I started writing this and it really got away from me, in terms of length. So sorry, or, you’re welcome, depending on how you feel about that.
Based on last week’s post about being an Aurealis Award judge and how I found writing ‘style’ to be the most important factor when determining quality, I have tried to write a guide to help you improve your writing style.
Obviously there are people who would debate some of these points. That’s fine, just don’t do it here. Here are my tips to a better writing style:
Show don’t tell:
One of the oldest refrains in writing advice, yet I still meet writers who are confused by exactly what it means. Telling refers to a writing style that feels like someone is repeating a story second hand, as if you are listening to someone tell you about past events. Showing means the reader feels present in the scene, as if it is happening right in front of them.
Imagine you are watching a movie and the heroine is walking down a filthy corridor toward where you both suspect the killer is. The music is tense; the door is slightly ajar... now imagine there is a voice-over saying:
“She’s walking down the corridor. The killer might be in there. She’s afraid. What if he is killing someone RIGHT NOW?”
The scene would be much less tense. In fact, it would be f-ing annoying.
A lot of older stories, particularly fables and myths, have a very ‘telling’ style because that’s how they were designed. People would be sitting around together in a group and the storyteller would be telling everyone about things that supposedly happened somewhere else. They were supposed to feel second hand.
These days, people are used to entertainment in the form of movies and TV. They don’t want to hear a story second hand, they want to see it, feel it, be there for it; as they feel they are during a movie or TV show.
Writing a book in a ‘telling’ style today is much the same as being told by someone else what happened in your favourite TV show last night.
Hopefully now you understand what telling is and why you shouldn’t do it, so here are some examples of HOW to show instead of tell:
Telling: He was cold.
Showing: He shivered, lips turning blue.
Telling: It stroked her face. She’d never been more scared.
Showing: Its coarse fur tickled as it stroked her cheek. She gave an involuntary whimper and piss, hot and stinking, soaked her jeans and pooled around her knees.
The best way to fix this in your writing now is to go through, line by line, and fix it in the second draft stage. After you’ve fixed an entire, 100k novel, line by painful line, you’ll probably have learned your lesson and use more showing in your next first draft.
Deeper character Point of View:
This is a little trickier to explain, so you’re going to have to fumble along with me. Taking the reader deeper into the character POV makes the story more immersive. Often, we use language that keeps the reader one step removed from the character POV. This can be really hard to unlearn too, but it’s worth putting the effort in. The results are quite powerful.
The best way to fix this issue is to try and avoid filler words that tell the reader what the character is thinking/feeling rather than just showing it. EG:
‘She wondered how to avoid it.’
‘It seemed unavoidable.’
The best way to fix this is to make a list of filler words that can indicate a problem and then search through your manuscript, fixing problems as you find them. My non exhaustive list of filer words is:
You may have different habitual filler words to me, so you may have to add more.
Explaining too much:
Lynn Flewelling’s ‘Luck in the Shadows’ opens with these two sentences:
Asengai’s tortures were regular in their habits—they always left off at sunset. Chained again in his corner of the draughty cell, Alec turned his face to the rough stone wall and cried.
Brilliant. Two sentences give us so much information. We know the main character is Alec, we know the villain is Asengai. We know Alex is being tortured and housed in a cold stone cell and has been there for long enough to learn his torturers habits. We know Alec is not the sort of man who is strong and stoic and that probably makes us feel some empathy for him. We know the story is set somewhere with torturers and stone cells, so it’s more likely to be fantasy. There is present action (Alec crying) and a hook/mystery: Who is Alec and why is Asengai having him tortured? She also uses the words ‘his corner of the draughty cell’ and in the next few lines we learn that is because other people are also in the cell, in their respective places.
Two brilliant opening lines. Let’s see if I can re-write them to be shite:
Alec had been captured by Asengai and his guards two weeks ago and chained up in the corner of a cold, draughty cell. The walls were rough stone and the manacles were made of forged steel. Alec was very scared. He wasn’t a brave man, he’d never suffered this sort of treatment before. After they tortured him and chained him up again, he cried.
Same information. Terrible presentation.
You need to be able to recognise the latter in your writing and turn it into the former.
I find one of the best ways to do this is to find bad writing by someone else, choose a paragraph or two and re-write it to be awesome. You probably shouldn’t show your version to the original author. When you have mastered the art of doing it to someone else’s work, it is MUCH easier to fix in your own. We all have a huge blind spot where our own writing is concerned.
This is why giving feedback in writer’s groups is so much more valuable than receiving feedback.
Explaining too little:
Clarity is key to good writing. There is a huge difference between a mystery and being deliberately omissive. You generally want some mysteries in your writing, and I don’t mean a whodunit, I mean some twist or secret the reader is dying to find out. However deliberately confusing the reader, is not a mystery. Hiding elements of the story they would be able to see or hear if they were present, for example, is just frustrating. It takes away from the feeling of immersion. Deliberately hiding elements of setting and character gender or identity isn’t clever, even if it makes your readers feel dumb.
Occasionally it may be tempting to play to a particular audience that is well educated on your topic. However if you do that, you limit your readership. Try and write every scene so it can be understood by, not only an average person, but a tired person, who has just worked a 14 hour shift, is eating a microwave dinner with one hand and is reading your book for a half hour before bed to relax.
However remember to explain well. Reread the above section on ‘explaining too much’ if you have to.
Stephen King talks about this in ‘On Writing’. Things such as ‘omit needless words’, ‘kill adverbs’ and ‘just use the dialogue tag “said” where possible’ all fall into this category. However I think all of those things are just a way of making sentences easier to read and understand. Most of the extreme best sellers, the ones that sell millions of copies, use very simple language and very simple language structure. They are accessible to a broader range of people. They are easy to read. They are, sometimes excessively, easy to understand.
I think each writer needs to find their place between ‘accessibility’ and ‘poetic turn of phrase’. It’s probably a bit simplistic to say it boils down to ‘marketability’ and ‘literary merit’ because I believe the simplistic best sellers do have literary merit, even if it is a different kind of merit to the beautiful-but-tiring-to-read masterpieces. However on a very basic level, when deciding how simple you want your style to be, ask yourself if you want to be read by millions or win awards.
I’m lumping passive voice and copulas together in one boring mishmash here. In passive voice, something is being done to the subject. What you want is the active voice, the subject is doing something. Examples:
Passive: The path was obscured by bushes.
Active: Bushes obscured the path.
Passive: The Frisbee was thrown by Peter.
Active: Peter threw the Frisbee.
Passive: I’ll always remember the first day of summer as the best day of my life.
Active: The first of summer was the best day of my life.
Copulas are according to Websters: “The connecting link between subject and predicate of a proposition”. When it comes to writing, they are the ‘was’ in the first two passive examples. Which is why ‘was’ can be a great word to search for when looking for passive voice in your manuscript.
I could expand on this at lot, but there are better articles on it, by more educated people.
Less words, more atmosphere:
Once an editor said to me: ‘I want you to half the word count in this scene, but make it more descriptive.’
After I stopped quietly hating her, I did it. And I learned an extremely valuable lesson that I am still grateful for. Take this opening paragraph from chapter 16 of Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld:
His Majesty’s London Zoo was squawking like a bag of budgies on fire. Deryn skidded to a halt at the entry gate, stunned by the tumult of hoots and roars and shrieks.
Now my weaker re-write:
All the animals in His Majesty’s London zoo were making noise. Deryn stopped running at the wide entry gates, completely shocked by all the different sounds. She could hear lions and bears roaring, the hoots of monkeys and shrieks of something unidentifiable.
‘Squawking like a bag of budgies on fire’ is much more evocative than ‘making noise’. ‘Skidded to a halt’ is a much more visual description than ‘stopped running’. My rewrite is longer too, though far weaker in terms of interest and atmosphere.
In many cases you will find stronger use of language, even if the word count is much shorter, gives readers a much more complete and intense feel for the scene. Whenever you are editing a description remember:
“Half the word count, but make it more descriptive.”
Giving characters individual voice:
You, as a writer, should have an individual voice. However your characters should also have individual voices. Particularly when it comes to dialogue. If your dialogue is very well written, you should be able to take out all identifying tags and it still be very obvious who is speaking. EG:
“Yeah-nah. He’s a derro fuckin’ ranga, mate.”
“Good evening, Lady Grace. Did you have a pleasant time at the theatre?”
“And he was like, we’re not buying you another phone, Kelsey, and I was like, whatever.”
Three characters, three very strong voices that give you ideas about them, their genders, their station in life and their ages. Different people may form slightly different ideas based on these sentences alone, but within the context of a story they would all be clearly distinguishable from one and other.
If all your characters think and speak the same, you have a big problem.
It is hardest to learn to recognise these problems in your own writing. The best reason to join a writer’s group is not to get feedback on your work, but to have the privilege of learning to edit other people’s. Find someone else who’s work is comparable to yours and see if you can find and point out these issues in a chapter of their work.
Once you get good at recognising these problems in other people’s writing, you will finally start to see them in your own. It takes effort, so don’t be surprised if the first few times you try and apply these suggestions, you come away frustrated, tired and despondent. I did, but then suddenly I ‘got it’ and it stopped being such a struggle.
You can improve your writing. You can take good to amazing. It just takes hard work.