Katherine Ladny Mitchell
10 Helpful Writing Tips (Part 2)
Updated: Jun 10, 2018
In my last post, I shared five tips to help you develop the habit of writing. But once you’ve formed the habit, it’s time to perfect it. This week, we’re taking out the pencil sharpener and getting specific about honing your craft. Writing is a lot of work. But it’s also a lot of fun, so keep reading.
6) Be teachable. As King Solomon once said, there’s more hope for a fool than for a man who is wise in his own eyes.
Writing requires discipline, but writing well requires humility.
Once you’ve identified what you enjoy writing, take it to the next level and read some books on writing craft. There are so many resources out there, but two I’ve actually read and enjoyed are The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters by Christopher Vogler and Don't Murder Your Mystery by Chris Roerden. (Thanks to Joyce McPherson for sharing these with me.) These books cover classic plot structures and can help you avoid common manuscript pitfalls. Your local library should also have several books on writing. Take a look and see what you discover!
7) Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. There’s a joke that goes, “Writing is the art of rewriting what you’ve already rewritten.” Truth is funny sometimes. No one ever writes a perfect first draft. Most writing concerns subsequent drafts, and don't get discouraged if you hit the double digits there. I stopped counting drafts of Don’t Settle for a Fairy Tale after I hit thirteen. But every pass makes your manuscript a smoother read.
So how do you go about rewriting once you’ve got the basic story down? Again, there’s tons of advice out there, but some general rules include:
1) Use more nouns and verbs than adverbs and adjectives. Copious amounts of modifying words can belabor your text and slow your story's pace.
2) Use an active rather than passive voice (e.g. Say “I wrote this story” v. “This story was written by me”). It's quicker.
3) Use precise words that incorporate the five senses (e.g. “She sloshed through the gray drizzle,” v. “She went in the rain.”) Images which conjure taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell are more likely to engage your reader. Be selective with your verbs, nouns, and comparisons, too.
4) Avoid cliches. If you've heard it a million times, so have your readers. Take the time to be creative and come up with new ways to say old things. For instance, instead of comparing clouds to puffy cotton balls, Patricia Sprinkle -- author of Thoroughly Southern Mysteries -- once described them as mounds of Cool Whip. The original simile gets your attention and cements her southern voice.
5) Build tension. There's got to be conflict or some sort of problem (even if it's a minor annoyance) to make your reader want to keep reading. This goes for all genres, not just mysteries. No one wants to read about an uneventful trip to the store. But a trip to the store that goes awry in some way and becomes a clever metaphor for life ... now, that's something worth reading.
8) Make every word count. This is one of the most painful parts of writing. Once you’ve written your story, give yourself a few days (or weeks) to get emotionally unattached. Then return to your manuscript and use your pen like a scalpel. BE WILLING TO SACRIFICE YOUR FAVORITE PART IF IT DOES NOT FURTHER THE PLOT.
You can always save a rough draft for yourself, but your final draft MUST be for your reader.
So how do you know what to cut? Word limits can help make that decision for you. I once had to remove a beautiful character-developing scene because I didn’t have enough words left to wrap up my story. Sigh … You can also ask yourself if you need the part in question to get to the next plot point. If you don’t and it serves no other developmental purpose, toss it. Be ruthless. Flabby prose does not appeal to readers or publishers.
9) Be brave and share. While writing is technically an individual activity, it takes a community to make one’s writing worth reading. A fresh pair of eyes can reveal story strengths and weaknesses to which you may be blind. Try asking people in your target audience as well as those with writing experience to look at your work. (You can ask your mother, too, but she may be a bit biased.) Consider joining a writing critique group. Seek honest feedback and be willing to listen. Asking for specifics (What do you find amusing or confusing?) can help guide a reader’s analysis. You may not agree with their take on everything, and that’s okay. But if multiple people comment on the same issue, you may need to adjust your manuscript. Don’t forget to thank people for their opinions! And as a side note, remember you are more valuable than what you produce. A negative comment or rejection need not threaten your self-worth.
Why write if you don't want to be read?
10) Connect. So, maybe you aren’t feeling up to writing a full-blown novel yet. That's okay! But there are lots of ways to connect with other writers for advice, encouragement, and critique for wherever you are in the writing process. Check Online and at your local library to see if there's a writer’s group in your area. (There's the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild in my city.) If you’d prefer an Online writing community, Fanstory and Wattpad are two Internet platforms that can help you share your work and get feedback. You may want to subscribe to Writers Digest (or at least take a gander at their super-helpful Online articles) for inspiration, or research through a current copy of the Writer's Market to find contests and publisher wish-lists. Querytracker can also help those of you with a polished manuscript to find an agent. Whatever steps you take, even if it's just carving out a fifteen minute “writing time” in your daily schedule or buying a new journal, enjoy the adventure! Writing is a skill that takes practice and patience. But when done well, it can challenge minds, lift spirits, and encourage hearts.
Proverbs 26:12 paraphrase of Bible.
Roerden, Chris. Don't Murder Your Mystery. Bella Rosa Books; Nominee for Macavity & Anthony edition. (April 30, 2006).
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Michael Wiese Productions; 1st edition. 1992.