Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 8:33 am

If you’ve known me for a little while, you know that I’m a big fan of tight, concise writing. So I asked some of my writing friends for their best short bits of writing advice. Here they are, along with some of my own, and some from well-known writers. I’d love a few things from you in response:

1. Add your own! This could be general advice about the art of writing, getting inspired, finding the best writing atmosphere…or about the mechanics of writing: grammar or spelling tips, for example…or about moving past writers’ block…or about crafting characters, plots, conflicts and the like. My only rule (and I guarantee that some people will breeze right past this one)—it has to be 15 words or less.

2. Comment about the pieces of advice that resonate with you (or perhaps the ones that don’t).

3. More ideas for future lessons, please—what would you like to know more about to improve your writing? No grammar questions, please, but I’m happy to cover literary terms, writing devices like figurative language or other writing ‘tricks of the trade,’ questions about characteristics of different genres…specific questions about writing for the Writing Challenge—you get the idea.

Here they are, then—writing tips from some of the best writers around.

• Avoid starting a piece with dialog. (Jan)

• Step away from your desk occasionally. Listen, watch, feel life with a writer’s mind. (FaithWriter Yvonne Blake)

• Don’t use dictionary definitions anywhere in your writing—ever. (Jan)

• What you write today might never get read. Write it anyway. (FaithWriter Theresa Santy)

• Never use a long word where a short one will do. (George Orwell)

• Readers don’t consult dictionaries if they don’t know a word. Be sparing with the thesaurus. (FaithWriter Rick Higginson)

• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (George Orwell)

• If you’re tempted to write an “it was only a dream” ending, resist the temptation. (Jan)

• Strike ‘to be’ verbs from sentences to force active verb use that transforms your work. (FaithWriter Sydney Avey)

• If it sounds like writing…re-write it. (Elmore Leonard)

• Basic plot: character wants something difficult to get, character struggles, character gets it. (Jan)

• Read your work out loud, even if it’s only to yourself. (Mimi Johnson, my cousin’s wife who is a published writer. Similar suggestions from my cousin Steve Buttry (a journalist) and FaithWriter Joanne Sher.)

• Think: how will readers expect this to end? Then write a different ending. (Jan)

• As a writer, you should not judge. You should understand. (Ernest Hemingway)

• If you're afraid you'll go over word count, write the whole story first, then cut. (FaithWriter Allison Egley)

• When writing, keep chocolate [note from Jan: Fair Trade chocolate, please] on hand. It feeds the muse. (FaithWriter Hanne Moon)

• Proofread forward for grammar and context, but backward for spelling. (Susan Sherman, my friend. Similar advice from FaithWriter Pat Guy)

• Use a word frequency counter like this one to see if you overuse certain words. (Jan)

• Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time…write up, not down. (E. B. White)

• Write, write, write. You can edit later. (FaithWriter Helen Paynter)

• Learn the rules before you break the rules. (Jan)

• Cut out all exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

• You can only write as well as you read. Read beyond your own reflection. (FaithWriter Chely Roach)

• Try composing in your head while you take a good, brisk walk. (Jan)

• You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. (Jack London)

• Never submit your first draft. That’s why it’s called a ‘rough draft.’ Editing is essential. (FaithWriter Lyn Britton).

• If you’ve read or heard a phrase before, think of another way to write it. (Jan)

• Some rules should never be broken; break the rest. Occasionally. Deliberately, for effect. Never inadvertently. (FaithWriter Steve Fitschen)

• Break any of these rules rather than saying anything outright barbarous. (George Orwell)

(By the way, you can see this thread and others like it on my Facebook page--Superior Editing Services.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by itsjoanne » Sat Mar 14, 2015 11:19 am

Love them ALL - and adding one (more).

Become your character(s).
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by RedBaron » Sat Mar 14, 2015 2:56 pm

Printed and hung on wall....

“Don't get it right, get it written.”

― James Thurber
<><
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Laurie » Sat Mar 14, 2015 5:44 pm

"If you’ve read or heard a phrase before, think of another way to write it. (Jan)" I remember you sharing this tip in the past, and I've thought of it often. This helps me write better.

Don't rush. Write, then let your ideas simmer. Let a new twist come to mind.

Take a break from a piece, then go back to it with fresh eyes.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Sibermom65 » Sat Mar 14, 2015 7:11 pm

"Avoid starting a piece with dialogue."
Why? What's wrong with using a bit of dialogue as a hook into a story?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 7:25 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:"Avoid starting a piece with dialogue."
Why? What's wrong with using a bit of dialogue as a hook into a story?
Admittedly, this is somewhat of a personal preference--but when I wrote an entire lesson on dialogue a few years ago, I did some online research and found that many publishers dislike it. I was also teaching high school at the time, so I did a survey of the short stories in the literature books for 9th - 12th grades, and I think there were only a dozen or so (out of a few hundred) short stories by accomplished writers that started with dialogue.

I think there are a few reasons: The readers haven't yet met the characters, and they can feel as if they've been beamed into a room with a conversation going on between people they don't know, about circumstances they're not familiar with. This can be mildly disorienting, at best, and the readers either have to hold that conversation in their heads while they're getting acquainted with the characters, or refer back to it.

Also, it's a little bit too "gimmicky"--like the sort of thing a creative writing teacher in school might have taught in a lesson on "interesting ways to open a story" because she's tired of stories that begin with "Once upon a time."

Note, though, that I said avoid opening with dialogue. It's certainly not a rule, as such (although if you're looking to publish, you might check with your publisher/agent/editor to see if this is something that they discourage). I freely admit that it can be effective...sometimes. If it's something that you're very fond of, feel free to keep doing it. (But there are other great ways to hook readers, too.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Allison » Sat Mar 14, 2015 7:30 pm

Sibermom65 wrote:"Avoid starting a piece with dialogue."
Why? What's wrong with using a bit of dialogue as a hook into a story?
Okay. So Jan posted while I was writing this, and pretty much said what I was going to say, but I have an example of what Jan says about "meeting" the characters.

When you start right off with dialogue, it's hard to know who's talking. It's best to give a bit of an "intro" to your character first, even if it's just a tiny sliver of an intro.

Kate sulked into the classroom and slammed her books on the desk. 'I am so sick of this place.'"

That way, you immediately know who's talking, and know something about Kate.

"I am so sick of this place." Kate sulked into the classroom and slammed her books on the desk.

In that first example, you immediately know the tone Kate is using when she says the dialogue. In the second, you may read it as more "disinterested" until you read what Kate was doing. You might even need to go back and re-read the dialogue, to give it the proper tone.

And, like Jan said, it's also a rule you can break. I've done it plenty of times, even in the challenge. But especially in the challenge, it may be best to give that brief intro first, as you don't have many words to spare. You want your reader to know who your characters are as quickly as possible. And also, just because I've done it myself doesn't mean it's always a good idea. :)
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 8:26 pm

Here are a few links to websites that talk about beginning with dialogue (you may have to scroll a bit).

http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-ar ... rt-a-story

http://janefriedman.com/2012/08/03/avoi ... -dialogue/

http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2008/10 ... -with.html

http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/20 ... logue.html (this one presents a nice, balanced point of view)

http://www.glimmertrain.com/b67percy.html

That's probably enough, and I should also note that a Google search will also find you a lot of sites that teach ways to open with dialogue, and promote it as a great technique. I still don't like it, though. (Just me.)
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by TracePezzali » Sat Mar 14, 2015 10:56 pm

I've got an issue I've been chewing on for some time, and every part of me rebels against it.

Apparently publishers only want dialogue to be followed with 'said' rather then any of the other glorious adjectives and verbs that create such specific images in the way dialogue is spoken.

Why do publishers have this preference? Can I disregard it and still be published? I read modern writers and can see they don't stick to that preference, and their writing, in my opinion is better for it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sat Mar 14, 2015 11:30 pm

TracePezzali wrote:I've got an issue I've been chewing on for some time, and every part of me rebels against it.

Apparently publishers only want dialogue to be followed with 'said' rather then any of the other glorious adjectives and verbs that create such specific images in the way dialogue is spoken.

Why do publishers have this preference? Can I disregard it and still be published? I read modern writers and can see they don't stick to that preference, and their writing, in my opinion is better for it.
This is another example of a false "rule"--it's perfectly correct to use words other than 'said,' but it should be done in moderation. I'll try to explain why.

First of all, using words like "shouted" or "mumbled" or "cried" or "retorted" sometimes represent taking the easy way out--telling the reader how the character's words were spoken, rather than relying on the character's words themselves to do the work. I'll give you an example (admittedly exaggerated and poorly written):

"That's my brownie!" Jan shouted.
"That's my brownie," Jan whispered.
"That's my brownie," Jan giggled.

Those sentences all use alternatives to "said," and I'm sure those verbs can tell the reader how Jan's speaking. However, contrast those sentences with these:

"If you even look at my brownie, I'll sock you in the nose!" Jan said.
"I'm hiding my brownie in my pocket," Jan said. "Don't let Ben see it."
"This brownie tasted...funny. It reminds me of, oh my gosh, college," Jan said.

I suppose I could have used shouted, whispered, and giggled with those examples, too--but that leads me to my second reason for minimizing use of 'said' substitutes:

People don't read them. I wish I'd saved the link to an article I read; it was by a famous writer (someone whose name is instantly recognizable but unfortunately, not instantly rememberable by me). He said that people generally just glide over dialogue tags, anyway, to get to the next utterance.

Finally--overuse of 'said' substitutes tags one's writing as immature and amateurish. We were probably all given a list of such words when we were in high school and told to use them to make our writing more interesting. If they're overused, though, they just make the writing seem like the writing of a person who has access to a list of 'said' substitutes. That kind of writing is common among earnest high schoolers who are learning writing tricks.

Can you disregard this preference and still be published? Certainly. It's not a rule, after all, just a caution. You can keep some of your 'said' substitutes--just don't overdo it. Use them when your character has said something that really has to have an impact. Also, consider using 'action tags' to serve the same purpose. Something like this:

"I'm hiding my brownie." Jan opened her pocket and let Trace peek inside. "Don't let Ben see it."

If your writing is good enough to be published (and yours certainly is), then your publisher may edit out a few of them, if that's their preference. But a "she muttered" isn't going to be the difference between being published and not being published.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sun Mar 15, 2015 5:16 pm

I'm not sure if I agree with this tip, or perhaps I am mistaking its meaning. "Readers don’t consult dictionaries if they don’t know a word. Be sparing with the thesaurus."

It is almost impossible to use only words that are familiar to all readers. We would have to stop using any regional words and expressions.

I certainly don't suggest that we go out of our way to use obscure words. But sometimes the best word is not one that is universally familiar.

It also depends on what audience the writer wants to reach. I don't feel my intended audience consists of readers who refuse to ever google the meaning of a word.

Again, my apologies if I misunderstood the tip. :)

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sun Mar 15, 2015 5:20 pm

Virgina, I'll see if Rick Higginson has a response to your post--thanks for keeping the dialogue going!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by glorybee » Sun Mar 15, 2015 7:51 pm

Okay, here's what Rick had to say to elaborate on his bit of advice:

I wish the general populace were such that readers would take a moment to look up a word and expand their vocabulary, but my experience tends to confirm that few people will do so.
My friend's advice was actually more extreme and brief than I shared. His comment was simply, "Throw away the thesaurus."

I've amended it over the years to the version I shared. We do need to use different words sometimes, which is why I said, "be SPARING with the thesaurus." On one of my first manuscripts, though, I was having a bit too much fun with the thesaurus, to the end that I used far too many obscure words. While I was just enjoying the beauty of language, it likely would have confused the average reader, and possibly left them with the impression that I was being pretentious and superior - not a good way at all to "hook" our readers.

We also don't want to interrupt our readers' flow by putting them in a position of frequently needing to look up a word. They should be able to immerse themselves into the story without having to jump back into the real world to either Google a definition or grab their hardcopy of Merriam Webster. The more times they have to jump out of the story, the less likely they will be to jump back into it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Cinnamon Bear » Sun Mar 15, 2015 7:56 pm

Jan, thanks for the information.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--SO MANY WRITING TIPS

Post by Laurie » Sun Mar 15, 2015 10:26 pm

I see his point. I will look up a word when I'm reading something, but I don't like having to do it. I can see that in certain scenarios readers would get confused or frustrated with too many unfamiliar words.

On the other hand, we're told not to overuse the same word in a piece. I write non-fiction, and I'm currently working on pieces that are roughly 2000-3000 words long and focus on a single topic. So I could easily overuse the topic word, such as fear, control, guilt, or shame. But in this case, the context is so obvious that I don't think different words will confuse readers. Plus I don't think I use obscure words. For one thing, I don't have that broad of a vocabulary. ;) I have been using the thesaurus a lot, but I don't think I've been choosing unfamiliar words.

I think it's a little different with non-fiction.

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