Ten Things You Can Do To Improve Your Writing
Read outside your interests.
There are over a million books published every year—and that doesn’t count stories just posted on the Internet. Pick up a New York Times bestseller that looks somewhat interesting, and stick with it. Read mysteries? Try a sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Read some literary SF, or non-fiction history about a period that interests you. Almost everything you read will contribute something to your writing and make you a more well-rounded author.
Write outside your interests; challenge yourself.
If you write the same thing over and over, you’ll fall into a rut. Some of the most successful books merge genres, or bring something interesting from one field into another. My books have mixed romance with politics (Volle), a mystery (Pendant of Fortune), and sports (Out of Position), taking something from each of those fields. After reading something outside your normal scope (#1), try writing something related: a murder mystery, or a romance, or a travelogue.
Ask yourself: what does this character want?
Many examples of amateur fiction have the problem of a main character thrust into a plot. A narrative is more engaging when the reader knows that the main character wants something and wants him to get it (or doesn’t want him to get it!). “Here’s a neat character and then WHOA something happens to him” has the potential to lose the reader quickly, unless the “WHOA something happens” is something really bad and the main character needs to escape, in which case it had better happen FAST. Don’t spend two chapters setting up the main character’s life and then take him away from it. We should know within the first page of a short story, or the first chapter of a novel, what the main character wants.
If we don’t, then we’d better be engaged for other reasons. Read J.K. Rowlings’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” At the end of Chapter One, in which Harry is only an infant, we know that:
The Dursleys are very normal people who know about magic and are deathly afraid someone will find out they have a connection to it: namely, Mrs. Dursley’s sister Lily Potter.
A great evil wizard has been vanquished, but not before he killed Lily Potter and her husband.
Their son, Harry, somehow survived.
Harry is going to grow up with the Dursleys so that he does not know how famous he is. All the people who loved his parents and care about him will not see him for years.
So now we are engaged. What’s going to happen to Harry? What killed Voldemort and spared Harry? How will this horrible repressed family treat him? We also want to know more about the wizard world, but what drives us through the series is the personality of Harry, and Dumbledore and Harry’s friends, when we meet them. I think it is probably impossible to read that first chapter and put the book down, saying, “Enh, I don’t really care what happens.”
And all this is established before we even meet Harry and find out what he wants (though we have a pretty good guess, since he’s going to grow up with some fairly nasty people and, presumably, one day find out that an evil wizard killed his parents).
Write a thousand words every day.
If you are going to get better at writing, you need to write. The world is not going to hand you time to write: you need to wrestle with your life and rip an hour from it, or a half hour, every day. Aim for a thousand words and write them on any subject. If your story isn’t flowing, describe your breakfast or your commute or your dinner the previous night. Or start a new story. But keep doing it over and over again.
Use all five senses.
Especially with furry fiction, don’t forget what things smell like. There’s a rule of thumb that says you should mention each of the five senses at least once every page, but that is if you are using a lot of description, and it can seem forced. Most writing is a question of balance: finding enough detail to give the reader the picture of what’s happening without feeding them so much detail that they get bored. So when you are trying to describe a room, or a person, think about what they smell like, what kind of sound they make, what the fabric of the clothing looks like or the fabric of the furniture. Describe the noises the hero can hear in the distance to give color to the location, and tell the reader what taste lingers in the hero’s mouth to give them an idea of what’s on the hero’s mind.
Eliminate most of the passive voice.
This is an old saw that is sometimes discounted because it is so old. But active writing comes across dynamic and more engaging. It’s an easy one to look for: just search on the verb ‘was.’ This goes for descriptions, too, and even past participles (“was X-ing”). Consider:
Samaki was a black fox, and the tip of his tail was white. He was swimming with awkward strokes, but gaining confidence as he went. When he got to the deep end, his progress was stopped by a three-year-old bear cub in a floating raft.
You can eliminate all of these:
Samaki swam awkwardly at first, sending the white tip of his black tail flying from side to side, but as he moved down the pool, the black fox settled down. At the deep end, a three-year-old bear cub floated into his path, making him slow and veer to one side.
Yes, there’s some rewriting necessary besides just eliminating the ‘was.’ That’s part of the point. Which of the openings gives you a more vivid picture, the first or the second? Action should be combined with description whenever possible—don’t force it—as the white-tipped tail is described because it is flying from side to side, not simply because it is. People and narratives are more interesting when they’re doing something.
Eliminate many of your adverbs, especially in dialogue tags.
Stephen King describes adverbs as the crutch of the uncertain author. While they are useful in moderation, they’re certainly one of those things that lends itself to overuse. The reason King describes them as a crutch is that authors sometimes use them as shortcuts to push the character’s attitude at the reader, when you should be able to get the attitude just from the dialogue or from the actions. So it comes off as the author saying, “I’m not sure this came across, but just in case, have an adverb.”
"Amy!" Rick yelled frantically. "We have to go now!"
"I'm not going with my hair looking like this," Amy said icily.
"Mom and Dad won't care what your hair looks like," Rick said, angrily. "They'll care if we're five minutes late."
"If they don't care that I spend five minutes making myself look nicer for them," Amy said haughtily, "then I'd rather not see them at all."
"Amy!" Rick yelled. "Come on, we have to go now!"
"I am not going with my hair looking like this," Amy said.
"Mom and Dad won't give a damn what your hair looks like," Rick said. "They'll be furious if we're five minutes late."
"If they're the kind of people who'd rather we be on time than have me take a few minutes to look good for them," Amy said, "well, then, I don't know why I should bother going at all."
Make each paragraph a separate thought/action.
This seems like an odd one to put in here, but I see a lot of beginning writers who either mash a bunch of things into one paragraph, or split actions across multiple paragraphs. After a while, you get a feel for how to do it, but just as an example, look at the below:
Kory thought he should clean up his room a little, so he pulled all the clothes and towels from the floor into a single pile. He stood and stared at the pile and then gathered it up and took the clothes to the laundry hamper. His floor was strewn with school papers and books, too, so he picked them all up and stacked them in a pile on his desk. The room looked somewhat presentable by the time the front doorbell rang. He ran to answer it before his mother could get there, and threw the door open to see Samaki standing there. The fox was smiling broadly and carrying his own bag of books. “Come on,” Kory said, and hustled the fox across the little bridge and into his room. He closed the door behind them and then pulled Samaki close for a hug and a quick kiss.
All of this flows into each other, but it’s made up of four separate thoughts: Kory cleans his room; the doorbell rings; Kory meets Samaki at the door; Kory kisses Samaki in his room. It would be better rewritten as below:
Kory thought he should clean up his room a little, so he pulled all the clothes and towels from the floor into a single pile. He stood and stared at the pile and then gathered it up and took the clothes to the laundry hamper. His floor was strewn with school papers and books, too, so he picked them all up and stacked them in a pile on his desk.
The room looked somewhat presentable by the time the front doorbell rang. He ran to answer it before his mother could get there, and threw the door open.
Samaki stood there, smiling broadly and carrying his own bag of books. “Come on,” Kory said, and hustled the fox across the little bridge and into his room.
He closed the door behind them and then pulled Samaki close for a hug and a quick kiss.
Some notes: you’ll note that the “Samaki’s standing at the door” was rewritten for flow. The line where Kory “hustled the fox across the little bridge” could go either in the third or fourth paragraph; I chose the third because not much else is happening there. You could also (with a little rewriting) move the “Samaki stood there” sentence up to the second paragraph and then combine the third and fourth. But I like this construction because when Kory opens the door, it ends an action/thought. Samaki standing at the door is a new thing.
Find a ‘writing buddy’ whose passion and interest matches yours.
You may not have a lot of control over this one, but keep putting your writing out there in public. Respond to people and take note of the ones who offer you good feedback. And visit posts other people make showcasing their writing. If they ask for critique, give them critique on a level you’d like to get.
Read your work out loud.
This can feel awkward, but you will catch so many more things when you have to say each word that you will be stunned by it. When you write, you read the words to yourself, of course, but when you don’t engage your brain in thinking about each word, you will smooth it out in your mind and think it reads just fine. So don’t just read the words to yourself in your head. Speak them out loud. If you have to shut yourself in your bedroom and do it alone, do that. If you have a friend who doesn’t mind you reading your stories to them, that’s a great chance to do it.