The Basics of Writing
As a writer, there are rules to learn and follow. Some are general rules, some are genre rules, and some rules are specifically for the type of writing you're undertaking.
No matter what kind of writing you're doing, these are the basics you need to know.
Know Your Audience
Before you start any writing project, it's vital that you know who you're writing for. Is the material aimed at:
- Adolescent girls?
- Stressed managers?
- Inquisitive 20-something men?
- Infants learning to read?
- Stay-at-home mothers?
A writer who doesn’t know their audience will likely miss the target.
Knowing the target audience is vital to the marketing of a writer’s work, but it is just as essential to the crafting of it. Imagine picking up a book on dating after a divorce to find that it is written at a grade two level, uses high school slang or dry scientific terminology. That book wouldn't be very successful.
To keep an audience, the writer must make sure they knows who the intended audience is for the project and structure their writing accordingly.
Whether writing fiction, opinion or real life, a writer is creating a space where the reader can enter to learn, emote, imagine and be free from their own troubles and reality. In a large part, the environment that a writer creates determines if the reader stays until the end, returns for another story or even invites others to share the experience.
It’s Not What You Say …
How a writer says things with words has a big impact on how appealing their material will be. While it’s nice to get a feel for the environment and characters, an author can go overboard with descriptive. Instead of spending a paragraph describing the shade, texture and origin of a table, a simple description such as “honey-coloured wood with bevelled edges” will often suffice.
Keep descriptions simple unless it’s important for the reader to know a lot about the item, person or environment. After all, some things are better left to the reader’s imagination.
In an effort to “keep it real” new writers often make the mistake of rambling on after making their point, using too many words to say something or writing the way he or she would speak. These habits can seriously hurt a narrative. Writing needs to flow smoothly and convey ideas smoothly.
So, she goes down to the market to get some of that stinky cheese. She wanted to make that fancy Italian pasta dish for her new beau. See?
While the above is perfectly acceptable as part of a character’s dialogue, a story narrative with such a tone and flavour would quickly lose its novelty.
Show, Don’t Tell
One of the most important skills a writer must have is the ability to show the reader what is happening or how the characters are feeling without actually telling them. There’s a big difference between the effectiveness of:
The shadow scared Hannah so much that she nearly peed her pants.
A shiver raced across Hannah’s sweat-covered spine. Her breath came in quick gasps as she kept her eyes on the shadow. Her bladder convulsed and she clenched her muscles tighter to keep control.
To keep readers engaged, it is vital to paint a picture with descriptions and reactions instead of plying them with flat statements. A writer can create a better reality for the reader by saying:
Robert glanced behind as his hand beat a staccato rhythm against his leg.
Robert was nervous.
Show the reader what the character’s fear (grief, joy, etc.) looks like through action.
The K.I.S.S. Rule (Keep It Simple, Silly!)
Readers want things written in a way that they can understand and relate to, illustrated by the great popularity of the “Dummies” books which take complicated topics and explain them in simple terms that the average person can understand. This applies to all formats of writing, whether novels, screenplays, articles, poems, short stories or stage plays.
The average American reads at a grade 8 level.
This means that a large population of the USA reads at an elementary school level (grades 4-6) while others read at a college level. A writer has to know which group will be reading his or her material. People may not mind reading something below their mental level for entertainment, however they’re not likely to put a book down to go look up a word. Give a reader too many unknown words and they will get bogged down, frustrated or bored. Ideally, a writer should aim for the average.
Unless the target audience has a high level of education or the material is for a specific niche, avoid big words, advance terms or specific jargon. Instead of adulation, write praise or admiration. Instead of oscillate say swing or fluctuate.
Be kind to a reader. Consider replacing:
The cacophony was deafening.
The racket was deafening.
Better yet, follow the Show, Don’t Tell rule from above:
The disjointed belch of gunfire drowned out all other sounds.
When possible, break up longer sentences that have two or more thoughts strung together with “and,” “which,” “because,” “while” and other connector words. Shorter sentences also make it easier for the average reader to follow the flow of the story. The sentence:
Julian wore a white band on his arm, because white signified purity and he believed Mary-Ann’s heart had been pure to the end.
can be made into shorter sentences without losing the integrity of the original intention:
Julian wore a white band on his arm. White signified purity. He believed Mary-Ann’s heart had been pure to the end.
By aiming for a middle ground, an author keeps the material accessible to a wider audience.
A passive voice in writing is akin to a death sentence. In passive writing, the subject is being acted upon instead of the one doing the action.
Active language keeps a story (article, speech, etc.) moving forward.
Passive: A tuffet was sat upon by Little Miss Muffet.
Active: Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet.
It is important to make sure that the person doing the action is the one driving the sentence. In the next example, the car is the one doing the action (the striking) so it is the subject of the sentence.
Passive: The man was struck by a car.
Active: A car struck the man.
Once a writer has a grasp on active writing, it is time to start integrating the other rules.
Passive: The door was opened by Marg.
Active: Marg opened the door.
Active + Show: Marg jerked the door open.
Know what you're talking about. If you don't know firsthand, do your homework. Some ways you can learn more include:
- Online research;
- Ask someone with experience and/or training;
- Read about it in journals and magazines or books from the library;
- Join social media groups where people who have the information you need will answer questions.
Remember: If someone share their experiences with you, be professional. Be thoughtful of their time and show gratitude. You want to leave them with a favourable opinion of you.
When possible, quote your sources, especially if you're writing non-fiction, informational, or opinion pieces.
We’ve all come across a book or article we were excited read only to lose interest part way through.
There are a number of reasons why this may happen, but with the above basics, you can avoid the simple mistakes to become a competent wordsmith. It takes practice, but the results are well worth the effort.
© 2011 Rosa Marchisella