Friday 28 July 2017

Guest Post | Twenty Tips for Improving Your Writing by Marlene Bateman, author of Searching for Irene

Published by Covenant Communications on July 1, 2017

Twenty Tips for Improving Your Writing
by Marlene Bateman

Writing is hard work. You can dismiss anyone who tells you otherwise, because obviously they have never written a book. One of my favorite quotes about the writing process—because there is so much truth in it—is by Ernest Hemingway. He said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If you don’t want to go the bleeding route, there are some simple things you can do that will immediately improve your writing.

1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs. Make the meaning clear early, then let weaker elements branch out. Example; Rebels seized control of . . . . Example; The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up . . . Example. Before prayer, warriors massed outside her window . . .

2. Place strong words at the beginning and the end. Since the period acts as a stop sign, the reader’s eye is drawn to the next word.

3. Activate your verbs. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players. Never use passive when you can use active. Avoid qualifiers such as ‘sort of’ ‘must have’ ‘seemed to’ ‘used to’ and ‘begin to.’

4. Watch “to be” verbs and clutter. Example; “There were leaves all over the ground.” Better; “Leaves covered the ground.” Also, don’t be pompous and say things like; “It is interesting to note that . . . or “There are those occasions when. . .

5. Watch those adverbs. Use them to change the meaning of the verb. Adverbs can spice up a verb or adjective, but they can also express a meaning already contained in it. Example; The blast completely destroyed the church office. The accident totally severed the boy’s arm. To be useful, an adverb must change or explain the meaning of the verb. Such as ‘She smiled sadly.’ Or, “Killing me softly.”

6. Take it easy on the –ings. Prefer the simple present or past. Put simply, wish, hope and think is stronger than wishing, hoping, and thinking. Swimming and walking are good, but it’s better to swim and to walk.

7. Fear not the long sentence. Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.

8. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist. Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain. Martin Luther King Jr. built a crescendo from the repetition of words and grammatical structures. He said; “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado.” Another example; If there are people starving in the world, and there are . . . if crime is rampant in the streets . . . if our schools are not working . . . if we are plagues by such problems, it is because something else is missing. Example of parallel, Boom, boom, boom. Parallelism with a twist; boom, boom, bang. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. Hither, thither, and yon. Peter, Paul, and Mary.

9. Let punctuation control pace and space. Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think. Use commas for a pause. Keep parentheses short. A colon announces what follows with a flourish.

10. Cut big, then small. Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves. In other words, Murder your darlings. William Strunk said it best; “Vigorous writing is concise.” But wait until you are done before starting to cut. Start with cutting the big stuff first. First, cut any passage that does not support your focus. Then, cut the weakest scenes to give power to the strongest. Last of all, don’t invite others to cut. You know your work best.

11. Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity. Be careful when explaining complicated ideas, and go for simple. It’s not easy, but a product of imagination and craft, carefully created. Example; “The few colored beads slid along the wire paths haphazardly, like ships on the high seas.”

12. Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect. Try to avoid repetition unless it’s for a purpose.

13. Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands. Try to write as if you are seeing a thing for the first time.

14. Get the name of the dog. Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses. Novelist Joseph Conrad described his task as a writer was “To make you hear, to make you feel, to make you see.” Example; The candleflame and the image of the candle flame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted . . . The floorboards creaked under his books . . . the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits. . He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. . . .

15. Pay attention to names. Interesting names attract the writer and the reader. Think of J.K. Rowling and the people in her books.

16. Seek original images. Reject cliché’s and first-level creativity. Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print—that is a substitute for thinking. Take a cleansing breath and jot down ideas. One reporter creates and rejects a dozen before coming to the right one.

17. Riff on the creative language of others. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.

18. Set the pace with sentence length. Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed. Slowing the pace of the story serves to: simplify the complex, create suspense, and focus on the emotional truth.

19. Vary the lengths of paragraphs. Go long or short—or make a turn—to match your intent. Remember the paragraph is a unit of thought, not of length.

20. Choose the numbers of elements with a purpose in mind. One, two, three, or four; each sends a secret message to the reader. Use one element for power. The girl is smart. If a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, render it in the shortest possible sentence. For example; God is love. Use two elements for comparison and contrast. The girl is smart and sweet. The reader has to balance two characteristics and weigh them against each other. Think of Dick and Jane. Use three elements for completeness. The girl is smart, sweet, and determined. Here, we see a more well-rounded person. For example, The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Use four elements to list and expand. The girl is smart, sweet, determined and neurotic. This offers a flowing, literary effect.

Marlene Bateman Sullivan grew up in Utah, and graduated from the University of Utah with a Bachelor's degree in English. She is married to Kelly R. Sullivan and they live in North Salt Lake, Utah with their two dogs and four cats. Marlene has been published extensively in magazines and newspapers and wrote the best-selling romance/suspense novel, Light on Fire Island. She has written three other mysteries; Motive for Murder, A Death in the Family, and Crooked House, as well as the romance, For Sale by Owner.

Marlene has also written a number of LDS, non-fiction books: Latter-day Saint Heroes and Heroines, And There Were Angels Among Them, Visit’s from Beyond the Veil, By the Ministering of Angels, Brigham’s Boys, Heroes of Faith, Gaze into Heaven; Near-death Experiences in Early Church History, and The Magnificent World of Spirits; Eyewitness Accounts of Where We Go When We Die.

Marlene’s website:

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