“How do I improve my writing?” is an easy question aspiring authors ask in a myriad of ways and are rewarded with a myriad of complicated answers!
The problem is that all writers have different problems.
These problems are little things that stack up into the big problem of making something unpleasant to read.
For example, you may have already noticed my overuse of the same words. In the first sentence, I used ‘myriad’ twice. In the next two sentences, I used the word ‘problem’ twice in each sentence. And in the last three sentences, including this sentence, I’ve used the word ‘sentence’ six times!
This is the kind of little thing that neither a reader nor a writer might notice. At first. But eventually a reader will be distracted by the repetition. The writer might not ever realize it, unless someone points it out. So Watch for Repetition.
Of course, there is the reverse: used sparingly and intentionally, repetition, whether in words or sentence structure or something else, can be an effective writing tool.
This leads to one of the most important rules of writing.
Don’t break the rules unless you understand them.
That seems like an easy rule, but it is probably the hardest. Big name famous authors and people who try to teach writing in classes often say NEVER do X or Always do Y. The truth is: writing is like life. It is full of gray areas. Like “should I have used ‘grey’ instead of ‘gray’?”
Well. There is a difference. Learn it so you can make an intelligent decision. Some people seem to think you use grey or gray depending on whether you are using it as a noun, a verb, or as an adjective. And they sweat over trying to figure it out. Really, it’s much simpler. American English generally uses gray and British English tends to use grey. Big deal? Not really. Switching back and forth in the same story? Yeah, that can be. But if you know this, maybe you can use it to your advantage. Maybe a British character in your story leaves a note and spells it “grey”, giving the detective the clue he needed.
Here are some quick common “rules” writers should learn to wrap their heads around so they know when, and when not, to play with them:
Avoid “-ly” words. What is an “-ly” word? They are a form of adverb. The “-ly” makes them easier to spot than “flat adverbs” (which don’t have the “-ly”), so they get picked on more. Examples would be: probably, usually, actually, calmly, happily, etc. (Some flat adverbs would be: just, so, hard, quick, slow, etc.)
So what does this rule mean? It means don’t always over-emphasize your nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and other adverbs. Here are some over-used words to search for and remove from your story before you turn it in: quickly, suddenly, really, finally, slowly, very, just, only.
If you re-read the sentence without them, you’ll see they rarely add much of anything to it. If it does add something, then leave it! Using adverbs sparingly makes them more powerful and allows you to focus the reader’s attention in on important things.
Take out “THAT”. “That” is an interesting word. It can be used in many ways, in many different parts of a sentence. One of the most interesting things about it is that you almost never need it. Notice how I used it in the last sentence? Notice how if you read the sentence without the word “that” in it, the sentence is nearly exactly the same? The meaning isn’t affected at all. It is usually a filler word. With the exception of dialog, wherein you emulate normal speech patterns, I recommend you take out “that” 99% of the time.
Affect vs. Effect. There is a difference. Learn it. It can be confusing. You’ll just have to power through it. Affecting something, produces an effect. Now here is where many people get confused. The flat affect. This is when a character shows little emotion. If you like to use that term, make sure you get it right! You show affection for someone, you are effected by their love. When in doubt, look it up and make sure you’ve got it right.
Actually, that’s a really good rule I’ve never had anyone tell me. I’ll make it a rule right now! When in doubt, look it up and make sure you’ve got it right. The few minutes it takes you to make sure something is right will be so incredibly worth it to you to avoid the blow back you might receive for getting it wrong.
Who or Whom? Sadly, most writers today don’t even bother with this. In fact, I think most editors skip over it as well. If you choose to only write “who”, I won’t berate you. Much. But if you misuse “whom”, everyone will gawk at you. Quick rule of thumb, she/he = who and him/her = whom. Re-read the sentence and replace the pronoun to see which you needed.
Knowing the rules prevents you from looking foolish and allows you to successfully play with them. This is a very short part of a very long list, but these things tend to stand out a lot. You need to focus on things one at a time so you don’t overwhelm yourself trying to improve, and I think this is a good list to start with. If you need homework, the next thing I would recommend working on would be dialog tags!
I will put those up in the next post!