I’m often asked what makes good writing. Is it great storytelling? A plot that has unpredictable twists and turns? Unforgettable characters? The answer to all of the above is yes. All of these things are components of great writing, but they only take into account half of the picture. Writing great fiction requires mastery of storytelling and mastery of language.
A compelling plot with weak writing falls short of its full potential. And the reverse is true too–a boring book is a boring book, no matter how beautifully written.
But today I want to focus on some quick tips to improve the language component of your writing. (I’ll cover some storytelling tips in a later post.) Strong writing establishes trust between author and the reader and I know I’m more likely to give a book a fair chance if the writing is solid. So, to that end, here are three tips to make your writing more effective so that your readers can get lost in your storytelling.
Check for passive voice
Whenever possible, construct your sentences so they are active instead of passive. An example of an active sentence: A dog chased a man. The same sentence with a passive construction would read: A man was chased by a dog.
Do you see how the first version has more vibrancy and movement? Passive voice is weak writing and you should weed it out whenever you can. Quick exercise: go through your manuscript and circle every version of the verb “to be”—be, being, been, is, am, are, were and was. (These verbs often pair up with passive voice.) Are there tons of circles on each page or just a few? If you’ve got a “to be” problem, see if you can swap out the verbs for something else. (See tip number 2.)
Use colorful nouns and verbs
New writers often try to show off their writing prowess with adverbs and adjectives when they should be focusing on nouns and verbs. Here’s a quick grammar refresher:
a noun is a person, place or thing (girl, building, hammer)
a verb is an action word (run, cry, laugh, swim)
an adjective modifies a noun (the young girl, the tall building, the steel hammer)
an adverb modifies either a verb or an adjective (limping run, jagged cry, maniacal laugh, refreshing swim.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with adverbs and adjectives. You’ll need them sometimes to spice up your writing. However, relying on adverbs and adjectives at the expense of vibrant nouns and verbs will make your writing weak. Consider the following example:
She walked slowly toward the car.
Now, there’s nothing terrible about that sentence. It’s clear. We only need to read it once to understand it. But it’s not vibrant and it doesn’t draw us in and make us want to read on. After all, how many ways of walking slowly are there? Did she amble? Strut? Wander? Stroll? Because the writer is relying on the adverb slowly and the incredibly boring verb walked (not to mention the unspecific noun car) this isn’t a particularly strong sentence. Now consider this edited sentence:
She limped toward the Mercedes.
Do you see how the sentence comes alive? Now we have a clear picture in our heads that wasn’t possible with the first sentence. And we also have a sense of mystery. Why is the girl limping? Is this her Mercedes or someone else’s? Is she running away from danger or going toward help?
While there’s nothing wrong with the first sentence, the second is definitely stronger writing. Only use adverbs and adjectives when you really need them and instead rely on colorful nouns and verbs and your writing will get an instant face lift.
Eliminate any dialogue tag that isn’t said or asked
Using a potpourri of dialogue tags is the fastest way to mark your manuscript as the work of an amateur. If your characters are constantly whispering sentences (or sighing them, or groaning them or snorting them) you have a long way to go, baby. You lose credibility with an agent, editor or reader right away and it’s hard to earn that trust back. Your characters should say things. Not sigh things.
A character can chuckle and then say something. Or say something and then chuckle. But she cannot chuckle a sentence. If you don’t believe me, go stand and front of a mirror and act out the following sentence: “John would never date a girl like me,” she chuckled. Could you even understand the words while you expelled them from your mouth while laughing?
Once you recover from your embarrassment, you’ll understand why trying to liven up your writing with wacky dialogue tags backfires and creates unintended ridiculous images for the reader. He said and she said might seem boring, but they’re invisible. They’re like punctuation and the reader’s mind just skips past them. She hissed and he exploded are not invisible.
And please avoid the temptation to spice up said with an adverb. He said sardonically, she said spitefully, etc. It’s lazy writing. You’re trying to tell us something that you failed to show us. Revise until you’ve shown us that your character is angry, so that she need never say something “angrily.”
These three tips will make your writing come alive. Happy revising!