Read (and watch and listen and consume).
I know, I know. Everyone tells you to do this. But I’m not just talking about reading fiction novels. Read poetry. Read history books. Read philosophical texts. Read the news (especially the news, because it can be a great source for material). Read long-form op-eds. Read advertisements on buses. Read people’s faces.
Don’t limit yourself to reading, either. Watch nature and travel documentaries and late-night history programs. Watch good sit-coms and dramas. Watch bad sit-coms and dramas too, so you know what to avoid. Don’t forget about podcasts, too; there are dozens on everything from history to current events to books, and even ones that tell stories themselves.
Humans are creatures of consumption. Go forth and consume stuff.
Read your story out loud.
I can’t tell you how many times this has helped me catch and fix problems. Reading out loud is great for the pace and flow of your work; it helps you find awkward sentences and even maybe a typo or two. If you’re tripping up on a sentence, reword it. If you’re running out of breath, maybe break the sentence into two. If it sounds unnatural, try and imagine how you would say it.
Cut adjectives and adverbs.
Go through your novel and cut them out. Do you talk a lot about your character’s long, flowy, luxurious hair? Cut it. Do you have adverbs like dreamily or frustratedly attached to your dialogue tags? Cut ’em. Most of the time, you don’t need them, but just like the passive voice (more on that later), they can be helpful if used sparingly (keyword: sparingly).
Give your characters conflicting morals and beliefs.
Conflict is an integral part of any story. I personally find internal conflict more interesting, though external is definitely important, too. And if you break it down, the basis of any internal conflict is an incongruity between what that character does and what they believe.
Two extreme pop-culture examples are Marvel’s antihero Deadpool and Dexter from the show Dexter. Deadpool kills people for money, often in pretty gruesome ways, but also cares deeply about his loved ones. Dexter is a serial killer who kills serial killers. No one is totally good or totally bad, and characters who are come across as flat. Internal conflict operates like drama: it keeps the reader interested in your characters and thus in your story.
Don’t use the passive voice (unless you mean it).
A lot of people will tell you to never, ever use the passive voice under any circumstances. While I agree that passive is almost always better, there are a few scenarios where it can be used for effect.
Because the passive voice removes a character from the action of the story, you can use it to make your character seem disoriented or on autopilot. For instance, if your character has just been hit with some bombshell news, I’m grabbing my keys off the table and heading towards the door makes them seem more disconnected from the action than I grab my keys and walk towards the door. Just don’t overdo it.
Similarly, you can also use the passive tense for an action that’s being interrupted (e.g. I’m picking my nose when she walks in). Again, just don’t overdo it.
Get rid of sensory tags (saw, smelled, felt).
You use so many fewer words (and you get to the point faster) if you cut out the middleman here. Instead of saying I saw red, you can say the world went red. Instead of I felt horrified, just say I was horrified (or something similar). You get the point. So if you can get rid of them, do it.
What tips do you use to improve your writing?
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