Sunday, January 16, 2011

Writing Tips

(My apologies for taking so long between posts, but honestly I've been busy -- among other things getting diagnosed with diabetes as well as working on End Of The Line.  Mea culpa.)

A dear friend and I ended up discussing writing the other day.  She enjoys my blogs (here and at  More she recently got back into writing herself.  Given that she asked, I offered some "tricks of the trade" and she suggested I write them down.  So...

Let me begin with acknowledging loads and loads of writers have their own such tricks.  Many would probably not agree with mine at all.  Or approve of some, disapprove of others.  Fine.  Kindly take what follows as advice only -- consider what I say, then accept or dismiss as you see fit.

First, and this one I see violated time and time again, avoid the passive voice.  Read nearly any textbook, business report or form letter for examples of the passive voice.  Ditto encyclopedia entries, legal documents of nearly any kind, and far too many works of fiction.  "The cat was found by Millie" instead of "Millie found the cat."  Nine times out of ten (or more) the passive voice creates boredom.  Always?  No.  In truth, the passive voice can be a stylistic trick, one that creates a powerful effect.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident" is in the active voice but the very next clause of that famous quote "that all men are created equal" is passive, yet rings like a bell in the annals of history.  Examine it closely, you'll even see why it proved so effective, as well as why it more usually does not.  The passive voice gramatically shifts responsibility for the verb away from the subject, often onto the object.  A cat is found rather than Millie did the finding.  In the Declaration of Independence, the "all men..." clause refers to some kind of Creator, whether natural or supernatural (a fair number of our Founding Fathers were not Christians).  So the passive voice nearly always takes focus away from the subject of the sentence, the main character as it were.

Secondly, try to avoid the verb "to be."  Which sounds daft.  How more fundamental can you get than the verb that denotes existence?  And isn't that the very heart of Shakespeare's most famous monologue?  Yes and no.  "To be or not to be..." functions as a metaphor.  In context, Hamlet muses not about existence so much as life versus death, pondering over suicide in the face of life's travails.  Kindly note also my recommendation's actual words--"try to avoid" not "never use."  I encourage you to try and see for yourself how much more interesting your prose becomes when avoiding that verb.  Try to banish it altogether, just as an experiment.  Judge the results for yourself.  Quite simply, hardly a more dull verb exists in the English language--or at least more over-used to the point of boredom.  My own writing improved greatly after taking on this little rule of thumb (not axiom, not holy writ--just a rule of thumb).

Third, I cannot recommend enough varying the length and complexity of sentences.  What do I mean?  Glad you asked!  Consider the simple sentence.  Now consider what English teachers call the compound sentence and how useful such things can be.  Finally, we really should think on the compound-complex sentence, and while we're at it try to remember how often you come across such things in texts difficult to follow (like academic papers for instance).  See what I did?  When mentioning each type of sentence type I used an example of same! 

Eye iz sew klevur (we all know not to misspell words or mangle grammar right?).

 I was also (hopefully) demonstrating why variations generally work better than repetition.  A Compound-Complex takes more concentration to understand than a Simple.  Putting two or more together might end up beautiful and more accurate, but requires a lot more labor on the part of the reader.  Which can work brilliantly!  Remember Bilbo's speech at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring?  "I don't know half of you as well as I should like and like less than half of you as well as I should."  You can almost see his birthday guests blink a few times.  They don't say anything, trying instead to work out whether most of them were just insulted or not. (Yeah, they were.)  Now imagine sentences of that complexity piled one on top of the other.  Problems.  Especially for the reader going through your work for the very first time.

Yet another consideration regarding sentence length--the rhythm of your story.  Songs rarely begin with gigantic swelling notes.  Listen to particularly stirring songs to hear what I mean.  "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables, for example.  Or "Pity The Child" from Chess.  Both start slow and soft, building to louder and more complex moments, then returning to quiet in order to give still greater crescendos later.  Writers methinks should use a similar model in terms of their own rhythms.  Lacking notes and orchestras, we use words.  More than words.  Sentences, clauses, vocabulary, the passive versus the active voice, etc.

Lastly, a few words about letters with which words begin.  Call me picky (go ahead--really, I don't mind) but one major goal in my writing remains readability.  Anything that helps achieve that remains a valuable tool.  Towards that end, I wrote myself two simple rules:
  1. Never begin two adjacent sentences with words that begin with the same letter.
  2. Never begin two adjacent paragraphs with words that begin with the same letter.
Kindly refer to the text of this blog as an example.  Mind you, I did put this rule-of-thumb last, and for a reason.  You wouldn't be wrong calling me picky.  I am.  But my own sense of how reading works, how the human eye picks up on lettering, how we keep our place and retain a memory of what we're reading lends me to think this a good idea.  Certainly the opposite has the exact impact I hope to avoid.  Reiterating the same capital letters over and over impedes readability.  Usually.

Take my words as wisdom or as the eccentric ramblings of a pretentious scribe.  Or both.  Whatever helps you create the words and works dearest to your writer's heart.

Oh, and Happy New Year!


LM Preston said...

Thanks for sharing these tips! We blog readers love meaty information like this :-D

Anne (aka "stormie") said...

Great tips for writers, esp. about the rhythm of the story.