Five Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing
When we fall in love with a book, we’re not always sure why. We might say it's the characters, the storyline—but it’s hard to pinpoint just what we love about it. Usually it just feels great. How does that happen?
Believe it or not, whatever the genre, there are probably similarities among our favorite authors' diverse writing styles.
Here are five simple tips even newbie authors can start doing today to become better writers.
1. Use the active rather than passive voice.
Nothing dulls a description like writing about it in the passive voice. Look at these two sentences:
- The sound of a child moaning in the room next door was heard by Shayla.
- Shayla heard the sound of a child moaning in the room next door.
In the active voice, the subject performs an action (Shayla heard…). In the passive, the subject is acted upon by the verb (…was heard by Shayla). Watch how you use ‘was/were’ and ‘is/are’ as those will often signal a passive sentence construction. The active voice is direct, clear, and more impactful. Using it as much as possible will keep your writing sharp.
2. Be specific.
Specific details give your writing clarity, authority and a tangibility your readers can connect to their own experience. Cliché’s and overused phrases tend to water down the potency of a narrative description, making it bland and unmemorable.
If you want to describe a garden, instead of saying it contained ‘lots of colorful flowers’, say ‘dozens of yellow marigolds, orange poppies and red tulips.’ With specifics the reader is able see the exact picture you’re painting, rather than having to fill in their own details.
3. Eliminate the fluff.
Overusing words like very, incredibly, and totally to add emphasis makes for fluffy prose. While it’s tempting to think those extra words make your writing stronger, the truth is they clutter and weaken it. Challenge yourself to use more specific descriptors, and leave out the extraneous adverbs.
Mark Twain once advised writers to replace words like ‘very’ with ‘damn’, that way their editor would remove them and their writing would be better for it. I’d say that’s damn good advice.
4. Vary your sentence length.
While most experts advise using short sentences in blog posts and articles, when writing books it’s more effective to use a variety of sentence lengths. Too many short ones in a row can feel choppy and abrupt. Several long sentences strung together can be exhausting for a reader and make them lose interest.
Mix it up. Create a natural sounding rhythm in your writing by using sentences of not only different lengths but varying structures as well. For instance, instead of always starting with the subject, try beginning some sentences with a verb or adjective phrase.
Hint: Reading your writing out loud is a great way to check for this!
5. Show don’t tell.
This is the mother of all writing tips, and if you haven’t heard of it were you even paying attention in your high school English class?
Don’t TELL us a character was nervous at the party, SHOW us her sweaty armpits, her indulgence in one-too-many-cocktails, her stuttered attempts at small talk. And while we’re at it, my most recent 'show-don't-tell' pet peeves are awkward and amazing. Can we please eliminate these overused descriptors, and, instead, illustrate them with actions and behaviors? Your readers will thank you.
Seasoned writers tend to follow these tried-and-true practices, and the result is that their writing feels effortless. Try implementing one or two at a time, until they're second nature, then introduce another and another, until you get comfortable with all of them. You'll know you've reached the gold standard of writing when your readers say, it just feels right.