills which are evil and mysterious and have many bodies buried beneath them. Then maybe the word ‘hills’ is what you want to have in your readers mind. It’s your call, but just be aware of what you’re doing.
- If you have two adjectives describing something, you can usually cut one.
I’m pretty sure I got this from Sol Stein’s great book Stein On Writing. His argument is that if you use two adjectives, each then only has half the impact. Don’t tell me about the bent, twisted tree – pick one, especially when the two words mean essentially the same thing. And even when they don’t, eliminating one usually results in a clearer image.
Here are some examples:
The ancient, dusty book. The whippy, short-haired hound. His teeth were sharp and long. The truck ground and wheezed onward.
You get the picture. When your attention is divided between the two adjectives you try to imagine both at the same time and they interfere with each other. As soon as you cut one out, the other is more prominent in your mind and therefore the image becomes clearer: The dusty book. The whippy hound. His teeth were sharp. The truck wheezed onward.
- Tag Dialogue with unmodified ‘said’ and when you can get away with it, not at all.
I’ll be quick with this one, since it’s been repeated a bunch of times.
Basically, if you use any other word, the reader will notice it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the problem is it directs the reader’s attention away from the dialogue, which is where you want it. If you use something besides ‘said’ it immediately detracts from that and draws their attention to the adverb or adjective or whatever you chose to modify or replace ‘said.’ So if you do it? Better make sure it’s worth their attention.
Better yet would be to not say anything at all and use an action or speech pattern to distinguish who’s talking. I Bill always stutters, than when you write: ‘Y…Y…yes, Bev.’ You don’t have to add ‘Said Bill’, at the end. Likewise. You could say: Bill ran a hand through his long hair. ‘Yes Bev.’
No need for said at all.
- Don’t preface experiences with: he/she heard/felt/saw/listened as/watched as/screamed as etc.
I’ve found this one to be particularly useful because it used to be my default construction. For a long time it was common to find in my stories such things as: ‘He watched as they cut her open…’ Or: ‘They listened to the sound of crunching bones…’ You get the idea. When you add these unnecessary words, it takes away from the experience itself. If you stop doing this, you’ll find it brings the reader closer to whatever it is you’re trying to describe, rather than separating them by having to experience via the character’s senses. Instead of ‘He watched as she struggled to escape.’ Just write: ‘She struggled to escape…’ Instead of ‘They listened as she sang’, perhaps write: ‘The high notes of her song reached them across the river…’
- Try not to start sentences with words ending in ‘-ing’
‘Running as fast as they could, they hopped the fence and dove into the ravine.’ ‘Fearing for their lives, they reached for their weapons.’ ‘Smiling, he extended a slender hand.’
Look, these aren’t the worst sentences ever, and you can certainly get away with a few here and there. In my experience, though, they have same the addictive quality of adverbs: it can be terribly easy to get into the habit of using them, and when you do it becomes increasingly irritating to read.
- Avoid repetitive sentence structure.
This relates to the above rule to a certain degree, since what’s annoying about 5 is the use of such sentences many times during a paragraph or a page. Bottom line: if you’re starting every sentence with the same word or construction then you need to change it up. Try not to start every sentence in a paragraph with ‘He’ or ‘She’. Try not to repeatedly begin paragraphs with -ing words: ‘Smiling, he handed her a cigarette.’ ‘Running as fast as he could, his lungs burned.’ ‘Crying, she reached for a napkin.’ It gets old, fast. Change it up.
- Avoid ‘First Level Creativity’
This is a rule I had no idea existed, or that I was breaking all the time, until I discovered it in a book called ‘Writing Tools’ by Roy Peter Clark. Put simply, it is the concept that there are certain ideas, descriptors, analogies, metaphors, etc. that are not quite clichés, and at first glance seem original, but are in fact your brain’s lazy effort at real creativity.
‘He fought like a lion’, is a cliché. ‘He fought like a wild racoon’, is better, more original, and perhaps ‘good enough’. But ‘good enough’ is a red flag for first level creativity. If you find yourself saying that a certain metaphor or descriptive paragraph is ‘good enough’, that’s a sign that you didn’t push yourself hard enough to be truly original.
Often you’ll find that if you really think about what you’re trying to say, you can write something that is not only good, but also unique to you – a way of seeing something that could only have come from you.
If I was to try to push the above example beyond first level creativity, I might say something like: ‘He fought like a black-eyed lunatic.’ Although better yet would be to get rid of the ‘He fought like’ beginning altogether, since it lends itself to stupid analogies like: ‘He fought like a rabid squirrel’ or some ridiculous shit.
Once you find yourself falling into this slothful trap, as I did, you’ll most likely catch yourself falling into it constantly. You’ll also find this kind of language ubiquitous in books by authors who are under pressure to churn out mountains of words. When you’re trying to turn out five thousand words a day you’re lucky if you can avoid cliché’s, let alone first level creativity. Anyway, give it a shot, surprise yourself with your innovation.
- Employ Synesthesia
Synesthesia is the interesting mental disorder which makes people mix up their senses. One inflicted with the disorder might, for example, taste garlic every time they hear a G flat. Or see red whenever they encounter the number nine.
The reason I bring it up here is that you can use this useful disorder to help you describe things in a unique way. Say you want to describe a car. The car is red in your mind, but it is boring to call it a red car. Even to say it’s a bright or dark red – or blood red or scarlet – is fairly bland. But what if it’s a smooth red? Or a loud red? Or we could go with the taste/smell angle and call it an acidic red, a metallic red. What sound do the cars tires make as they squeal into the driveway? Is it merely high pitched? Or does it sound like sandpaper on a raw wound?
You see what I mean. When you mix sensations, the most simple and basic sights and sounds can take on a whole new quality. It’s endlessly fun to play with.
That’s all I got for now, friends and neighbours.
Hope it helps,