The Basics of Writing
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!)
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.
Rewrite these passive sentences as active ones.
- The city was shaken by an earthquake.
- A new security measure was set up by the airport.
- A number of things were stolen by the thief.
Rewrite each sentence following the K.I.S.S. rules.
- The secretary was a behemoth with florescent pink lipstick and matching nail polish that clashed garishly with her out-dated pantsuit.
- The cat licked his tail, ruffling his stripes in odd directions while still maintaining an air of grandeur.
- While watching television, Matt thought he heard a news reporter announce the escape of a bank robber he’d known in school, but had misheard.
Write one paragraph for each so that you show instead of tell.
- Maria is about to meet her blind date. Show her nervousness.
- Adam is in an art gallery. Show how he feels about the painting he is looking at.
- A squirrel is foraging for nuts. Show his reaction to a passing child.
More Writing Tips
© 2011 Rosa Marchisella