Tag Archives: how to write better

Another guide to good writing

Guides to good writing are a dime a dozen in these parts. But I like reading them. And this seems as good as any a place to collate them. So here are some good principles for better prose from author Janet Fitch.

There are more details on each heading at the original link.

1. Write the sentence, not just the story
Learn to look at your sentences, play with them, make sure there’s music, lots of edges and corners to the sounds. Read your work aloud. Read poetry aloud and try to heighten in every way your sensitivity to the sound and rhythm and shape of sentences… A terrific exercise is to take a paragraph of someone’s writing who has a really strong style, and using their structure, substitute your own words for theirs, and see how they achieved their effects.

2. Pick a better verb
Most people use twenty verbs to describe everything from a run in their stocking to the explosion of an atomic bomb. You know the ones: Was, did, had, made, went, looked… One-size-fits-all looks like crap on anyone.

3. Kill the cliché.
When you’re writing, anything you’ve ever heard or read before is a cliché… You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself. That’s why writing is a lot of work, and demands unflinching honesty.

4. Variety is the key.
Most people write the same sentence over and over again. Try to become stretchy–if you generally write 8 words, throw a 20 word sentence in there, and a few three-word shorties.

5. Explore sentences using dependent clauses.
A dependent clause helps you explore your story by moving you deeper into the sentence… Often the story you’re looking for is inside the sentence. The dependent clause helps you uncover it.

6. Use the landscape.
Always tell us where we are… Use description of landscape to help you establish the emotional tone of the scene. Keep notes of how other authors establish mood and foreshadow events by describing the world around the character.

7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating… Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.

8. Learn to write dialogue.
Dialogue as part of an ongoing world, not just voices in a dark room. Never say the obvious. Skip the meet and greet.

9. Write in scenes.
A scene starts in one place emotionally and ends in another place emotionally. Starts angry, ends embarrassed… Something happens in a scene, whereby the character cannot go back to the way things were before. Make sure to finish a scene before you go on to the next. Make something happen.

10. Torture your protagonist.
We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story.

Six questions that make you a better writer

George Orwell was a good writer. I’ve shared six of his tips for writing before. Here are six questions he says you should ask of every sentence you produce…

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

This is from this feature – writing tips from six greats.
I also love these 11 tips from Elmore Leonard.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
Which can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is back-story, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
For example, thick paragraphs of prose.
11. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

And I love this quote… it reminds me of Jed Bartlett’s “next ten words” debate speech in the West Wing…


“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
– Earnest Hemingway after he was told that Faulkner said he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

Gladwell on writing

I like Malcolm Gladwell. His writing is engaging and he is able to link lots of disparate things together into a cohesive big idea. His books are interesting. I commend them to you…

This article doesn’t really. It goes close. It’s examining the phenomena that is Malcolm Gladwell.

It contains a quote from Gladwell about what writing is. I liked it.

“Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade… It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head–even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.”

Speaking of good writing – I read through the first year and a half of my blog yesterday at work. It was not good writing. I thought about deleting it all. Just in case you’ve ever stumbled through the archives.