Five Tips on Writing and What Happens When You Don’t Follow Them

Five Tips on Writing and What Happens When You Don’t Follow Them

“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” – Jonathan Franzen

I think the quiches are done,” Celia enunciated. She then ambulated to the oven and dethroned the quiches from within, installing the baking sheet on the counter top.

From wordy, to cliché, to downright confusing, sprucing up your prose with more complicated verbs won’t always be an improvement. Less is often more in writing, so put away your thesaurus, and don’t pay any mind to lists that promise “50 Replacements For The Word ‘Said’ That Are Sure To Improve Your Writing!” One of the goals of writing is to convey your thoughts to someone else, perhaps across great distances, or even across time. It’s part of the magic of the craft. Filling up your sentences with complex verbs isn’t going to impress anyone – the opposite – your point is more likely to be lost in all of the excess syllables, and missed entirely by your audience. There will come a time in every story when a less common word necessitates itself, but the rest of the time you need to rely on the content of your writing. Words like “said” can disappear into the text, leaving your reader completely unbothered and moving along just fine. Simple verbs for simple, everyday action will likewise keep your reader moving through the story, getting lost in it, and suspending disbelief, rather than feeling tasked with deciphering your story.

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain

I’m extremely glad that your very important letter arrived super quickly!”

Words like “very” or “extremely” or “really” are meant to quantify, but they fail to do just that. Non-quantifying-quantifiers don’t actually convey much information to your audience at all. If a character says that the water is “very cold,” any given reader might interpret that a different way. To many, the sensation of water any bit below body temperature would seem “very cold,” but others might not describe water as very cold unless it’s near freezing. So what’s the solution? You obviously don’t want to go around giving your readers measurements of everything. “Really scary” is much better than “scary enough to raise my pulse by twenty BPM for two minutes.” But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better than “really scary.” The problem, in seeming contrast to tip #1’s advice, is that the verb is inadequate. If you feel the need to modify the verb with an adverb, especially with a non-quantifying-quantifier, it’s a good sign that your verb just isn’t doing the job on its own. “Really hot” could become “scorching” or “boiling” or “white hot.” You don’t need to provide an exact measurement, but you’re still honing in on a more exact meaning to convey. The reason that this only seems to contrast with tip #1 is that we’re still following the idea that less is more. Cut out all of the uses of “very” or “extremely” or “really,” and you’ll have likely taken your writing a leap in the right direction with nothing more than a few strokes of the pen, or backspace key.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

It was a dark and stormy night… but I slept through it, and the weather has been pretty good lately, so I can’t complain.

All works of art are somewhat autobiographical. Sure, you might be nothing like any of your characters, but your unique experiences, ideas, suffering, insight, have all informed your writing whether consciously or subconsciously. Many believe that there are no new stories, only new takes on the same stories. With the increase in literacy and access to writing over the last few centuries, especially just within the last few decades, there are more stories (or versions of stories) now than ever. But as a writer you are called to make it new. Don’t let your story go untold, draw on your unique experiences to bring something to the craft that couldn’t have existed without you. And I think Maya Angelou’s insight means a great deal more than that. There are some stories which need to be told, maybe you can only do justice by someone by telling their story, maybe you can only shine light on an issue by telling your story, maybe you just owe it to yourself to tell your own story. But these two ideas go hand in hand. The more personal your story is, the more uniquely inspired, the more likely you are to bring something new to the medium.

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The guard rounded the corner into the hallway! “Good evening, sir!” He exclaimed, and continued on his way!!

Words, above most other things, should be able to speak for themselves. Don’t fall into the trap of being overzealous with your punctuation. Pick up any recently acclaimed book, and give it a look through. You’re sure to notice a spareness of exclamation points, even in some of the more exciting novels. This isn’t because sentences in those books don’t call for them. On the contrary, the sentences call for them so much that they don’t need them. Instead they are shocking, exciting, or amusing on their own. It’s okay to put some interesting punctuation in there every now and then. In fact, the more you hold back, the more impact each one will have. Do it too much, and you’ll start to sound like someone who, well, laughs at your own jokes.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

The scene was grand and opulent, and the food was delicious. I had never been to such a magnificent dinner party. There were many interesting dishes, and even the silverware looked like nothing I had ever seen before.

Show don’t tell. Writers are likely to have heard this many times over, but considerably less likely to have a good grip on its meaning. It’s easy enough to throw around the saying, but considerably more difficult to get it right in practice. It can be counter-intuitive: the new writer is likely to assume that being broad is the best way for as many readers as possible to relate to the writing, but the opposite is true. If you merely tell your readers that “Jane was uncomfortable at the party,” that doesn’t give your audience much to latch on to, or relate to, or to see. But if you show your reader Jane spending more time at the party socializing with the house’s cat than with anyone else, if you show your reader a scene with Jane practicing her excuse for leaving early in the bathroom mirror, or taking a fake phone call so she can step outside, and then leave without anyone noticing, then you’ll not only have shown just how uncomfortable Jane was at the party, but you’ll have given them a scene to play out in their heads. And that’s another key element to showing rather than telling: painting a better picture. In your mind your world is entirely fleshed out, your story is amazing, and your characters are as real you or I. The hard part comes when you try to put that to paper, and when you try to convey that complexity to your reader. When you write “the city stood magnificently on the top of the hill” you see the city, but your reader isn’t there with you. There mere adverb doesn’t show us anything. Think of it like a movie. Start with a wide establishing shot, showing us some of the details of the city as a whole, and then follow your characters in and give your audience specific anecdotes about the city as your characters experience them: maybe they see a kid try to walk out of the bakers with a baguette up his sleeve, or, if you want to convey the city’s magnificence, don’t tell us that it’s magnificent, have your characters walk up to one of the towers, and see it stretching into the clouds. Be specific. This isn’t just for cities, but for houses, or parties, or other characters. We don’t want the police report of your story, we want to be there at the scene of the crime. Don’t tell us that your foe is deadly, make it so evident that you don’t need to mention it. Don’t tell us that your character is in love, show us the distinct change in behavior. Don’t tell us that everyone in the conference room was uncomfortably serious, have your character make a joke that no one laughs at. Try always to keep in mind what your readers are seeing in their heads at any given point in your story. To do this you have to temporarily throw out what you know about your story, and let it speak for itself. If it can’t, you probably have more showing to do.