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Some random writing tips
Hmmm. Been a while since I've tried to put together a writing tips page based on personal experience. I'm not a great writer, but I've been writing since the 70s, I've been editor for a few literary magazines/newsletters, and I've graded hundreds of student research papers O.o;;, so I do at least have a few clues. Apologies for repeating some of what folks have posted here before, but they're worth reiterating.


Writing is for fun. But if you're posting your writing online, then you're doing it for others to read. The more effort you put into it, the more you'll get out in terms of personal satisfaction, hits, and, yes, that ego-stroking perk, reviews.

1. READ WHAT OTHERS WRITE. This means both online fic and published books. Take a piece you like and ask yourself:
-- Why do I like it?
-- What parts of the description work? Is there a lot? A little? How does the author describe actions, people's appearances, setting?
-- What makes the dialogue work? Does the author manage to help you "hear" the the different characters' voices? How?
-- How are plot points and information conveyed? Are there places where the author doesn't spell things out (E.G. "Jack Schmoe was deathly afraid of spiders...") but rather drops clues to let the reader figure it out? ("Jack paled as a cobweb brushed against his face...")
-- How does the author make scenes exciting? Thoughtful? Mysterious? Sad?

And so on. It can be boring to write all this stuff out as a personal exercise, but it's a great idea for ficwad: hunt for a fic you enjoy, then post a review including a couple specific comments about what worked (or didn't!) for you.


If you're paying attention, you'll soon see things authors do over and OVER again. For example:
-- The "real person sucked into the fanfiction universe" story. Rewriting the story the way you'd like it to happen to you usually requires messing up the story everyone ELSE enjoyed.
-- The "high school" AU. Young writers tend to write what they know, but very rarely -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the only one I can think of -- does a story set in high school actually work. Too often it has all the petty and annoying things we hate about school cliques and melodrama.
-- The Same Story, But Now With Vampires (or werewolves). Turning the characters undead or lycanthropic is no substitute for having a good plot.
-- Mary/Sue Gary Stu, an original character who tends to be the "hero," and is often more beautiful, skilled, clever, or loved than the canon characters. Sues are often long-lost twin/cousin/relative of a famous character (it's amazing how many sisters Legolas has!)
-- Oh yeah, the Dark Secret. A Dark Secret, powerful magical weapon, or other "cool factor" addition won't attract your readers to a character unless he/she is interesting as a person.
-- Angst. Most of us do this one. For some reason we like to beat our characters to a pulp, orphan them, give them painful pasts, torture them, etc. It can get monotonous.
-- Does He/She Love Me, Oh Noes!? Stories that center around a budding relationship can be just as annoying as having your best friend mooning after somebody. Oh, get a LIFE already! "Falling in love" is the oldest plot in the world, so it needs work to make it interesting.

3. PLAN your story.
A must for multi-chapter stories, a help for short pieces.
Ask yourself:
-- What is the theme? The loss of innocence? Fun in the sun? A series of unfortunate events? Why rabbits are evil? etc.
-- Summarize the plot in two sentences. Then read it aloud and ask yourself, in all seriousness, WOULD you read a fanfic if you saw a summary like that? Changing the wording won't help... is that the kind of story you'd love if someone else wrote it?
-- What is the basic conflict, obstacle, problem that characters will have to overcome? Are there several?
-- What are the beginning, middle, and end of the story? Where do the characters start? What do they learn or how do they change along the way? What is the "resolution" to the opening situation?
-- For anything over about 1000 words, write a quick skeleton/outline of what you want to happen. For multi-chapter stories, you'll definitely need an outline.
-- For multi-chapter stories, consider the flow and pacing. Are there six action sequences in a row? Six angst sequences? Are there slow, peaceful stretches? Gripping and painful stretches? Remember to vary it. Don't keep doing the same thing over and over, or at least have some narrative reason why the repetitions are there. (E.G. a horror story where each time there's a murder, it's a little closer to the main character, and the repetition makes it creepier and creepier.)

They're not all the same, or they shouldn't be. Try to remember their appearances. Mannerisms. Habits. Likes and dislikes. Which characters they get along with, which ones they don't. In any given situation, ask yourself how this character would react, as opposed to that one. Winnie the Pooh, the Terminator, and Captain Jack Sparrow all have very different ways of talking, thinking, acting, and reacting to any situation. They don't behave the same way! Play with the differences between your characters, and if you're writing fanfic, try to capture what fits each character.

Dialogue serves a few conflicting purposes, and you need to be aware of them.
-- It helps define the characters. How Jack Sparrow talks is a big part of who he is. Try to vary the way you write to fit the character.
-- It tells the reader INFORMATION. Plot points often come up in dialogue. Hints about what's coming, or what a character's hiding, or what the world is like -- these all come out in dialogue. The problem is, real people don't stand around EXPLAINING things to each other. They talk in choppy short sentences, and information often gets dropped in by accident.
-- Dialogue, like any other part of writing, isn't just the content -- what's happening. It's also art. A conversation is like a dance, with different moves, twists and turns. Often what we remember most about movies are certain really memorable lines of dialogue. But again, people don't stand around talking just to sound cool. Those great lines come out by accident.

This comes with practice, and it's a lifelong learning process. There's so many words, and so many clumsy ways to use them. Continually examine your writing, asking yourself, "how can I express this more vividly?" Look for the right word. Consult a thesaurus -- but make sure you're comfortable with the words you're using, so you don't start sounding LIKE a thesaurus. Vary your vocabulary. Look for words you overuse and KILL THEM. (I have to go through every piece I write and hack out fifty instances of "softly" and "slightly".)

Your readers may not consciously know why, but if you use GOOD grammar, they'll feel like they're reading something smooth and polished, whereas if you use BAD grammar, it'll be jarring, like listening to a scratchy recording or hearing someone playing the bagpipes off-key. You may have the best story idea in the world, but if you can't write it well, it's just like having a great idea for a painting in your head but not being able to paint it.
"Learn Grammar" is a tall order. I suggest going to a good grammar website like this one -- http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/ -- and looking up ONE thing each time you're about to write, or have just written. Concentrate on improving that ONE thing.

See #7 for why this matters. Copy and paste it into Word or some text editor that underlines bad grammar and spelling. It won't catch anything, but it helps. Then, yes, read back through and try to catch your own mistakes, because the computer can't tell whether you need "to" "two" or "too", for example.

If you stumble over a sentence or word while reading it aloud, chances are that your readers will trip over it on first reading. Fix it.

Sometimes they sting, and sometimes readers are wrong, but they're the only way you're going to know what other people think. It's a good idea to go back and read your reviews before writing something new, to try and avoid the same mistakes. You can also use them as a sort of "checklist" when proofreading a new story, to make sure you're not making the same mistakes.

Okay, you've probably heard most of the above tips ten jillion times. Here's some optional suggestions.

~ USE WORDS AS A "SOUNDTRACK". Have you ever noticed how much the soundtrack of a movie or TV show adds to the mood or emotion of a scene? It can make something seem suspenseful, scary, funny, fast, slow, happy, sad, romantic, etc. You can do the same thing with words! The SOUNDS of your words can mimic the way a scene sounds. Use hard, blunt, consonant-laden, short, curt, hammer-blow words to sound like marching, fighting, stumping along. Use flowing, soft, whispery, flowery, soothing, slippery words for water, swift-moving action, pleasant or beautiful scenes. Don't overdo it! But be aware that your word choices don't simply tell the reader what's going on; they also contribute to the emotion/mood/tone by their flow and sound effects.

Too much will kill the writing, but a few well-chosen details in each scene or conversation really bring it to life. These can include:
* Atmosphere (literal and metaphorical), time of day, weather.
* Geography. Mentally define setting, space, furniture/objects. Embed characters' movements in 3D space.
* Clothing, physical description of characters. These folks aren't nekkid!
* Gestures, movements. Too many "he nods" create bobble-heads. Mentally or literally act out scene, then describe your movements, expressions, tone of voice. Remember people interact physically, not just verbally.

Your writing needs to be like a stone wall, with different-sized chunks, rather than a brick wall with tediously similar ones, or a bed of gravel with tiny choppy ones. If all your sentences or paragraphs are the same length, try to add some variety.

Being told, "so-and-so was scared" or "her lover was killed two years ago" or "he killed the orc" is a plot summary, it's not a narrative. DESCRIBE how so-and-so is acting, and the reader will see he/she is afraid. Have HER say, "He's dead, okay? Dead!" and storm off. Describe his sword shearing through the orc's armor. Make it vivid! Make it immediate! Draw the reader into the moment, and "live" the story!

In reality, things go wrong. Misunderstandings happen, sometimes hilariously. People get lost, miss critical clues, or get cranky.

You know things your characters don't. They can only respond to things that you have actually described them seeing or experiencing. They should NOT know what other characters are thinking. Sometimes friends can guess things about friends, but telepathy is really not as common as you'd think. ;)

Be careful -- something that's obvious to you may not be to your readers. Nevertheless, one of the satisfactions of reading a story is to feel like you're "in the know." Readers often figure things out the characters don't. Drop hints and clues to let the reader piece together what's going on. Similarly:

A fun part of any story is where the reader knows something, and the characters are oblivious. For example, if they're talking about a character who's already dead, and they don't realize it, but the reader does, the conversation takes on a very different tone.


Why did you include that detail? Why that word? Why that event or plot twist? Why that scene?

How does it inform the reader? Does it convey a piece of information? Does it move the story forward? Does it add to the mood of the scene? Does it show the reader something important about a character?

When we write, tons of ideas occur to us on the spur of the moment. Phrases pop up. Random bits of dialogue or actions may occur to us. But we're not necessarily thinking about the big picture, the shape and skeleton of the whole story, when we're throwing words onto the page. We often write things that seem "fun" without considering whether it adds to the story in any way. Be brutal with yourself. DOES it add to the story? DOES it make it better? Or is it something random you threw in that doesn't have much of a purpose? Take it out. Or, according to the old writer's adage, "Kill your darlings."

Heh. Do as I say, not as I do.

A sentence in #8 should have read:
" It won't catch everything, but it helps."

I so wish this bboard had an edit function. ;)
Most of the advice is excellent, but some of it is specific to the way you write. In particular, the bit about outlines. I don't use them. I mentally plan, but at no point do I take a piece of paper and write down what is going to happen.
Honestly, I don't do that much anymore either, unless I'm writing an ongoing serial that's probably going to run to 20 chapters or more. I have a general idea where I'm going in my head, and then work ahead of myself as I go. As ideas occur to me, I jot down quick summaries or notes on upcoming chapters at the end of the file. I like foreshadowing, so knowing where I'm going helps knit the story together.

I confess, I do minimal proofreading. (The above post could have used more polish and revision; ghastly little sentence fragments and "where" for "when" are two other bad habits I have to prune.)

However, ten to fifteen years ago, I used to do those things, until they became habit. Ditto for a lot of what I mentioned above.

No matter how casual or off-the-cuff the piece is, I will still reread it a few times looking for mistakes, and mentally read it aloud (if that makes any sense) for the flow and rhythm of the phrases. I write a lot of poetry, and I tend to apply those habits to prose as well.

At this point I've hit the wall on a couple problems that the best-laid plans can't fix, and which require actual talent:

~ difficulty in coming up with complex and interesting plots
~ difficulty in coming up with well-honed language and phrasing

I look at the work of some of my friends and envy their ability to turn out original, insightful, eloquent literary masterpieces.

But at least by doing most of what I outlined above, I can express my stories in a way that's moderately enjoyable to others. I'm at the "Well, if Mercedes Lackey can get published, then this is readable," stage.
It isn't ALWAYS bad to use one of the above cliche plots. If done well the can be used to good effect.

It's not an example, per se, but I'm currently writing a High School/No powers AU for an obscure superhero series I enjoy that involves mutants. HS/No Power AUs are common and vastly overwritten in the fandom, and are usually terrible... and I'm combining it with a crossover with a related series, which is also overdone and done badly. But... I'm not just writing any HS/No Powers/Crossover.

Indeed, the whole point of the fic is to show just how much the continuity NEEDED those characters, what would happen without them. I'm also writing it to address some pieces of a few characters' character arcs that were neglected, or that came up at the end of the series.

I'm not saying it will be good... but it certainly is different.
This is all very helpful! I especially like the link to the grammar site. This is why I created an account on FicWad to begin with.