Tips for Writers
A Quick Way to Improve Your Writing
The verb carries more weight in a sentence than any other word, so the fastest, surest way to improve your writing is to strengthen your verbs.Run your finger down your paper (or screen) and note the verbs. If you chose strong ones, they will summarize the content. They will inform, entertain, or persuade your readers. If you dashed off weak ones, they won’t tell you what’s on that page. They will bore or confuse your readers.If your verbs lack punch, check for these four things:
1. Verbs conveying no meaning, such as forms of to be (is, are, was, were);
2. Verbs modified by an adverb, e.g., walked quickly rather than hurried;
3. Passive voice, e.g., the bear was killed rather than she killed the bear;
4. Empty verbs preceding a verb concealed in a noun, e.g., made a decision rather than decide.
If you select good verbs, you will need fewer words.
Prompting Useful Comments on a Manuscript
You’ve done the first draft, or maybe the second and third. Before the next revision, you need at least one objective reader’s opinion. Other writers or voracious readers who don’t love or fear you make good candidates.
To coax helpful comments out of these readers, give them guidance. I usually write 10 questions that a reader can answer in a few words, or ignore.
The following questions about my mysteries have elicited useful results:
1. Which characters did you like the most?
2. Which ones did you like the least?
3. Did you have trouble remembering who any of the characters were?
4. Did you find any parts confusing?
5. Could you visualize the settings? Did you want more or less description of any place?
6. When were you pretty sure who did it? What tipped you off?
7. Did you understand why/how the murder happened?
8. Did the clues and the protagonist’s crime solving make sense to you?
9. Did any part move slowly?
10. Would you have finished this book if you had checked it out of the library?
The questions work. Most people like to have reference points for their comments, and I receive feedback on at least some of my special concerns.
Saving Time by Staying in Style
To save time and effort, choose the style to follow before you write your first draft. Resolving style issues early lets you keep writing rather than stop to decide what to do and reduces the time spent looking for inconsistencies as you polish the draft.
If you own an appropriate style manual, you’re set to go. If you don’t, take ten minutes to write guidelines for the most common style questions, starting with the serial comma and numbers.
The serial comma: Do you put a comma before the and in a series of three or more (e.g., bats, belfries, and bells or cats, cows and catsup)? This choice comes up more often than anything else in writing fiction and nonfiction.
In most cases, book editors prefer the comma before the and in a series and newspaper editors don’t. Magazines and websites split. Read a couple of their paragraphs and you’ll see what they want.
If you don’t know an editor’s preference, bet with the odds. For short or long fiction and long nonfiction, choose the serial comma. For print and online articles, omit it.
Numbers: When do you spell out (e.g., twenty)? When do you use the number (e.g., 20)? Those are the simplest of several questions. Style manuals differ a lot on numbers. Even if you don’t guess right, both you and the editor will value the consistency.
Consider the following choices. I recommend the first of each series if you’re writing fiction.
• Five boys and ten girls, five boys and 10 girls, 5 boys and 10 girls
• twenty percent, 20 percent, 20%
• $1 million, 1 million dollars, one million dollars
• seven o’clock, 7 a.m., 7 A.M.
• Sixties, 1960s, ’60s
Titles: Italics or underlining or quotations marks or nothing? Styles differ, but dominant ones include:
• Italics (not underlining) for books, movies, plays, and television series;
• Quotation marks for short stories, articles, songs, poems, and episodes in a television series;
• Nothing but capital letters for conferences and program topics.
Most of us need to add special guidelines to fit the needs of a particular manuscript. In writing a novel, I find it useful to list the spelling of the names of places and characters.