Hi everyone. It’s been a while since I posted the writing tips that appear on this blog’s Writing 101 (tips) page so some of you may not know it exists. It contains over 100 writing, editing and layout tips. Below are the first 25…
In my experience too many novice writers worry about finding their ‘voice’ and understanding their ‘craft’ early on. It can be a long journey, perhaps not as long as a million words, but providing you write regularly (daily is the ideal but when does life afford that luxury, although 300 words equates to 100,000 words a year so a great incentive) you’ll get there… and here are a few basics to put in your suitcase:
- One of my most important, and simple tips, is to always carry a notebook (in every jacket pocket / bag) and two pens – in case one doesn’t work – because you never know when inspiration will strike. There’s nothing worse (there probably is, but not for a writer with a brilliant idea) than to have had the best ever thought but have no way of recording it. If you’re like me, it will only take the most simple distraction to lose it… possibly forever.
- Adjectives – Adjectives are, in order: Number, quality, size, age, colour / color, origin, and type. So, if you say you have ten large books, you do not need a comma since ten is a number and large is a size. The adjectives are of the same weight or degree. If, on the other hand, you say you have a shiny, sparkling ring, you will need to put commas between them since shiny and sparkly both describe the quality of the ring.’ Also see ‘Commas’. When comparing using adjectives, the general rule is that if the adjective is short (e.g. black) it should have -er on the end, e.g. it was blacker than he’d expected. If the adjective is long (e.g. attractive), you’d say ‘she was more attractive than he’d expected’. Generally, it’s how it sounds. ‘she was attractiver’ wouldn’t sound right, would it. (please say “no”) :)
- Adverbs – Stephen King’s writing guide / autobiography ‘On writing’ (link on Writing-related) has been the most suggested book in the interviews I’ve conducted. Amongst other things he’s notoriously against adverbs (‘ly’) and fair enough – in ‘completely dead’ you wouldn’t need the ‘completely’ because dead says it all, and a character doesn’t need to be ‘sighing wearily’ because the sighing tells us enough, but adverbs are necessary in the right context. Again it’s all about clarification and fine-tuning. Some great articles on adverbs include https://suite.io/kenneth-burchfiel/1a2b2p0, http://chiseledinrock.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/stupid-writing-rules-watch-adverbs.html, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/how-to-eliminate-adverbs,http://www.writingforward.com/writing-tips/writing-tips-abolish-adverbs, andhttp://www.humankinetics.com/flguideonweb/NitToPick32UnnecessaryAdjAdv.htm.
- Affect vs effect – http://www.elearnenglishlanguage.com/blog/english-mistakes/affect-vs-effect says, “Affect is a verb with several different meanings” (which the page lists) and “Effect is most commonly used a noun”.
- Again – there are often instances where you don’t need the word ‘again’, e.g. as in ‘reminded again’, ‘returned again’ etc. Unless something’s happened more than twice, the verb in those cases say that it’s happened more than once.
- Ago vs before – if you’re writing fiction in the present tense you can say something was ten years ago but if you’re writing in past tense you’d use ‘before’. The easy way to remember the difference is that with past tense, it already happened before today.
- All and both – it’s easy to include the words ‘all’ and ‘both’ when you don’t need them. Say your character is unlocking a car, you don’t need to say ‘all the doors’, just say ‘the doors’. Unless he / she is only unlocking one or, say, half of them, it’s assumed all are unlocked. The same goes with ‘both'; if you have two of something, by saying ‘they’ or ‘them’, you don’t need to include the word ‘both’.
- Among vs amongst – one of the main Daily Writing Tips is http://www.dailywritingtips.com/among-vs-amongst which explains that ‘amongst does seem old-fashioned – but it’s still grammatically correct as an alternative to among. It’s up to you to select which you prefer!’. That’s good news. Just like http://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-difference-between-while-and-whilst saying you can use either, although whilst, like amongst, is deemed old-fashioned.
- Animals – they say never to work with children or animals but at one time or another we write about them. It’s obviously easy to tell whether a child is feminine or masculine but harder to tell the gender if an animal (this is where fantasy writers say, “if they have one”!) so rather than describe the animal / creature as him or her, stick with it, unless the gender is clear / important. ‘It’ is especially useful when you already have a him / her so helps avoid the reader getting confused as to whom the him / her refers.
- Any more vs anymore – if you were to say, “Do you have any more cakes?” then that would be two words. If there aren’t any, the reply would be “I don’t have any more”, but it could also be “I don’t have any cakes anymore” so ‘anymore’ in that instance means time. So remember time is one word (syllable) and quantity is two (syllables).
- Arms’ length or arms’ length – http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/arm’s-length says it should be singular, arm’s length.
- Apostrophes – I could fill this page on when and where to use apostrophes but I’ll let thehttp://www.apostrophe.org.uk/page2.html page explain that (basically yes for possessions e.g. Tom’s hat and abbreviations like it’s for it is – no for plurals e.g. Tom’s hats). When it comes to oddities like 1980s, again it’s referring to several years (1980, 1981 etc) so it’s plural and no apostrophe.
- As vs so/then or because/when – I’ve added this because one of the client novels I was editing had a phrase, ‘he found it as he turned back’ which could be read as him having found it before he turned back (the ‘so’ or ‘then’ version of ‘as’) or that he’d found it when he turned back (the ‘because’ or ‘when’ version of ‘as’). Isn’t the English language great. :)
- Before vs ago – as mentioned above, a common mistake when writing past tense stories is to say that something happened ‘six months ago’. Because you’re writing in past tense you’re already historical so it’s not six months ago from now so you should put ‘six months before’.
- Began to / started to – only have characters begin / start to do something if they’re going to be interrupted. If they do something, have them do it, so just use the active verb e.g. he sang instead of he began to sing / started to sing. Apart from cutting down the word count, it brings the reader (and the character) quicker to the action.
- Beginnings – beginnings should invariably start with the action. Avoid info. dumps where you giving so much to the reader that their brain hurts especially where it’s irrelevant – do they need to know where the main character (protagonist) went to school? Sure, if it’s relevant and if they’re still there, or they’re reflecting back on it for a reason. That said, when you’re writing a first draft it doesn’t matter how you start. It’s often said that an author can either delete (or better still cut / paste into another document) the first two chapters because the action starts in the third. If the first two chapters are important they can be slotted in later. Sure, we need to know who our protagonist is, the dilemma they’re facing, an indication of setting and another character fairly soon as they’re bound to have an interaction with someone else at some stage and it’s often another character (the antagonist) that causes our protagonist the problem”.
- Besides vs beside – http://www.grammar-monster.com/easily_confused/beside_besides.htm has a great explanation on the difference, but basically beside is a synonym for next to or near, and besides is a synonym for furthermore or in addition to.
- Body movements – before you snigger, no, I’m not being smutty! There are phrases connected with the body that can be trimmed, e.g. he shrugged his shoulders, nodded his head, she replied with a big grin on her face. In those instances, the ‘his shoulders’, ‘his head’ and ‘on her face’ can go because the phrases still make sense – we know shrugging can only be done by shoulders, nodding by a character’s head and grins by the face.
- Boredom – this may sound odd but I’d advice against having a character being bored or saying things like “this is boring” because it can encourage the reader to think the same, and perhaps that the writer was when they were writing it. :)
- Both and all – see ‘All and both’ above.
- Capitalisation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitalization#Titles says, “In English, some authors/publishers capitalize the first word and the last word of titles. In addition, they believe that all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions should be capitalized. Articles and coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized, while sources disagree on the capitalisation of prepositions. For example, no prepositions are capitalized in the title of a book, a movie, or a play according to some style guides, for example the Chicago Manual of Style. The APA style guide, for example, however says: Capitalize major words in titles of books and articles within the body of the paper. Conjunctions, articles, and short prepositions are not considered major words; however, capitalize all words of four letters or more.“
- Chapter lengths – how long should your chapters be? It doesn’t matter. James Patterson’s are anywhere between a paragraph or a few pages. Graham Hurley’s 300-page novel Nocturne has three chapters. I’d advise no more than 15-20 pages per chapter so that your reader can read the whole chapter in one sitting (e.g. before going to bed), although hopefully your novel will have such a great hook that they want to keep reading anyway.
- Characters: flaws – all characters should have flaws. No one is perfect, even the good guys (and gals). Most readers will find characters with a disability, however small (a lisp, a limp), endearing. As well as external flaws, your characters can, and should, have internal flaws, e.g. thinking they’re not as attractive as they are, thinking they’re more attractive etc. On the flipside, consider giving your antagonist (the bad guy) a redeemable quality. As the cliché goes, not everything is black and white. What may not appear as a flaw, e.g. a character being particularly tall, could hinder them, e.g. a tall woman trying to find a tall partner. What difficulties would a 2m / 6’6″ man have? Someone taller who has to dip under doorways?
- Characters: names – Character names are important as we often get a sense of their personality by what they’re called. A Mavis is likely to be older than a Britney and would, usually, act differently. Avoid having names starting with the same letter; if you have a Todd talking to a Ted, the reader can easily get confused. Bill and Ted would be fine and as we know, they had a wonderful time back in the late 1980s. Try to avoid starting your sentences with your character’s name, as it can get repetitive and obvious. I’ve often recommended to my editing clients to write a list of their (your) characters in a five-column portrait table: 1. A-Z going down the page (at least two lines per letter); 2. Female first name (& chapter no. if you’re writing a novel); 3. Female surname / chapter no.; 4. Male first name / chapter no.; 5. Male surname / chapter no. As well as ensuring they don’t all start with the same letter, it encourages them (you) to try for the more unusual letters. I have this table in a Word document. Just let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like me to email it to you. Also when you’re greeting or sometimes talking about a character, you often need a comma before their name e.g. “I didn’t know that John” means that you didn’t know a person called John. If you’re talking to John and you’re telling him there was something you didn’t know then you need a comma, e.g. “I didn’t know that, John.”
- Characters: quantity – don’t have too many characters in your stories. Two or three is usually enough for a short story. I read Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes At The Museum for a college course. The novel had about a dozen (eleven, from memory) different female characters. I ended up drawing a family tree (they were all related on the maternal side) and admit I was struggling but I persevered and was very glad I did… she became my favourite living author.
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