Five Things: quick fixes for your writing

Image by Seth Sawyers from Flickr Creative Commons
Category: Writing

I promise you this won’t be a tedious rant about grammar and punctuation, but there are some wee technical bits of advice that I find myself giving to new authors over and over again. These are all easy to implement, and in 99.9% of cases will result in a better story, or at least a fresh approach when you’re stuck.

First, I’m going to run through the basic grammar terms we use – skip it if you remember all this from school, but I know loads of people who get the terms mixed up (including myself!):

Verb – these are doing words. ‘Sprinted’ ‘smiled’ and ‘gyrated’ are all verbs.

Noun – a noun is a thing. You know, ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘P45’, ‘Buckfast’ – all nouns.

Adverb – these describe verbs. ‘Gracefully’, ‘slowly’ ‘stupidly’ are all adverbs.

Adjective – these are describing words. ‘Pretty’ ‘vacant’ and ‘bookish’ are all adjectives.

1. Get rid of adverbs

I mean it. Strip ‘em out. Be ruthless. ‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs’ as Stephen King put it. When I open a submission, I can usually tell if it’s from a new writer, because they scatter in lots and lots of adverbs. ‘She moved elegantly across the room, surprisingly light on her feet, moonlight glowing gently on her’, for example. (I just made that up, and it sounds rubbish, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s full of adverbs.)

2. Cut down on similes.

Similes are when we use ‘like’ or ‘as’ to make a comparison. ‘She was as graceful as a ballerina’ or ‘the moon was like the light of a thousand torches’ – that kind of thing. You will definitely need to use similes or metaphors at some point in your writing, but don’t cram them all into your first paragraph. Again, inexperienced writers tend to lean on these because they want to set the scene. However, you can often show readers what something looks or feels like in other ways (read on!).

3. Carry dialogue with care.

Be wary of using verbs other than ‘said’ for speech. You might well want to use ‘whispered’, ‘muttered’ or ‘shouted’ – there’s nothing wrong with varying the tone in different situations. But steer clear of more complex choices until you’re more confident about your writing. I’m especially uncomfortable with verbs like ‘stated’ or ‘avowed’, which can sound really stilted and spoil the flow of the dialogue.

4. Delete all clichés.

They always sneak in somewhere! Ones I have surgically removed from manuscripts recently include ‘love is blind’, ‘the grass is always greener’ and ‘better safe than sorry’. You can always, ALWAYS do better than a cliché.

5. Use the five senses.

Instead of saying your protagonist ‘moved like a ballerina’ or ‘the moon was like the light of a thousand torches’, build up a picture using the five senses. What does the ground feel like as the woman moves across the room? What does the air smell like outside on that moonlit night? What can you hear as you enter the house? Showing the reader how things smell, sound, feel or taste can make for a much richer story, without having to lean on comparisons.

If you’d like to read more about this kind of thing, I recommend Stephen King’s On Writing or Betsy Lerner’s The Forest for the Trees for brilliant writing and publishing advice.

And finally...

Completely disregard all this advice when working on your first draft. Write freely and just get your words down on the page. Once you have the shape of your story, there’s plenty of time for fiddling and applying the suggestions above. Most importantly, have fun! Happy writing.

Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart is Senior Editor at Floris Books and Director of the Lighthouse Literary Consultancy. Her first children’s novel will be published by Stripes in May 2015. Follow Sarah on Twitter @sfssong