When it comes to writing fiction, we each have our own unique challenges. For some of us, it’s a struggle to come up with names for our characters. For others, it’s hard to write realistic dialogue.
Maybe you’re like me, and find it difficult to write a really good villain–I mean–a really bad villain.
The funny thing about our writing weaknesses is that sometimes all we have to do is identify them and suddenly we start coming up with tons of solutions.
That’s what happened to me a few years ago when I realized I was having trouble writing a nemesis for my main character. Time and time again, it was one of the key elements that was missing from the stories I wrote. I was struggling to create a villain that would give my story the conflict it needed.
Once I noticed this pattern, I started seeing villains all around me–as if merely noticing their absence from my writing made them suddenly appear everywhere in my everyday life. Read more
The more I explore fiction writing, the more complex and multi-layered it becomes. Through the processes of brainstorming, outlining, researching, writing, and revising, I have discovered countless details that authors have to consider as they set out to produce a viable work of fiction.
Over the years, I have collected a vast pile of notes and ideas concerning fiction writing. As I was going through these notes, I figured they could be compiled into a master list of writing tips that might help writers tackle a novel by offering different perspectives and by providing fodder for the creative process.
These fiction writing tips come from countless sources. Some were picked up back in my college days. Others came from books about writing. Many came from interviews with successful authors that I have read, watched, or listened to. And a few came from my own personal experiences as both a reader and writer.
Writing a novel is an ambitious endeavor, never mind editing, publishing, and marketing it. Hopefully, the writing tips below will help make the first part of your momentous task a little easier.
The writing tips below focus on the technical and creative writing process rather than the business end of things. You can take a few of these writing tips or take them all. And add your own fiction writing tips by leaving a comment.
- Read more fiction than you write.
- Don’t lock yourself into one genre (in reading or writing). Even if you have a favorite genre, step outside of it occasionally so you don’t get too weighed down by trying to fit your work into a particular category.
- Dissect and analyze stories you love from books, movies, and television to find out what works in storytelling and what doesn’t.
- Remember the credence of all writers: butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
- Don’t write for the market. Tell the story that’s in your heart.
- You can make an outline before, during, or after you finish your rough draft. An outline is not necessary, nor is it written in stone, but it can provide you with a roadmap, and that is a mighty powerful tool to have at your disposal.
- You don’t always need an outline. Give discovery writing a try.
- Some of the best fiction comes from real life. Jot down stories that interest you whether you hear them from a friend or read them in a news article.
- Real life is also a great source of inspiration for characters. Look around at your friends, family, and coworkers. Magnify the strongest aspects of their personalities and you’re on your way to crafting a cast of believable characters.
- Make your characters real through details. A girl who bites her nails or a guy with a limp will be far more memorable than characters who are presented with lengthy head-to-toe physical descriptions.
- The most realistic and relatable characters are flawed. Find something good about your villain and something dark in your hero’s past.
- Avoid telling readers too much about the characters. Instead, show the characters’ personalities through their actions and interactions.
- Give your characters difficult obstacles to overcome. Make them suffer. That way, when they triumph, it will be even more rewarding.
- Explore the human condition.
- Make sure you understand the three act structure. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- Memorize the Hero’s Journey. Use it.
- Cultivate a distinct voice. Your narrator should not sound warm and friendly in the first few chapters and then objective and aloof in later chapters. The voice should be consistent and its tone should complement the content of your book.
- Give careful consideration to the narrative. Is the story best told in first person or third person? If you’re not sure, write a few pages in each narrative style to see what works best.
- Is your story moving too fast for readers or are they yawning through every paragraph? Are the love scenes too short? Are the fight scenes too long? Do you go into three pages of detail as your characters walk from point A to point B and then fly through an action sequence in a couple of short paragraphs? Pay attention to pacing!
- Infuse your story with rich themes to give it a humanistic quality. Examples of themes include sacrifice, redemption, rebirth, life and death, faith, destiny, etc. These are the big shadows that hover over your story.
- Use symbols and imagery to create continuity throughout your story. Think about how the White Rabbit kept popping up when Alice was adventuring in Wonderland or how the color red was used in the film American Beauty. These are subtle details but they give your story great power.
- Every great story includes transformation. The characters change, the world changes, and hopefully, the reader will change too.
- Aim for a story that is both surprising and satisfying. The only thing worse than reading a novel and feeling like you know exactly what’s going to happen is reading a novel and feeling unfulfilled at the end–like what happened wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Your readers invest themselves in your story. They deserve an emotional and intellectual payoff.
- Focus on building tension, then give it a snap.
- Enrich your main plot with subplots. In real life, there’s a lot happening at once. While the characters are all trying to get rescued from the aliens, romances are brewing, traitors are stewing, and friendships are forged.
- There is a difference between a sub-plot and a tangent. Don’t go off on too many tangents. It’s okay to explore various branches of your story when you’re working through the first or second draft, but eventually, you have to pare it down to its core.
- If you write in a genre, don’t be afraid to blur the lines. A drama can have funny moments and a thriller can have a bit of romance.
- Make sure your setting is vivid and realistic even if you made it up.
- If you didn’t make up your setting, then do your best to get to the location and see it for yourself before you finish your manuscript. If that’s not possible, get busy researching.
- Don’t underestimate your readers. Assume they are as smart (or smarter) than you are.
- Give the readers room to think. You don’t have to tell your story in minute detail, including each minute of the plot’s timeline or all of the characters’ thoughts. Provide enough dots, and trust that the reader will have fun connecting them.
- Let the readers use their imaginations. Provide a few choice details and let the readers fill in the rest of the canvas with their own colors.
- Don’t focus exclusively on storytelling at the expense of crafting compelling language.
- Appeal to readers’ senses. Use descriptive words that engage the readers’ senses of taste, touch, and smell.
- Apply poetry techniques to breathe life into your prose. Use alliteration, onomatopoeia, metaphor, and other literary devices to make your sentences sing and dance.
- When rewriting, check for the following: plot holes, character inconsistencies, missing scenes, extraneous scenes, accuracy in research, and of course, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
- As you revise, ask yourself whether every paragraph, sentence, and word is essential to your story. If it’s not, you know where the delete button is.
- Proofread carefully for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The fewer typos in your final draft, the better.
- Before your final revisions and before you send your manuscript out to any agents or editors, find your beta readers: join a writing group, take a fiction workshop, or hire a pro.
- Do not send out your rough draft. Go through the revision process at least three times before handing it out to your beta readers. The stronger it is when you bring in editors, the stronger those editors will be able to make it.
- Collect and use these and other writing tips in a file or in your notebook. When something about your story doesn’t feel quite right or if you sense there’s something missing, your notes and other resources might provide you with a solution.
- Have fun. If you’re not enjoying writing, then maybe it’s not for you. If you’re not enjoying fiction writing, try something else like poetry, blogging, or screenwriting. Be open and you’ll find your way.
Did you find these writing tips helpful? Got any tips to add? Leave a comment!
If you’re the token writer at your office, among your friends, or in your family, then you are probably asked on a regular basis to edit, review, or proofread written documents.
Academic essays, business letters, and resumes will land on your desk with the word “HELP!” scrawled across the top.
Or, maybe you’re like me, a professional who offers editing services to writers and business people who want their text to be squeaky clean and irresistible to readers.
Most of us are happy to help. After all, it feels good to help people, especially when it involves doing something you love, like writing or proofreading and editing other people’s writing projects. And the good news is that practicing editing other people’s work makes you more proficient at editing your own work.
Editing Your Own Work
I spend most of my work hours editing other people’s work and self-editing my own writing. In fact, I spend more time on self-editing than I do on writing. So I thought I’d share a few of my favorite writing tips for self-editing.
1. Accept Favor Requests for Editing
When a friend, family member, or co-worker asks you to look at a draft, do it. Even if you’re busy, even if you don’t feel like it or have your own projects to write and edit, take it on. The more editing you do, the better you get at it, and that means you become better at editing your own work, too.
2. Know When to Turn Off Your Inner Editor
There’s a time and place for editing, and often, the first draft is not it. Some writers craft sentence by sentence, perfecting each paragraph before moving on to the next. If that works for you, great. But if you spend hours stuck on word choice or sentence structure and you can’t move forward with the project, turn off your inner editor, blind yourself to typos and grammar mistakes, ignore bad writing, and just let your fingers fly.
3. Make Sure You’re Wearing Your Editing Hat
When you do edit, make sure editing is really what you’re doing. In other words, be aware that editing is not scouring the text for typos and stray punctuation marks. Editing is when we strengthen story, sentences, and paragraphs. Proofreading comes later. That’s not to say we don’t do a little proofing while editing or that we don’t do a little editing while proofing. I know I do. However, I always do a full revision focused on editing and another on proofreading. For more complex pieces, I do multiple edits and proofs.
3. Edit On-Screen and Track Changes
Many writers and editors swear by the printed page. But that’s a messy and inefficient way to edit. If you start editing on-screen, you’ll adjust to the new format and soon find it’s much easier than marking up print. If you’re making big revisions (as you should during editing) and you’re worried about losing the original text, use Microsoft Word’s feature, Track Changes, which does just what you’d expect–it tracks all the changes you make as you edit. Then you can go through and review every edit and accept or reject those changes individually or collectively later. This is also a great way to edit twice–once to make the changes and again to approve them.
4. If You’re Not Sure, Look it Up (and Know What You Don’t Know)
Your greatest wisdom as an editor is knowing what you don’t know. Having resources in your arsenal is one thing. Using them is something else entirely. Don’t be lazy! Remember that every time you look something up, you learn something new and expand your own writing skills. Plus, the more you look things up, the less you’ll need to look them up in the future. Eventually, they become natural for you and part of your own writing process.
5. Keep a Grammar Manual and Style Guide Handy
When you’re proofreading and editing, you need to be meticulous. Don’t cut corners. If you’re not sure about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or context, you need to be able to open up a grammar manual or a style guide, so make sure you have the right resources handy. Be vigilant, be correct, and use good judgment, keeping in mind that sometimes it’s best to bend the rules (but only if you know what the rules are and why you’re breaking them).
6. Run Spell Check and Grammar Check First
Before you do anything, run spell check and use your word processing software’s grammar checking tool (if it has one). Automated checkers don’t catch everything, but they can catch a lot, and that means you’ll have more time and brain energy for manual editing. Also, use the find-and-replace feature, which allows you to quickly find or replace a single error multiple times. For example, many people are still in the habit of using a double space after a period. I always do a find-and-replace to replace all those double spaces with the modern standard–single spaces after every period or terminal punctuation mark.
7. Read Slowly and Out Loud
The most crucial aspect of proofreading and editing is reviewing every single word and examining the written work at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels. Plus, you should be able to assess every document or manuscript in its entirety to check for readability, organization, and flow. This means you’ll have to go over each piece numerous times. To separate yourself from the content so you can better evaluate the writing, read slowly and read out loud. You’ll catch a lot of minor mistakes and typos this way.
Bonus Tip: Don’t forget to check titles and subtitles!
8. Listen for Wording and Rhythm
Editing involves more than checking for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When you read the piece out loud, pay attention to the rhythm. Does it flow smoothly? Do the sentences alternate in length or are there a series of really short (or really long) sentences that have a droning rhythm? Break up some of those longer sentences and join some of the smaller sentences together to give the writing better rhythm and more musicality.
9. Pay Attention to Formatting
Formatting is actually separate from editing. This involves things like font (size, face, and other formatting options, such as bold or italics), paragraph and line spacing, and indents. Chapter titles and subheadings, for example, should have the same font and spacing. Citations should be formatted the same (and preferably, adhering to a style guide). Just keep an eye out for inconsistencies in this area.
10. Review to Perfection
I like to follow a five-step process for editing:
- Read the entire text
- Second pass focuses on wording and readability.
- Third review focuses on editing for word choice and sentence structure.
- Fourth pass is proofreading (check for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and typos). This is where I read out loud, slowly.
- Final review and polish.
I repeat step five until I can’t find anything to improve.
Good Luck with Your Self-Editing!
If you have any self-editing tips of your own, please share by leaving a comment.
I love collecting writing tips. You never know when you’re going to stumble across a golden nugget of wisdom that will make your writing richer and more vibrant. One of the reasons I started this website was so that I could share the many valuable tips that I’ve acquired over the years. I figure that if some bit of advice helped my writing, it’ll probably help other people’s as well.
But writing tips are funny things. What works for me might not work for you. Maybe you are naturally inclined to show rather than tell whereas I need someone to say “show, don’t tell.” Or maybe you only write nonfiction and have no use for tips on creating believable characters or riveting plots. Maybe you only write far-out, abstract poetry and could care less about good grammar.
Writers and Naysayers
We writers are a varied bunch. If you look closely, you’ll see that the world of writing is comprised of many different types of writers, each with different needs, goals, and standards. But we do all have one thing in common: we write.
And because we all write, there are certainly a couple of writing tips that apply to each and every one of us. In fact, I’d argue that there are just two things that every writer absolutely must do in order to succeed: read and write.
I can hear the naysayers now — but I only write when I’m feeling inspired; that’s what makes it REAL! I don’t have time to read. If I spend my time reading, how will I find time to write?
These thoughts will mostly get you into trouble. Firstly, if you don’t read and write regularly, your work will be sub-par (at best). Secondly, people will think you’re just plain lazy. And they’ll be right.
The Value Sheer Necessity of Reading
You should know that if you’re not well read, it will show in your writing. More than once, I’ve reviewed written work and asked the author, “Read much?” Almost always, the answer is exactly what I guessed. If the writing flows effortlessly, the writer reads a lot. If the writing is jagged, confusing, and amateurish, then the writer is not a big reader.
What I don’t understand is why anyone who doesn’t love to read would want to be a writer in the first place. Can you imagine a musician who never listens to music? A film director who doesn’t watch movies? These are the arts, people. You’re in it because you love it, with fierce passion. You’re going to need that passion if you want to get anywhere, and you’re going to have to be immersed in the art to which you aspire. For writers, that means reading. Lots and lots of reading.
If you listen to the masters of any art, you will notice they often mention names of those who inspired them. Writing, like any art, comes with a certain heritage. We absorb the works of those who have gone before us, let them teach us the craft, and then we go forth and create.
Besides, if you read voraciously, you’ll reap the benefits:
- You’ll naturally grow your vocabulary and pick up better language skills.
- You’ll learn new information or be entertained by books, articles, and stories.
- You will be able to speak intelligently about literature and writing.
- You will observe a cacophony of styles and your own voice will emerge.
- Your grammar, spelling, and punctuation will improve drastically, especially if you have high reading standards.
There are many more writerly perks that come from reading. Can you think of any to add?
It pretty much goes without saying, yet it has to be said again and again: If you want to be a writer, you must write. But how much must you write?
According to neurologist, Daniel Levitin, to become a true master at anything, one must put in 10,000 hours:
“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.“ – Daniel Levitin
Allow me to repeat the time it takes: 10,000 hours — three hours per day (or 20 hours per week) for ten years. That’s to become a master writer. Maybe you just want to be a published writer. In either case, you’re going to have to do a whole lot of writing. Take a few minutes today to think about how many hours you’ve spent writing (or reading, or both). A few hundred? A few thousand? Maybe you’re halfway there. Maybe you’ve passed the finish line and just need to start putting your work out there.
There’s no point sitting around daydreaming about becoming a writer, thinking someday I’ll write that novel. Someday is here. Someday was yesterday. It’s today. And it’s tomorrow. Someday is right now. So start writing — today and every day.
Learn from the Masters
Stephen King is an accomplished writer. He has sold an estimated 300-350 million copies of his novels and short stories. Many of his works have been adapted for film and television, including Carrie, Cujo, The Green Mile, and The Body, (which was made into the popular film Stand By Me). Mr. King has won numerous awards and received much critical acclaim. The sheer volume of his output is astounding. His success is vast, perhaps unparalleled. In fact, he’s one of the most successful writers of all time — if not the most successful.
Stephen King is exactly the kind of writer from whom the rest of us need to learn. Not just because he’s published (and published a lot), but also because his fans adore him, Hollywood loves him (writers make big bucks when they sell their film rights), and of course, there are all those awards and all that acclaim. But most importantly, Stephen King succeeded in doing what the rest of us writers strive to do — he makes a living as a writer.
Guess what writing tips Stephen King offers the rest of us? (Hint: watch the video below to find out).
Other Writing Tips
Like I said, I collect writing tips. I have a whole bunch of them clanking around inside my head. Some have been vital; others I could have done without. I will keep collecting these tips and sharing them with you, but none of them will be as powerful as read and write.
So keep taking notes. Look for new ways to get inspired, fresh approaches to language and story. Jot down all of your favorite writing tips and tricks in your journal. Use the ones that feel right and make your writing better.
But if you don’t do anything else, keep reading and writing.
Do you read? How often do you write? What other writing tips have been useful to you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Some writing tips are cryptic.
When I first came across writing advice that said “kill your darlings,” I thought it meant that we should kill off our favorite characters. That seemed ridiculous. I mean, there are situations in which a story calls for characters to die, but to make a sweeping rule that we should default to killing off our most beloved characters is pretty extreme.
Almost immediately, I realized it was so ridiculous that it couldn’t possibly be the intent of the statement, and I concluded that “kill your darlings” means that we should be willing and prepared to kill our favorite characters if the story calls for doing so. That’s solid advice, and I agree with it.
It’s all about being true to the story.
It’s not unusual for writers to form attachments to characters. Hopefully, readers will form attachments to them too. But we can also form attachments to scenes, chapters, and even words and sentences.
Some writing tips have more than one meaning. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just about being true to the story insofar as you’re willing to put your most beloved characters to death. What it means, in the broadest sense, is that we have to be willing to let go of any element of our writing that is not essential or at least beneficial to the story. Killing off characters is the most obvious way to “kill your darlings,” so let’s look at that first.
Kill Your Characters
Every so often, I read a story and think that either too many characters were unnecessarily killed off or certain characters should have been killed off because it wasn’t believable that nobody died.
Like many readers, I’m not a big fan of gratuitous violence. If the story calls for violence, then I’m fine with it, and I do think that literature needs to explore themes like violence because it’s a prevalent problem in our culture. But when violence is glamorized or when it’s inserted into a scene without having any relevance to the story, it annoys me. Gratuitous violence is often used to kill off characters and sometimes, it makes me feel like I’m being manipulated–like somebody wants me to be sad about a character’s death so I’ll forge a deeper emotional connection to the story. If it’s all done without relevance to the story or in a way that is unbelievable, it has the opposite effect. It kills my connection with the story because the story becomes formulaic in a bad way.
The same is true for when characters die by means other than violence. If I feel like the author is just having fun killing off characters to get a rise out of me, I get irritated and find something else to read.
Having said that, death is universal. Everybody dies eventually, so I think death is an important topic to explore in fiction. Stories that deal with death well resonate with me and do deepen my emotional connection to a story. When I’m reading a war story where bullets are flying and bombs are blazing and the five main characters, all of whom are fighting on the front line, manage to survive with a few minor injuries, I find it unbelievable. A story like that calls for the death of a darling because that’s the truth of the story.
Killing Scenes and Chapters
But let’s get away from killing off characters because “kill your darlings” goes beyond characters.
We all have scenes and chapters that we love. For whatever reasons, certain scenes resonate with us and as writers, we’re proud of them. If we realize that a favorite scene is not moving the story forward or doing anything for the story whatsoever, we have to contemplate cutting it. We might try to revise it and work something important into it so we can save it, but some scenes can’t be resuscitated. They must be cut in order to maintain the integrity of the manuscript.
And that’s another way that we may have to kill our darlings–by snipping or radically revising entire scenes and chapters that we feel represent some of our best work. It’s unfortunate. It’s a bummer. And it hurts to highlight huge swaths of text that we labored over and loved, and then press the delete button. But if these scenes are weakening the story, they’ve got to go.
Putting Story First
I believe that in fiction, the story has to come first. In an essay, the thesis or concept has to come first. In a poem, we have a little more wiggle room, but even then, the intent of the poem has to come first.
When I cut 40,000 words of a manuscript, I felt relieved and unburdened. I had to let go of some good stuff–characters, scenes, chapters, words, and sentences that represented some of my best work. A little of everything got cut. I wasn’t happy about it but I knew that it would make the story one hundred percent better. I also knew that I could save that material and reuse it if the opportunity ever arises.
It’s hard to let go. It’s especially hard to let go of something we’re proud of, something we’re attached to, worked hard on, or something we love. That’s the lesson of death–when death occurs in fiction and is carried out well, in a meaningful way, it’s almost always about letting go. That’s something everyone has to do, not just writers.
We writers have to learn to let go of our darlings. Whether they are characters, scenes, or sentences, we have to expunge pieces of our work that we admire because they do not speak truth to the story we’re trying to tell.
Have you ever killed off a favorite character, eliminated a great scene, or deleted a snazzy sentence? Was it hard? Did you save it? Share your thoughts and experiences with killing your darlings or share some of your favorite writing tips by leaving a comment.
Every writer has been there: staring at a blank screen, waiting for the words to arrive. But they don’t. The words just won’t come. They will, soon. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Time’s passing and the words still don’t come. Maybe they never will.
You sit there feeling frustrated and uninspired.
What’s a writer to do? Well for starters, you can use the writing tips below. Fighting writer’s block is easier than it seems. But sitting there staring at the blank page will only build tension and continue to hinder your creativity by reinforcing the blockage that you’re experiencing. The trick to combating writer’s block is to remove yourself from your writing for a short time and get that creative energy flowing again. Fifteen to thirty minutes ought to do it.
Writing Tips for Blocking Writer’s Block
In some ways, these aren’t writing tips at all, because the most important way to fight writer’s block is to move your body, which will bring on relaxation and relieve tension. Or do something that gets your mind completely off whatever you’re working on by mentally diving into something different for a while. Close your notebook and put it away, or stand up and walk away from your computer.
Here are five writing tips for non-writing activities that you can do:
- Exercise. Take your dog for a short walk, or go through some simple stretches or yoga poses. Moving the body gets blood flowing and when blood flows to the brain, you become more productive and more receptive to your inner muse.
- Chores. This is a great time to do the dishes. Fold that load of laundry that’s been sitting on the couch for a couple of days. It’s not spring cleaning, just a little daily maintenance that will get your body moving and your mind focused.
- People. We all have phone calls to make, emails to send, and letters to open. Okay, maybe there aren’t many letters to open, just bills and junk mail. But you can take this time to get in touch with friends and family. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you hang up the phone or click send and suddenly you know exactly what you want to write. Bonus Tip: get in touch with people who are writers and start sharing writing tips with each other!
- Animals. Take some time to toss around the mouse toy for your cat. How long has it been since you gave your dog a good brushing? Spending quality time with pets has been scientifically proven to have health and relaxation benefits for both you and them, and you’ll find that it does wonders for your writing as well!
- Meditate. Meditation serves many purposes. It puts us in touch with our higher power, our inner being, and does wonders for clearing and cleansing the mind. Even a brief ten or fifteen minute meditation will ease the burden of writer’s block and inspiration will come to you in no time!
Good luck and let me know if any of these writing tips help you ward off writer’s block by leaving a comment!
It’s one of those writing tips that pops up everywhere–on lists of writing advice, in quotes bequeathed to us by the masters of writing, and even from the mouths of our teachers and professors: carry a notebook at all times.
After all, you never know when a great idea will strike. It would be awful to lose an idea just because you couldn’t write it down. And you never know when you’ll find yourself waiting around with nothing to do. As long as you carry a notebook and a pen, you’ll never forget a brilliant idea and you’ll never be bored.
Plus, you’ll be able to work on your writing projects whenever the opportunity arises. You might write the last line of your novel while standing in line at the grocery store!
But let’s be clear, the notebook isn’t actually necessary. Most of us have smart phones and other mobile devices that are in many ways better than pens and paper notebooks.
Let’s examine this much-loved writing tip a little closer. Just how critical is it that we tote notebooks and pens everywhere we go?
Don’t Leave Home Without It
Experience has taught me that keeping a notebook handy, like so many other writing tips, is more of a guideline than a rule. When I go for walks, I don’t bring a notebook but I do carry my iPhone, which is loaded with apps that I can use for writing and taking notes. In fact, I find that my iPhone is a far more versatile writing tool than any paper notebook.
Paper Notebooks and Pens
In my work as a writer, I must have access to notebooks and pens, and lots of them. I keep notebooks in my car, purse, nightstand, and on my desk. There are pens to accompany all of them. When I’m working through an idea, I have to brainstorm, make lists, and draw sketches. And I find that if I jot something down in a notebook or on a piece of scrap paper, I can set it on my desk or pin it to my bulletin board so that I don’t forget to execute that idea. So for me, writing down an idea is not only about keeping a record of the idea but making sure that I don’t forget to use that idea. For example, if I’m reading the news and come across a name that would be perfect for one of my characters, I jot it down on an index card or sticky note and then I add it to my manuscript later that night during my writing session.
On the other hand, paper and pens are not always the best or most reliable way to record thoughts and ideas. I’ve been stuck with a pen that ran out of ink on more than one occasion, and I’ve found that they are of no use whatsoever when I’m hit with inspiration while driving.
Apps and Gadgets
Admittedly, the better technology becomes, the less I use these paper notebooks and journals. On many occasions, I’ve typed notes into my iPhone instead of writing them on paper. In fact, my iPhone contains a host of apps that make writing and note-taking a breeze. Here are a few examples:
- Evernote is one of the greatest apps ever invented. I have it installed on my computer, phone, and iPad. If I’m running errands and get a writing idea, I can make a note in the app and it will automatically sync across all my devices, which means later that night, when I’m working on my project, the note is already on my computer and ready to be copied and pasted into my manuscript.
- I’m a visual person. I may not be much of an artist but I like to collect images that inspire me, especially images I can use to represent my characters. If I’m away from my desk and I see something that I want to use in my writing, I can snap a picture of it with my phone instead of trying to describe it so that I can remember it.
- The voice recorder on my phone has been an enormous convenience. A few years ago, I used voicemail to capture ideas while I was driving. Now, I can just click on the voice recorder. Coupled with voice-to-text software, this practically allows me to write while I’m driving, which is pretty amazing.
Technology has come a long way but I think it’s only scratched the surface in terms of what it can do for writers. Scrivener, my favorite program for writing book-length projects, is working on an app for the iPad, which I think will be a game changer, especially if it syncs across devices. And although tablets make sketching and brainstorming a lot easier than say, a traditional computer, they still haven’t reached the nuance of working with pen and paper (at least not the mainstream tablets and accessories). I’m looking forward to new technology for writers that is surely coming down the pipeline.
Relying on Memory
I want to say a few words about relying on memory because there are many writers who don’t carry notebooks and who don’t rush to make a record of every single idea that they have. Admittedly, a few years ago, I thought those writers were crazy, but lately, I’ve found that are some benefits to forgoing a notebook. Last year, I filled dozens of pages in a notebook with ideas for a novel and I ended up scrapping all of them. I will say that those ideas were the seeds for future ideas that I did use, but in retrospect, I didn’t really need to write it all down. Now, I often work through scenes and ideas in my mind before committing them to the page.
I don’t know if the following story is true or not, but consider it:
Ludovico Buonarrati, Michelangelo’s father. He was a wealthy man. He had no understanding of the divinity in his son, so he beat him. No child of his was going to use his hands for a living. So, Michelangelo learned not to use his hands. Years later a visiting prince came into Michelangelo’s studio and found the master staring at a single 18 foot block of marble. Then he knew that the rumors were true — that Michelangelo had come in everyday for the last four months, stared at the marble, and gone home for his supper. So the prince asked the obvious — what are you doing? And Michelangelo turned around and looked at him, and whispered, “sto lavorando,” (I’m working). Three years later that block of marble was the statue of David. (source)
A Writer’s Work is Never Done
Do you carry a notebook? A smart phone or other device? How do you keep track of all your ideas? Leave a comment!
It’s not easy to find time to write.
Even professional writers get caught up in paperwork and marketing and have to scramble to get the actual work of writing done.
But with careful planning and better time management, we can all learn how to carve out a little more time for writing.
Here are seven writing tips that will help you make or find more time to write, even if you have a packed schedule.
Writing Tips for Better Productivity
Try a few of these tried-and-true writing tips and productivity techniques and see which ones work for you:
- Make it a point to write first thing every morning. Most people feel refreshed after a good night’s rest (and a hot cup of coffee!) so there’s no better time to get creative than in the a.m. If you can get some writing done before you hop in the shower, you’ll already have made a great start for the day!
- Schedule writing sessions. If you have an over-packed, super busy schedule and your life is dictated by the notes on your calendar, then pen-in your writing time! Even if you can only squeeze in twenty minutes per day, you’ll see a dramatic increase in your output!
- Give yourself a break. Squeezing writing time into breaks and lunches at work can help you increase your daily word count. Even a ten-minute writing binge could mean a huge breakthrough in your plot or that perfect bit of dialogue you’ve been looking for. Because some of our best writing ideas come when we’re enmeshed in other activities, mini writing breaks scattered throughout the day can move your project along in small but significant steps.
- You can do it in the car. Don’t use pen and paper here, folks. Many cell phones are equipped with recording capabilities, and there are freestanding recording devices as well as apps for your smart phone or other mobile device. Use driving time to record your thoughts and you can transcribe them later. Bonus writing tip: Don’t have a recording device? Call yourself and leave a voice mail!
- Sacrifice. Sometimes in life we have to make choices. Give up one of your TV shows and use that time for a weekly writing session. Reconsider accepting every single party invitation, and ask yourself if extra-curricular activities like playing on a community softball league are more important than getting your writing done.
- Ask for help. If you have too much on your plate and simply cannot find time to write, try delegating other tasks to friends, co-workers, and family members. This will free up time in your schedule that you can devote to writing.
- Turn off the internet. Need I say more?
Do you have any writing tips or tricks of your own that might help others find more time to write? Please share them in the comments.
Writers are human, and sometimes we make mistakes. You’re probably aware of the most common mistakes in writing: comma splices, run-on sentences, mixing up homophones, and a variety of other broken grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules.
In my editing and coaching work, I’ve noticed another common mistake: redundancy. Sometimes, we use repetition effectively, but most of the time, by saying the same thing twice, we’re littering our writing with unnecessary verbiage. If we remove the excess, we can improve our writing by making it more concise.
Understanding and Identifying Redundancies
Dictionary.com defines redundancy as a noun meaning “superfluous repetition or overlapping, especially of words.” Its cousin, the adjective redundant, means “characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas” or “exceeding what is usual or natural.”
Sometimes we clutter our writing without realizing it. We do this to fulfill word counts, to give our prose rhythm and meter, or to be descriptive. Sometimes we do it because we’re using writing as a tool to discover our thoughts and ideas.
There’s nothing wrong with cluttered writing as long as we unclutter it before putting it in front of readers.
One of the easiest ways to identify redundant language is to ask whether we can remove it without losing meaning. Here is an example:
The lecture was boring and dull. It was putting Olivia to sleep.
The words “boring” and “dull” mean the same thing. We are told a third time that the lecture was a drag because it lulled Olivia to sleep. We can remove most of the first sentence without losing any details or changing its meaning:
The lecture was putting Olivia to sleep.
Redundancies can also be identified through repetition. However, repetition means using the same word or phrase more than once whereas redundancy means saying the same thing more than once. It’s a subtle but significant difference. Also, repetition and redundancy can occur together:
Charlie smiled as he approached the cheese platter. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
We see Charlie approaching the cheese platter. When he selects brie and Gouda, it’s implied that he selected them from the cheese platter (because we just saw him approaching it), so it’s unnecessary for the narrative to say that he chose them “from the cheese platter.” The narrative is redundant because it’s not necessary to mention the cheese platter twice:
Charlie smiled as he approached the hors d’ouvres table. He chose brie and Gouda from the cheese platter and wished they were serving baguettes instead of crackers.
Some redundancies are difficult to spot, especially in cases where the exact same word or phrase isn’t used:
Donna realized she was hungry. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” she said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
When Donna says she hasn’t eaten since breakfast and suggests grabbing a pizza, the reader will conclude that she’s hungry, so the narrative doesn’t need to tell the reader that Donna is hungry in the previous sentence. When information is revealed through dialogue, it doesn’t need to be stated in the narrative as well:
“I haven’t eaten since breakfast,” Donna said. “Want to grab a pizza?”
As you can see, it’s pretty clear that Donna is hungry without the narrative explicitly saying so.
In addition to broad redundancies, there are a host of redundant phrases that pop up in writing. For example, it’s redundant to say “let’s collaborate together” because collaboration is, by definition, done together. Here’s a list of 50 redundant phrases to avoid in writing. Read through the list and see if you can find a few phrases you didn’t realize were redundant.
Eliminating Redundancies to Improve Your Writing
Try this for practice: choose a recently finished piece and review it, looking for redundancies. Highlight them, then make another copy of the piece, editing the redundancies out. If you catch an average of one redundancy per page (or more), then plan on dedicating one proofreading pass to eliminating redundancies as one of your editing and proofreading steps. After a few passes, you’ll start to catch redundancies in the drafting phase and eventually, you’ll break the habit and improve your writing.
Are redundancies one of your bad writing habits? Have you ever caught a glaring redundancy in a piece of your writing? Do you think you might have missed a few redundancies?
Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers. Adjectives modify nouns whereas adverbs modify verbs, other adverbs, adjectives, phrases, and clauses. In fact, an adverb can modify an entire sentence. This gives adverbs a rather large playing field; maybe that explains why they are overused.
For example, car is a noun and red is an adjective. Put them together and you get a red car. The word run is a verb and the word quickly is an adverb. Put them together and you get run quickly.
But run quickly is better stated as sprint.
The examples above demonstrate why adjectives can be useful in writing and why adverbs are usually useless. Too often, adverbs are unnecessary and serve only to clutter a piece of writing.
Why Adverbs Are Weak and How They Weaken Your Writing
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King
Here’s a list of 3732 adverbs. The vast majority of them end in -ly, and these are among the most useless adverbs although they are often cited as examples. Ask someone how to identify an adverb and they’ll either tell you it modifies a verb or it’s one of those words that ends in -ly. Why are adverbs that end in -ly so awful? I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at an example sentence:
“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked flirtatiously.
It’s a horrid sentence. The adverb flirtatiously is practically an insult to readers. It tells them how she asked the question when instead, it should show how she asked:
“Why don’t you come over here and sit by me?” she asked, batting her eyelashes.
It may not be the greatest sentence ever written, but showing the character batting her eyelashes is a lot better than telling readers she asked a question flirtatiously.
Most adverbs either tell us what we already know or use too many words to communicate an image or idea. Let’s look at an adverb that modifies an adjective:
It’s a very warm day.
Once we write that a day is warm, does it being very warm change the day in the reader’s mind? The word very does nothing other than intensify the word that follows it and it does so poorly. Often, the word very and the word it modifies can both be eliminated and replaced with a single word that is more precise:
It’s a hot day.
In this sentence, we don’t need the word very or the word warm. The word hot does the job. It’s clearer and more concise, which is the mark of strong writing.
Writing Tips for Using Adverbs Wisely
“Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” ~ Mark Twain
I’m always on the lookout for unnecessary words in my own writing. I find that seeking out adverbs is a good way to discover words I can cut to tighten my prose. I may not catch them all but I sure try. Here are some guidelines I apply when dealing with adverbs:
- Don’t be lazy. Choosing the right word is never a waste of time.
- Stay away from adverbs that state the obvious. One does not scream loudly because by definition, screaming is done loudly.
- If a sentence is too short, don’t add a bunch of adverbs (or adjectives) to make it longer.
- Train your eye to catch adverbs when you’re editing and proofreading.
- When you spot an adverb, do your best to rewrite the sentence without it.
- Only use an adverb if it’s necessary and you can’t convey the same meaning without it.
- Avoid vague or non-descriptive adverbs. Ask whether the adverb tells the reader something that you can show through imagery and description.
- Don’t use an adverb as a crutch for a verb (or any other word). Look for a better verb. If necessary, write a better sentence.
- Sometimes, when you eliminate a single adverb, you have to replace it with several words. It took three words (batting her eyelashes) to replace one adverb (flirtatiously) but the sentence became clearer and more vivid.
- Don’t be redundant. One does not stealthily creep because to creep is to move with stealth.
- When you do use adverbs, use them intentionally and with purpose.
- Make it a goal to never use the words very or really.
Are You Overusing Adverbs?
Here’s an exercise you can do to gauge your use of adverbs:
Dig through your writing and find a final draft that has been edited and proofread. Go through and highlight every adverb. Ask a friend to check it and see if you missed any. How many adverbs did you find? How many adverbs were there per 100 words? Per 1000? Remove each adverb and ask whether doing so changes the meaning of the sentence. If it does change the meaning, then rewrite the sentence without an adverb. Now compare the original sentences with the adverbs intact to the new sentences that don’t have any adverbs. Which ones are better?
So, when is it okay to use an adverb? When you absolutely must. Here are some examples of sentences that use adverbs well (the adverbs are italicized):
Congress recently passed a new law.
She entered the room silently.
He drives a dark green sedan.
As you can see, sometimes we need adverbs. We just need to use them sparingly, which is a good rule of thumb for using words in general.
Are you attuned to how you use adverbs in your writing? Have you ever visited an old piece of writing and found it littered with unnecessary words? Do you have any writing tips to help other writers use adverbs wisely (or not at all)? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and keep writing.
I’m a pretty organized person. Over the years, I have spent countless hours reorganizing everything from the kitchen cupboards to my clothes-packed closet. Now, I’m turning all that organizing into a set of writing tips that you can use to get organized too.
People look at me strangely whenever I offer to help reorganize their garages, but it’s a process I enjoy. When you organize your stuff and your space, your mind feels calmer and more organized too. You can think more clearly, and that feels good.
I’ve spent a lot of time organizing all my writing projects and have developed a few good methods for keeping things in order.
Basically, all of my writing exists in two formats: print and digital. Years ago, I kept hard copies of everything, and tried many methods from file folders to binders.
As I tried each organizational method, I would figure out what worked well and what didn’t work at all. Now, most of my work is stored digitally, but I do still keep some old hard copies stashed away.
Since I put so much thought into how I organized my own projects, I thoughts I’d share my organizational writing tips so you can learn from all my hard work.
Writing Tips for Organizing Printed Material
After trying many different strategies for organizing hard copies, I realized that binders are the way to go. Why?
- You can purchase thick 3-5″ binders and cram in as much as possible.
- Organizing is easy with tabbed dividers.
- The pages go in and out easily by opening the rings.
- Clear-cover binders can be customized with fancy spine and cover inserts.
- There are a host of binder accessories available, from bags that hold pens and pencils to folders that you can clip in for holding pages that aren’t hole-punched.
Eventually, more and more of what I’d written was in the digital format. The material in my binders became dated and being environmentally conscious, I started opting to do regular electronic backups over the antiquated print method.
Writing Tips for Organizing Electronic Files
I’ve struggled with how to organize my electronic writing folder. For some reason, printed materials are easier to group and label. By using subfolders, I’ve been able to create navigable directories that make it easy to find anything and everything I’ve written.
Here’s what I’ve got so far:
- Notes and Ideas: a collection of notes that I’ve typed from my college days, story ideas, brainstorming sessions, and writing tips I’ve saved.
- Completed Works: ready to be sent out or published.
- In Progress: anything that is not polished, with subfolders:
- Journals and Freewrites: pretty self-explanatory and very password protected.
- Blogs and Internet: copies of my blog posts and related notes.
- Feedback: feedback and critiques that I have given and received.
- Submissions: copies of work that I’ve submitted along with a spreadsheet for tracking submissions.
- Research for Writing Projects: information that I’ve found online and have saved because I think it might come in handy someday for one of my projects. Now that I use Evernote to clip material from the web, this folder has become an archive.
I reorganize this whole mess about once a year. I just went through it a couple of weeks ago and did a little clean-up, and I found that this system works well for keeping files where I can find them quickly and easily.
Tell me, how do you keep your writing files organized? Share your organizational writing tips in the comments!
Have you ever seen the movie Throw Momma From the Train? It’s a classic 80s comedy about the hilarious misadventures of a writing instructor (Billy Crystal) and one of his students (Danny Devito). When the film opens, Billy Crystal’s character is suffering from an extreme case of writer’s block. In fact, he can’t complete the first sentence of his next novel: The night was…
The character’s search for the perfect word to finish the sentence persists throughout the film (as a sub-plot): The night was hot. The night was hot and wet. The night was humid. The night was cold. The night was foggy. The night was dry.
Of course in the real world, we can solve such problems by using a thesaurus, but in the movie, this quest for the perfect word provokes a lot of frustration from the character (and laughs from the audience). He does eventually find the ideal word, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out what word he ends up with and where he gets it.
The Right Word
Billy Crystal’s search for the perfect word in Throw Momma from the Train is one of my favorite film representations of what it means to be a writer. Finding the right word can breathe life into an otherwise lifeless sentence. When we choose words carefully, our writing is clearer and more meaningful.
Of all the tools and techniques that we writers use, none are as critical as our raw materials, our basic building blocks: words. A riveting story will fall flat on its face if readers can’t make sense of it. A thought-provoking essay will be handily dismissed if the language doesn’t clearly communicate the writer’s ideas and intentions. And poetry, which especially emphasizes word choice, is intolerant of lazy writing and poor word choices.
I believe the two greatest goals in word choice are to be clear and concise. Certainly, there are people who pride themselves on reading a convoluted passage dozens of times in order to understand it. However, if a piece needs to read multiple times for basic comprehension, the writer has grossly failed at her sole responsibility, which is to communicate.
How to Make the Best Possible Word Choices
Fortunately, there are plenty of tools and techniques that you can use to make the best possible word choices. Here are some simple writing tips to help make your writing clear and coherent:
- Dictionary: make sure each word means what you need it to mean. If you’re not 100% sure about a word’s meaning, look it up in the dictionary. Watch out for homophones!
- Accuracy: every word should convey your meaning accurately. Precision leads to greater clarity, so use the most precise words available. There’s no such color as dull black. It’s charcoal.
- Connotation: connotation goes hand in hand with accuracy and precision. Be aware of each word’s deeper meaning. For example, when people are cheap, the connotation implies that they are stingy, but people who are economical have smart spending habits.
- Necessity: is every word and every sentence absolutely necessary? In my editing work, it’s not unusual for me to cut 50 or more words from a 1000-word piece. If a word (or phrase) isn’t essential, delete it.
- Aesthetics: sometimes there are several different words that will do the job. Other times, there are a variety of ways you can arrange words or sentences. In cases like these, the decision may come down to musicality. Be considerate of how each word sounds.
- Clarity: clarity is the ultimate goal of communication. If the writing is unclear, communication will be unsuccessful. Make sure your intent is obvious. Don’t be vague and don’t hesitate to rewrite portions of text that lack clarity. Rework it until it makes sense.
- Simplicity: they say less is more, and it’s true. Don’t use a five-syllable word when there’s a perfectly good two-syllable word that will convey the same meaning. Don’t spend paragraphs or pages describing something that could be expressed in a few sentences. Keep it simple!
- Jargon: I love Star Trek but I have no idea what all the techno-babble means. However, it’s necessary to the story, otherwise characters would be saying things like “That thing that makes our starship go is broken.” However, sometimes jargon is used ineffectively and causes confusion for the reader. Use it wisely and with caution (and make sure it’s necessary).
- Loaded language: language is considered loaded when it’s designed to evoke a particular emotional response from the audience through manipulation. It usually involves twisting the truth and is a favorite practice among politicians and pundits. If you have to rely on manipulation to make a point, maybe your point is not worth making.
- Specificity: vague, obscure writing is meaningless. The trick is to strike the right balance between being specific and providing too much detail. For example, you might give a character a star-shaped birthmark below her right ear. That’s specific. However, long fingernails on a middle-aged woman are so common, the detail may be too general and therefore meaningless.
- Be natural: language is most clear when it sounds natural. If the reader has to trip over his tongue to get through a paragraph, your text is in trouble. A great way to make sure the prose is natural is to read it aloud.
- Thesaurus: use a thesaurus to find the best possible word choices for every sentence you write. If a word sounds wrong, feels wrong, or doesn’t have the exact meaning that you intend, find a replacement in the thesaurus. If you can’t find one, then some rewriting may be in order.
Every Word Matters
How much effort do you put into choosing the right words for your writing? Have you ever spent days, weeks, even months, in search of the perfect word? Do you often consult with the thesaurus? Share your word-choice adventures by leaving a comment, and keep writing!