Five Tips for Stronger Writing
By Jennifer Slattery
As an editor-for-hire working under Tiffany Colter, I see a lot of writing—good writing, beginning writing, and all stages in between. I’ve learned, most often, strong books and stories are but a few tweaks away. Today I’ll offer a few freebies—some snippets I share with paying clients—on how to take your writing from good to great.
1. Give your reader credit.
As writers, we want to make sure our reader understands what we’re trying to say, catches the foreshadowing, correctly reads the intended emotion, so we slam them with an abundance of colorless words. Then we repeat the idea again. And again. And again. There’s nothing worse than reading something numerous times, even if it’s presented in a new way. Give your readers credit and expect them to pick up on your message the first time. Most of them will catch the frown, the shift, the narrowed eyes, the chill breeze, and will feel quite proud at having done so.
For non-fiction, keep similar ideas lumped together and present them in a concise and clear manner. After each chapter, ask yourself: “What information or idea does this paragraph provide and have I already presented that in a previous chapter or section?” If so, delete. (Starting with an outline is imperative!) When writing chapter summaries, remember you’ve already sufficiently expanded on the idea. Now’s not the time to rephrase everything, but instead, to briefly recap key points.
2. Be original.
This applies to big-picture content as well as words and phrases. Avoid clichés and find unique ways to phrase things instead. I’ve read about enough stomach flutters and racing pulses to give me a migraine. The occasional stomach upset is okay, but skilled writers go beyond the common descriptions, perusing psychological sites and body language books to find other equally telling, less clichéd physiological responses.
Speaking of originality, take the time to add unexpected twists to your books or novels. Scan your local newspaper, stalk your neighbors—whatever you need to do to move out of the Sunday School classroom into an area not yet explored. And keep me guessing. If I know what you’re going to say or how the conflict will resolve before I finish the book, why do I need to finish it? This can be difficult for novel writers. When crafting a novel, the writer needs to move the story toward an emotionally satisfying ending. But you still need to keep the reader guessing. As your hero and heroine move toward happily-ever-after, throw a few obstacles in their way. Create a reader expectation, then flip things. Give them a reason to turn that next page…otherwise they won’t.
3. Address a felt need.
This is true for novel and non-fiction writing. If you want people to talk about your books, articles, and blog posts (i.e., if you want to generate a book-selling buzz), you need to hit readers where it counts—at their heart. What do people long for and how can you bring that into your writing? For fiction, it’s often best to have one of your main characters struggle with that need. For example, your hero could be nearing a mid-life crisis. What does he need? Purpose? A dream to believe in? Something to live for? Or perhaps your heroine is lonely, or lugging around baggage and longing for freedom.
But again, don’t slam your reader over the head with this. “Jane longed for freedom from the emotional scars plaguing her….” Gag! Instead, weave hints throughout your novel, perhaps a glance toward a fun-loving couple, a tear after reading an emotive poem, a sifting through old mementos. And remember, you’ve got an entire novel to introduce your characters to your readers. By itself, each clue may seem insignificant, but over the course of a story, they paint a vivid picture. Be creative and contemplative, asking yourself what events, scenes, or objects can convey whatever emotion or need you’re trying to express.
For non-fiction writing, there are two ways to address a felt need. You can either tell your story, including your struggles and lessons learned along the way, or you can create a point-by-point informative book that presents a problem (loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression) then provides step-by-step solutions or aids. Regardless, the information presented needs to have value *to the reader*. It needs to move beyond a personal life history essay, because honestly, unless you’re Steven Curtis Chapman or Michael Jordan, no one cares.
4. Connect the dots for your reader.
You’ve got a story to tell, one you believe can inspire and encourage others, one with significant meaning to you. Unless you find ways to connect your readers, to show them how your story relates to their life, your account will be little more than a “What I did last summer” essay. Boring! This points back to that *felt need* and requires a bit of work—of knowing your audience.
5. Make sure every word packs a punch.
The best writing is clear and concise. Why take two paragraphs to state something that can be said in one? Why use ten words when five will do? For example, spoke softly can become whispered. Nodded her head simply nodded. Do we need to know a smile “graced her lips”? Where else would a smile appear? On her foot?
Speaking of clarity, whenever possible, use words that evoke images or stir emotions. For example, don’t tell us he sat in the shade of the tree. Name the tree so we can see it. Don’t tell us her perfume smelled sweet. Describe the scent so we can smell it. The young child you describe resting in his mother’s arms, is he a toddler or an infant?
In a nutshell, great writing takes work, knowledge, and perseverance. Select each word, each plot or idea, carefully, and take the time to get to know your reader. Address a felt need and do so with creativity, immersing your reader in your book and giving them every reason to turn that next page. Doing so will add punch and emotive value to your work which in turn will create a loyal readership.