Writing is a skill that can be learned, a talent that can be developed, a craft that can be honed, an art that can be mastered, and a profession that can be pursued. But it’s not easy. Like any other skill, talent, craft, art, or profession, it requires training, hard work, and patience … and a little luck (being in the right place at the right time).
And let’s not forget divine intervention. If God has given you a story to write, trust that He has called you at just the right time. He knows how long it takes to learn how to write for publication and how long it will take to develop your talent and hone your skills. He knows what it will take for you to network, make the right connections, and find the right publisher. And He knows exactly who He wants to reach with what He has called you to write.
I like to compare writing to singing. I love to sing, and my voice sounds delightful when I’m alone in my car with the radio blaring. But I wouldn’t dream of asking someone to pay to hear me sing! Not without having a professional singer critique my voice and taking some serious singing lessons.
If you expect someone to buy what you write, you need to take the time to learn how to do it right. Read books on writing. Take a course or two at your local college. Attend a workshop, seminar, or writers conference. Study style guides and market guides and books on grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
And most important, before you send a proposal out to a publishing house, hire a professional editor to check your work! (J)
Here are some of the most common problem areas I’ve encountered as I have critiqued and edited manuscripts.
Adjectives. You need a bit of description so the reader can visualize a scene. But don’t describe every detail.
Adverbs. Replace verb phrases like “he walked slowly” with action verbs like “he crawled” or “he slithered” or “he strode.”
Attributions. Make sure your reader always knows who is speaking, even if simply by adding “Mary said.” The word said is nearly “invisible” when used sparingly, but alternatives should be used occasionally. Narrative description such as “He took a bite of apple pie” provide attribution, description, and a “beat” or pause. Longer narrative descriptions provide longer pauses in dialogue.
Beginnings. The first chapter of a novel needs to “hook” the reader, creating an intense desire to read on. The best way to start a story is to show a character with a problem doing something interesting. In the first few paragraphs, establish the immediate problem that faces your main character, and make it clear why he can’t solve his problem easily. What obstacles lie in his path? What conflicts are likely to arise that will keep your hero from achieving his goal?
Point of View. Don’t switch point of view without a specific purpose for doing so. When point-of-view switches are made, clearly indicate who the new POV character is and briefly describe the new setting. If time has elapsed, let the reader know when the new section takes place.
Profanity. Swear words are a lazy way to express emotions. Take the time to be more creative. Show your character’s anger rather than telling the reader he’s angry by giving him a foul word or two in dialogue. Many publishers today are shying away from excessive profanity because it turns off too many readers. If it important for a character to swear, find imaginative ways to let the reader know that in the narrative.
Scene vs. summary. Scenes are told in “real time.” Readers see events as they happen, rather than after the fact. Scenes have specific locations that are described in enough detail so the reader can picture them. They have physical action. And they usually include dialogue interspersed with narrative. Summary is used to cover spans of time and to provide an overall description of events that are less important than events described in “scenes.” Some plot developments are not important enough to justify scenes. If an event involves only minor characters, or repetitious actions, or small talk, summarize it. If you have a minor event that leads up to a key scene, summarize the first event so that the scene, when it comes, will seem more immediate by contrast.
Sentence/paragraph length. Don’t pack too much into a single sentence. This tends to produce run-ons or long, confusing structures the reader can’t follow. For fast-paced action scenes, use short sentences and paragraphs. For more leisurely, slow-moving scenes, use longer ones.
Show, don’t tell. This is the cardinal rule of fiction writing. Never tell the reader anything that can be more effectively explained by showing. This is particularly true of emotions. For example, if you write, “She was depressed,” that’s telling. If you say she ate an entire carton of cherry-cheesecake ice cream in one sitting, that’s showing. Or maybe she sits at the table, a double-fudge chocolate cake in front of her, and she can’t force herself to eat a single bite. Or if she’s really upset, maybe she picks up the cake (perhaps having just spent a great deal of time and care frosting it) and throws it into the trash. The point is, if you show a character doing something dramatic, you don’t have to tell the reader that character is depressed, or upset, or whatever the emotion might be. You have shown the emotion instead, which is much more powerful.
Transitions. Don’t give your readers what I call “literary whiplash” by jumping from one time, place, or point of view too often or too suddenly. Use transitions such as “A week later …” or “When they arrived …” Or insert a section break (indicated by a single, centered pound sign on an otherwise blank line).
Verbs. Wherever possible, strive to use strong, precise verbs rather than weak, vague verbs. Instead of saying, “They were going,” write, “They went.” Or better yet, show how they went. “They jogged,” “They raced,” “They ambled,” for example. The more description you can fit into a single action verb, the better.
Introduction. Don’t spend too much time talking about yourself (your background, credentials, or personal experiences) or explaining why you wrote this book. Your reader will lose interest if you don’t get to the “real” information as soon as possible.
Explanation. Once you’ve told the reader why something is important, don’t forget to explain how to do it. Show the reader exactly how to solve whatever problem you’ve established.
Organization. Your material must be presented in a logical order. Don’t simply jot down ideas and information as they come to you. Even if your manuscript contains good information, it must be organized in such a way that it makes sense and flows well. Use subheads to break main topics into subtopics. Try making lists. Organize chronologically, in order of occurrence, or some other logical sequence. Then make sure that every paragraph or idea is placed where it best belongs.
Conclusion. Always provide a conclusion, even if it’s just a couple of sentences. One way to conclude is to briefly summarize what you’ve said. Another is to refer back to the beginning. If you opened with an anecdote or analogy, consider closing with a related anecdote or analogy. If you asked a question in the introduction, recap the answer in the conclusion. If you described a process that will benefit the reader, recap those benefits. Your ending should bring closure, wrap up loose ends, and help the reader make sense of what has gone before.
Active vs. Passive. Passive verbs often indicate that a subject exists, or that something happens to the subject. Active verbs describe something a subject does. EXAMPLES: “It is believed by Sue that a curfew must be placed on her son, Matthew” is passive. “Sue believes that she must place a curfew on her son, Matthew” is active.
Clichés, Slang, and Euphemisms. Avoid clichés like the plague. (Take the time to be more original.) Slang words can “date” your manuscript since trendy expressions become obsolete very quickly. Euphemisms (words or phrases used as substitutes for something the writer feels is too blunt or somehow offensive) can sometimes confuse readers.
Conciseness. All unnecessary words and phrases should be eliminated. Compress what you want to say into the fewest possible words. Don’t tell your readers what they already know, don’t need to know, or can figure out on their own.
Flowery writing. Don’t use big words when smaller ones will be more easily understood.
Mechanics. Nothing brands a new writer as an “amateur” more quickly than incorrect spelling, usage, punctuation, and grammar. Follow the link to “Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors” for some tips in these areas.
Proofread. Reread your work several times to catch typos. Ask a friend or family member to read, as a “second pair of eyes” can often catch things the author doesn’t.
Repetition. Obscure words should not be used more than once or twice in an entire book. Even regular words should not be repeated several times on one page. Vary sentence and structure beginnings.
Spell check. Never rely solely on your computer’s spell checker. If you are not absolutely certain of a word’s spelling, look it up. Check the usage and definition and part of speech to make sure the word you’ve written is really the word you intended.