Friday, September 9, 2011

Improve your writing in 5 easy steps

I’m often asked what is the secret of good writing. I used to tell people that I had a small group of editing elves that assembled in my office at night and worked their magic on my rough drafts. They used to do that, but I haven’t seen them in a while.

If you love to write, and if you’re seeking publication, there are a few things you can do to improve your craft. Below are five activities that can prove beneficial in making a noticeable difference in your writing. They’re all easy to do, and they can produce a significant improvement.

1. READ. You already know this one. It’s been pounded into your brain since that time in the third grade when you told everyone you were going to be a writer when you grew up. Writers are readers. Obviously, you want to read a ton of books in your favorite genre, but occasionally you’ll want to branch out and pick something outside your comfort zone.

For instance, if you’ve decided to write thriller or horror, you certainly want to read Stephen King and Michael Crichton. But after you finish your next novel by one of those authors, pick up a classic from yesteryear. Read something by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. Have you ever spent any time with Scarlet O’Hara? It’s a long book, but it’s worth the read.

If Gone With the Wind is too slow for you, you can always join James Bond on an exciting and dangerous international espionage adventure and see how Ian Fleming writes. Or get your space helmet on and head for another world with Arthur C. Clark or Ray Bradbury. Any of these books can give you a different take on how to create a setting or put a sentence together. Every author writes differently, and therein lies the beauty of the individual’s observations and the way they relate everything to the reader.

2. EDIT YOURSELF SEVERELY. You love your words. Of course you do. You’re a writer. They’re beautifully written and every one is perfect. So you think. Here’s an exercise that might help prove a point and show you how many words you can cut from your writing and end up with something that’s actually better in most cases.

A lot of writers fill their pages with fluff just to increase their word count. Bad idea. Stephen King said the best advice an editor ever gave him was, “Kill your darlings.” It’s necessary at times to take something you’ve written and simply delete it from the manuscript in order to make it better. You can tell if it really, really needs to be in there or not. So let’s do an exercise to get past the trauma of severe editing and get comfortable with it as we add it our writing repertoire.

Take your current WIP and pick a chapter. Any chapter. If you’re working in MS Word, do a word count on it and write that number down. Take 75% of that number. (If you’re not a math whiz, just multiply the number of words by .75.) That is the number of words you need to end up with. Approximately.

Now start cutting. This is going to prove difficult at first for some of you, but it becomes easier with practice. It’s a good thing. Really it is.

Track your changes and delete anything that’s unnecessary. If it sounds like too much explanation, cut it. If you’ve mentioned it before and you’re just repeating it, cut it. Look at your sentence structure. Is there a way to construct that sentence with fewer words and have it say the same thing? Look at your dialogue tags. If it’s obvious who’s speaking, cut the tag. If the reader doesn’t need it, it doesn’t need to be on the page. Get rid of it.

Check for adverbs. In case you didn’t know, literary agents hate them. So, unless they’re absolutely necessary, cut them. You’re cutting 25% of your word count, so you need to be brutal in this exercise if you’re going to arrive at your target number. You may have to rewrite some sentences in order to maintain the flow, but you can do that. You’re a writer. Those pages should look like someone sacrificed a sheep on them when you’re finished.

When you finish, read what’s left. In most cases it will be an improvement. The pace will be faster and more alive. Many writers have a tendency to over explain things to the reader and repeat themselves. This slows things down unnecessarily. This exercise will reduce that or eliminate it. Your readers will be grateful and your book will be much better for it.

3. JOIN A CRITIQUING GROUP. If you have a local writing group, attend one of their meetings. Get to know your fellow writers. If you don’t have such a group available locally, there are a lot of forums and networks on the Internet. One of my long-time favorite places for critique and advice is a site called ABSOLUTE WRITE. It’s free and you can share your work with others and get peer input and suggestions for improvement.

LinkedIn has numerous groups of writers you can connect with as well. Facebook and Twitter can also offer additional connections if you tell people what you’re looking for. So get yourself out there.

4. ATTEND A CONFERENCE OR WORKSHOP. This will get you away from your computer and out of the house, which you need to do occasionally.

Most writing organizations hold conferences and workshops throughout the year. If you’re a writer of picture books, chapter books, middle grade or anything geared toward the juvenile market, SCBWI most likely has a branch near you. Google them. Check out their conference or workshop schedule.

You might also check out any book signings at your local bookstores. This can give you an opportunity to speak with a published author face-to-face. Many of them would be happy to offer advice to help out an aspiring author.

5. WRITE. Although all five of these steps are important, we’ve saved the best for last. Writing is what you do. You need to practice that craft. If possible, try to set up a specific writing schedule. If you’re fortunate enough to have an office in your home, you need to be in for a pre-determined number of hours per day. If you don’t have an office, per se, pick an area where you can work undisturbed by the television or other intrusions. If there’s a Starbuck’s nearby, and if you have a laptop, that’s an option that might work for you, too, especially if you’re a coffee lover.

If you implement these five steps, or even a few of them, your writing will improve. And that’s the whole point.

STEP 6. This is for AFTER you do all the other five steps. You can always use another pair of eyes to smooth out the details and make your writing flow more professionally, to get ride of repetitive words and pesky typos. Before sending you completed manuscript to an agent, have an editor/proofreader look it over.

If you'd like a free evaluation of your writing, CLICK HERE and look for the THE LINK.

Keep writing.

1 comment:

  1. I have never attended a writer conference. Most of them are not in the area I live. However, there is one this weekend. I think I'll go just to see what other writers look like.


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