Why am I doing this again?

Simple ways to improve your writing.

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We all start writing for different reasons, but we continue for the same reason. That reason: We want to be better. We want to tell a better story.

Anyone who doesn’t want that quits because it is hard. Brutal, in fact. No one stays in this life for the kicks or the money. They stay for the art.

The desire to perfect writing is there in every writer who keeps going after all the big flops and the rejections. Dear Gods, so many rejections.

While you’re playing around with the fun stuff, it’s a good time to think about craft and the simple mistakes we’re making. That’s what this post is about; Basic Errors.

Passive Language

Lazy vocabulary can kill a paragraph. In describing action, we should be using all our best words. She didn’t just run to the door to escape the man. She fled dragging her injured leg behind her, desperate to escape her would-be killer.

The difference in the picture you’re painting is night and day. Running to the door is ordinary, unimaginative, wooden even. It’s the action in the cold light of day. Sometimes, we run to lose weight, to get somewhere on time, to beat your sister to the end of the block.

The word flee brings up images of escape and gives your reader some emotional context because we don’t flee for no reason. One flees when one is in trouble. There is danger nearby if we’re fleeing, and she’s injured no less. That’s a tight spot we’re in, reader, and the man is now our would-be killer. So we’re running faster now, aren’t we?

It seems obvious, but this is a mistake so many inexperienced writers make. It’s like they are afraid of their own language. You don’t have to be wordy. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s the right words in the right place that makes the difference.

  • Try it. Replace common words with words that give more emotional context.

He walked into the room.

Jonah strolled into the room confident of his reception, sure that Andrea would want to see him again despite their misunderstanding.

What do we know now? We know his name. We know he’s a cocky bastard, right? Or we suspect he is anyway. Because there is apparently some reason to doubt Andrea’s excitement to see him. We know they don’t really get along. This begs the question; why is Jonah so sure of his welcome?

That’s the tantalizing bit at the end. Why is he so certain? That’s the intriguing thought. Is he just that gorgeous? Is he rich, smart, a Nobel laureate? What makes him so special?

Who’s talking?

Start a new paragraph or section by identifying speakers, not with pronouns. Do this consistently as you write and read it back, lest your readers get lost in a see of Hes and Shes. It’s important to read our work back periodically and get a feel for the clarity of our work as we go.

Characters should sound like individuals. You’d be surprised how difficult this can be. Each person you dream up has a life outside your story and that needs to be reflected in their dialogue. So let’s find out what’s up with this Jonah fellow, shall we?

“Hello,” Jonah said. “You were expecting me.” Andrea stared at the man she’d met just yesterday.

“Not really.” Her clipped tone should have been all the warning the man needed to understand her dislike of him and just go away.

“I said I’d be back for a dance lesson.”

“And I said I was booked.”

She watched his eyes travel the studio slowly, arrogantly assessing the emptiness of the room, and then return to her. “I don’t see any students,” he argued.

“I’m between classes.”

“When’s the next one? I’ll sign up for that one.”

She sighed. “It’s booked. They are all booked.”

“How far in advance?”

This guy would not give up, Andrea thought as she forced her teeth not to grind with aggravation. “All of it. The whole summer. I have no openings whatsoever, but thank you, again, for your interest.”

Andrea is aggravated. Andrea is angry. Her words are hard sounding. Her sentences are short. We can see her anger and dislike on the page. We can also see his arrogance in the way he’s unperturbed by her response. We can also see his persistence although we can’t tell if that makes him a bad guy or a good guy. That’s okay, too, because that’s the next thing good writing does.

Don’t give it all away.

In the first few paragraphs, you want readers curious. Even if you aren’t writing a mystery, your writing should have some mystery in it. There’s no need for constant exposition- also known as the info dump where you just unload facts on the reader like you’re working for the city junkyard. There’s time to unravel your story, a few hundred pages in fact.

As a reader, exposition drives me batty. I hate info dumps with a mad passion because they slow the pace of a story and take me out of the action. Best not to, I say.

Homework

Find a picture online that shows an everyday activity. Write a simple sentence stating what you’re seeing. Then, rewrite that sentence in a way that tells the story of the picture and gives you emotional context.

They were the assassins.

Now, they’re targets.

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