I’ve been going over several rough drafts handed in from my writing class, and recently re-read one of my own, driving me to remember the basics of literary writing. For many of you this is going to be so ingrained in your writing psyche that you hardly notice it anymore. For others, this might be new news and something you want to do more research on. If you’re home schooling your kids, this might help you help all those little budding writers out there.
When I first started, I joined several writing groups and took a continuing education class on creative writing. I didn’t get much out of these classes except general discouragement. The difficulties in establishing an environment where people can share their stories and get constructive criticism are vast. What I did get was the basics ground into me. The classes were limited and never got to the roots of whether a story was good or not. All that could be critique were the basics. These are some of the things I learned:
LY Words: -LY words are adverbs. This means they modify or flesh out a concept, person, or thing in your sentence. Too often they’re redundant and profuse in writing. They weaken your ability to communicate. They’re a crutch.
- Example: Jane whispered quietly.
- Problem: The inherit nature of a whisper is that it is quiet. The idea of whispering quietly is redundant and tells the reader nothing.
- Fix: Jane lowered her voice to whisper. A whisper so soft, so subtle, it forced me to lean in closer to catch her words.
This fix is far wordier, yes, but it also creates a richer, more vivid image in the mind of the reader. You can’t remove all the -LY words from your writing, and you shouldn’t. But watch how often you rely on them to explain what’s going on instead of communicating more fully with your reader.
ING Words: These words slow down the action in your writing. They are often connected to Passive words. Many of them can be eliminated easily with some sentence restructuring.
- Example: Jane was swinging her sword around her head and running away at the same time.
- Problem: both -ING words steal the action from the scene. They make it something we are looking down into, instead of something we’re in. Eliminate as many as you can to make the scene stronger and tighter.
- Fix: Jane swung her sword around her head and beat a hasty retreat.
This fix tightens the action giving more emotion and immediacy. It brings you into the action, instead of making you watch the action. You won’t be able to eliminate all the -ING words from your writing because Gerunds and Present Participles have their place. But, watch out for these words. Cut them as often as possible.
Passive words: Any forms of ‘to be’ are passive words. They’re easy to use and harder to get rid of. The easiest one to use is the word “was”, or “is” if you are writing present tense.
- Example: Jane was tired.
- Problem: You can do better than this.
- Fix: Jane experienced a level of exhaustion that words failed to communicate. The pillow, the down comforter, the clean white sheets embraced her as she tumbled into bed.
The fix gives us a far richer, deeper understanding of exactly what Jane feels and senses. You won’t be able to eliminate all the ‘was’ words from your writing, but take a red pen, circle them, and try to get rid of most of them.
Action to the front: As often as you can, move the action to the front of the sentence. If you always have it at the back, you lose most of its power.
- Example: With her blue hair trailing behind her, Jane rushed down the hall.
- Problem: The action your reader needs to know is at the end of the sentence, possibly not even standing out to the reader.
- Fix: Jane rushed down the hall. Her blue hair trailed behind her.
At times, to vary sentence beginning and structure, you will need to move the action to the end of the sentence. But try to keep the action at the forefront. Go edit a paragraph and see how much tighter, crisper, and more fun it is when the action leads the way.
Start each Paragraph/Sentence with a Different Letter: There is an element of reading which is visual, even if we don’t consciously notice it. As you write, make sure you don’t start each sentence or paragraph with the same letter, or word. Nothing bores a reader faster. This is most often seen by starting a sentence with the name of the protagonist or ‘I’ if you’re writing 1st person POV. It tires the reader. The names you choose for your characters can make this more difficult. A protagonist named Henry is a challenge because ‘he’ doesn’t serve as a unique substitute to change up the beginning of the sentence/paragraph. They have the same beginning letters. Same with ‘T’ names and ‘S’ names. They often conflict with ‘the’ and ‘she’. This doesn’t mean avoid them, just know the challenge ahead of you.
Stagger your Sentence Structure: You remember all that annoying diagramming of sentences you did in high school, right? You may not be able to do it anymore, but as a writer, you need to make your sentences different. If each one has ‘and’, or ‘as’, or ‘which’, or ‘that’, you need to change it up. Write long sentences and short ones. Connect two sentences together and break them up. Make sure the Sentences are structured differently.
Don’t repeat Words: Avoid repeating words, big and small. I’m not talking about words like ‘and’, ‘the’ and things like that. I’m talking about words like angry, sky, blue, indispensable.
- Example: Jan skipped through the puddles. Water splashed up on her jeans from the puddle.
- Problem: The use of the word puddle, twice like this, is boring and uncreative.
- Fix: Jane skipped through the puddles. Water splashed her boots and jeans.
This is a very simple and easy example. Some situations are harder, and some you won’t even notice until you go back to edit. You can repeat a word if you are being poetic, and only then. Often you will see poetic uses of repetition in groups of three.
‘Said’ is the Only Repeatable Word: The dialogue tag is the only excessively repeatable word you may use. In fact, studies have shown that readers rarely read the word ‘said’. Their eyes skim this word, don’t read it, often ignore it. They are only interested in who is speaking. Does this mean you should just stop using the word ‘said’ and replace it with more interesting words, descriptions, and sentence structure? No. This slows the reader down. As often as possible, the emotion should be clear in the dialogue.
Show don’t Tell: Almost all these rules boil down to one great rule, the writer’s Prime Directive: Show don’t Tell. Don’t tell me the man is angry. Show me he is angry by the redness of his face, the spittle flying from his lips, the strain against his collar. Or, maybe show me he is angry by how still he sits, how soft his voice has become, and how white his knuckles are as he grips the head of his cane.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. – Anton Chekhov
Once in a while, you have to tell the reader. Showing them would take too long and be distracting from the thrust of the story. 99.9% of the time you need to show the reader. Practice showing first, before you decide you have to tell. When you tell me, instead of show me, you lose the very art of writing. You disconnect me from the story, the heart of what is going on. This is one of the greatest and hardest rules to master as a new writer.
The most important thing to remember in all of this is that these rules are never hard and fast. Rules give you structure for your creativity. You can’t creatively break the rules unless you know the rules. They also don’t apply in first rough drafts. But, I promise you, the longer you write and edit your own work, the more you will try to write this way from the start. If you train your brain to think this way from the beginning, you save time on editing. When you save time on editing, you have more time to write that new story.
I don’t know any published author who hasn’t broken the LY word rule, the ING word rule, or the “was” word rule. Just know how, when, and why you can break them.