Tips For Writers By Sarah Rexford Anyone can write. All it takes is knowing a language and stringing words together. But learning to write well is a whole different story. First there is the language. You must be so familiar with it you can use it to articulate different settings, character thought processes (this applies to both fiction and nonfiction), and dialogue. Then there are the writing rules. Show don’t tell. Active voice. Including all five senses. And simple things like appropriate manuscript formatting. These rules change as time does, so being familiar with them is an ongoing process. And then there is story. You have to be able to tell a great story. And you must be able to do so while using language effectively, following writing rules, knowing when to break the writing rules, and keeping the story king. If any of this sounds intimidating, don’t leave yet! Learning how to improve your writing skills can be done the same way we’re told to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. The more you familiarize yourself with the following rules (and the other rules we don’t have time to cover in this article) the more they will become second nature. The more they become second nature, the easier it will be to use them in a way that feels natural. You’ll even learn when and how to break them. Ready to get started? We could probably write a book with all the ways you can improve your writing. However, there are a few key areas to focus on that most writers overlook or are often weak in. These are our recommended 12 steps to improve your writing: 1. Learn How To Use Passive Vs. Active Voice Writing in passive voice is a simple way to write. You simply tell what’s happening from a passive point-of-view (POV). “The mouse was dragged by the cat onto the rug.” This is passive. The cat is doing the action (dragging) but the focus is on the mouse (was dragged). “The cat dragged the mouse onto the rug.” This is active. The subject (cat) is doing the action (dragging the mouse). Just as omniscient voice is a thing of the past, passive voice is a thing of the past. Readers no longer want a faraway narrator telling them what’s going on and who’s doing what. They want to be highly immersed in the story. Often this is done through first person present tense (think The Hunger Games or Divergent). While the tense and person is up to the discretion of the writer, if you want readers to take your writing seriously, it’s important to write in active voice. “I was trying to think of an answer.” Passive. “I tried to think of an answer.” Active. Tip: When eliminating passive voice, 1) look for state-of-being verbs and cut them out and 2), make sure your subject is doing the action. 2. Learn How To Write Great Dialogue One of the biggest differences between a writer and a writer with great skill is their command over dialogue. While a writer may be able to craft a scene of dialogue exactly as it sounds in real life, this doesn’t take skill, it simply takes paying attention. Part of what goes into writing great dialogue is doing it in such a way that the pertinent details are included, the rest is excluded, and the dialogue moves the story forward. Imagine you have a character walking in for a job interview: “Hello,” Interviewee walks into the office. “Hello, how are you?” Interviewer asks. “Doing well, thank you.” Interviewee answers. “Have a seat on that chair.” Interviewer says.“Thank you.” Interviewee says.“Tell me about your work experience.” Interviewer says. This does little to move the story forward and drastically slows the action. Instead, cut the obvious and jump to the meat of the dialogue. Interviewee walks into the office and sits. “Tell me about your work experience.” Interviewer says. Tip: When writing dialogue, unless absolutely necessary, cut out pleasantries and social norms and get to the important information as quickly as possible. 3. Show, Don’t Tell You’ve likely heard the phrase, “show, don’t tell” at some point in your writing journey. This can be a tough rule to balance. Readers want to see the story and characters in their imagination. As the writer, it’s your job to provide enough description for them to be able to do so. However, laborious paragraphs of unnecessary details defeat the purpose and slow the story…not to mention it will stop your readers as they try to imagine exactly what you’re describing. Try to focus on showing your description rather than simply telling it. For example, telling: “The little boy was cold. Rain came down in torrents.” Showing: “The boy burrowed into his coat as rain slipped down his face.” Tip: Avoid state-of-being verbs. Instead, try to describe your scene or character’s feelings using the five senses. 4. Give the Reader Credit Best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins often says to “Give the reader credit.” For example: “The man stood up from the couch, walked across the floor, entered the kitchen, opened the fridge, took out a pizza, opened the box, and bit into a cold slice.” We know if the man bit into a slice of pizza, he must have opened the box. And if he reached into the fridge, he must have opened the fridge door. And if he was previously on the couch, he must have walked into the kitchen. And if he didn’t walk across the floor, you’re probably writing science fiction! Instead: “The man got off the couch, took a slice of pizza from the fridge, and bit into it.” Tip: Imagine telling your best friend the above scene. In most cases, it’s doubtful you’d include every detail in the first example. 5. Avoid Telling Dialogue Tags Dialogue tags are usually a name and descriptive word that come after a line of dialogue. “I am so mad at you! Why did you have to show up late again?” She yelled. She yelled is a dialogue tag. However, there are several redundancies in this list. First there is telling: I am so mad. Second there is an exclamation point (these are typically used very sparingly in today’s writing). Third, there is a telling dialogue tag: She yelled. You could fix this with a simple edit: “Why did you have to show up late again?” She said*, and slammed her hand on the steering wheel. *Today, dialogue tags are frequently included simply to clarify who is speaking, and “said” is often used even after a question mark. The above edit fixes the dialogue tag and follows the show don’t tell rule. Tip: Focus on the show don’t tell rule. The context surrounding the dialogue tag should show what the character is feeling. 6. Draft, Then Edit Writers write, so it’s important to get your words written before bogging yourself down with writing rules. Try to turn off your mental editing mode when drafting your work, and once it sits for 24 hours, then edit it. You will notice which rules you followed, which ones you broke, and be able to fix the mistakes with fresh eyes. The more you follow this method, the more you will familiarize with the rules and how to use them well. Tip: Try to type without stopping to edit until you’ve met your word count goal for that day. 7. Master Point-of-View Today, writers are often taught to maintain one point-of-view (POV) character per scene, per chapter, or per book. Depending on how many POV characters you have will determine how long you stay in one POV. If you have two POV characters, you may want to switch POV’s every other chapter. If you have several POV characters, it may be best two switch POV’s every few scenes. Regardless of how many POV characters you have, it’s important to stay in their singular POV. Remember, when writing in one character’s POV, you can only see, feel, touch, taste, and smell what that character senses. Other characters can be assumed to be happy, angry, sad, etc., but can only be assumed to feel these emotions unless the character states what they are feeling. For instance, look at the following dialogue from Brady’s POV: “I don’t care that you couldn’t make it.” Peter said as his shoulders drooped. Brady sighed. “I already said sorry.” Peter walked off, sad. We break POV by telling Peter’s feelings. Instead: “I don’t care that you couldn’t make it.” Peter said as his shoulders drooped. Brady sighed. “I already said sorry.” Peter walked off, dragging his feet. We maintain POV, showing Peter is sad by how he drags his feet. Tip: Your POV character is how you see and experience the story, including other characters’ emotions. 8. Show, Don’t Tell…even in formatting. We already discussed the show don’t tell rule, but it also applies to formatting your manuscript. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, it’s important that the words on the page provide the right amount of context to communicate to your reader. Bold face, italics, highlighting, multiple exclamation points or question marks, etc., are all mistakes that will undermine the quality of your writing and. Even if you have a great story, you undermine your credibility by telling through unacceptable formatting. “What were you thinking???” She said, eyes wide. This can be communicated without the extra question marks. “What were you thinking?” She said, eyes wide. You will look much more credible, and save your word count for words that matter. 9. Make Every Word Count Gone are the days of long-winded description, prologues, and scene-setting. Today, it’s important to plunge your main character into a terrible situation as fast as possible. How do you do this? Make every word count. If your protagonist is going to board a train that will crash seven minutes into the journey, avoid the routine of your character waking up, getting ready, walking to the station, handing in the ticket, boarding, sitting down… Cut to the action. Provide enough context the reader cares about what happens to this character, then write that crash scene and keep your reader turning pages! Tip: Avoid scene-setting if it doesn’t move the story forward. 10. Create Memorable Characters Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, characters will dominate your writing. Even if you’re writing your autobiography, you are the protagonist, the main character. It’s important to make your protagonists memorable. Whether that’s putting a very normal character into an abnormal scene (a barista happening upon a crime scene), or putting an abnormal character into a normal scene (a dragon going out for dinner), make your character memorable. Tip: Combine the abnormal with the normal, and don’t forget to make your characters empathetic so your readers can relate. 11. Use Beta Readers Beta readers are readers who read your book before it’s released, and sometimes before you finish writing it. This is not the time to ask your family members for their advice. Choose readers who know you enough to want to provide quality feedback, but who are willing to provide feedback that will help you in the long run, and may not always boost your ego. Tip: Writers groups and writing conferences are a great place to find beta readers. 12. Take It Step By Step These rules barely scratch the surface, but if you master them, they will help you as you work to improve your writing skills and move on to become a successful writer. Remember, writing is an ever-evolving process… The more you learn the more you will realize how much there is to learn. The more you write the more you will realize how much editing there is to do on your projects. That’s ok. That’s good! It means you are learning and learning means you are getting better. Keep at it. Keep adding rules to your writing toolbox and work to master each one. The more effort you put in, the better your results will be. Writing is subjective, but as you find your writing voice and master these rules, your writing will continue to improve. Take it word by word, don’t get discouraged, and of course, enjoy the process! Writing is a journey to enjoy.