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Up From Down Under Sept 2008

Yes, that’s right, I wrote that title up there. Now deal with it....


Seems to me that one of the biggest mistakes new writers make is clutching tightly to the belief that their collection of words in a document on their computer (or in that ratty old journal stuffed in their bedside drawer) is some sort of sacred text.


My advice is: Get over it!


No matter how unique and original your story idea might be (and that is possible, but rare), it is extremely unlikely that your telling of it is perfect. We all begin as new writers – even the pros were once novices. Some of us start as kids, some when we’re grandparents. Doesn’t matter. While we’re developing that thick lizard skin against criticism, young and old alike need to accept the glaring truth that someone, somewhere will want to change those magic words, alter a flawless plot, and/or make a critical male character a female – or some reasonable (or unreasonable) version of the above. It could be a writers' group, reviewer, or a New York Times critic. Someone, somewhere will always have a better idea. (Hell, I have them about best sellers I’ve read. Oh, the arrogance!)


Most likely, in the statistically rare event you have a chance at getting published; the advice will be coming from an editor or agent. In the meantime, stop writing in a vacuum and be grateful for whatever useful help you can secure from other writers, teachers, and knowledgeable friends.


If you have a serious ambition to be published and if you want to get better at writing, then constructive criticism is your best friend. Embrace it for all it’s worth! Sort the wheat from the chaff and heed the best, most consistent advice. Stop thinking your words are too good to change, because chances are, if you think that, you’re more wrong than you’ll ever allow yourself to realize. Label it as the literary equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot.


As an added incentive to bring your writing out of your self-imposed cave, you can practice eloquent thank you speeches for the criticisms you so bravely receive on writers’ websites or in local writers’ groups.


A few months ago, I put together a brief compilation of some things a writer should remember while composing and editing. Doing so has helped me focus on what to do to make my “wonderful” story sound wonderful to my readers. I haven’t perfected this process or this list by a long shot, but I have come to believe that my writing has improved significantly, thanks to critiques received and my own research of recommended texts on writing. Much of that is reflected in the list you’ll read here. For the uninitiated I have added an explanation, a reinforcement, or reminder to many of these.


Show don’t tell


Ray made Mary sad. She cried.


Ray’s words stabbed Mary like a knife. Tears slid down her cheeks and fell to her shirt.


Which would you rather read?

(Keep in mind: there are instances when you can tell the reader something in plain language - say in a transitional paragraph that needs to be very brief. Just remember, go there sparingly and make it creative.)


Active always trumps passive


Carrie was an energetic cheerleader when she joined the Go Team cheer.


Carrie ran to join the other girls on the field. She leapt into the air and shouted, "Go team!"


Vary the narrative


If you write sentences that are all the same length, littered with commas and dependent clauses, it’s the equivalent of storytelling in monotone. Vary sentence length: short ones are useful to get the feeling of action; longer ones are great for introspection or description. Often shorter is better, but too much makes your writing clipped and boring. Change it up; keep your reader on her toes! Same goes for paragraphs.


Short sentences equal quick action


Don’t just report what happens! If someone’s throwing punches, make the structure of your words punch, too.


Avoid superfluous words and phrases


AKA, cut the crap. My best advice here is to take your “finished” story and try to reduce the number of words by 8-10%. Boy, will you discover a whole bunch of stuff to discard. A good way to learn what to leave out is: find a book you’ve read and really enjoyed, possibly a best seller. Imagine a favorite scene from that book – now write it from memory. When you’re done, compare your writing to that of the published author. If you have a bad superfluity habit, you should spot it right away. (In the process of trimming your manuscript, you may also find areas that need more zest, and you’ve just doubled your investment on that superfluous word hunt!)


Paragraphs need identity


Give your reader some credit for being aware of the words on the page. Don’t start a string of paragraphs or sentences with the same word. Yawn….


Don’t use two when one will do


Never over-modify. If an adjective (or adverb) is called for, pick the one that really cuts to what you need to show the reader. Remember, if the story element comes up again, you can always retrieve the one you discarded to give the reader a fresh perspective and add detail as the story progresses. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use two, but be damn sure they’ll be subtle and effective.


Become the protagonist


Tell it as if you were in his/her shoes; his/her point of view is the story. If you progress to multiple POVs don’t head-hop. Make the transition at chapter breaks or where an action can lead to a new perspective. Also, it’s a good idea to make sure the character that you’re in is significant to the story. Unless he’s in the book for the long haul, don’t jump into the paperboy’s head just because you want him to see bloody footprints on the front porch. I also recommend getting a good text about point of view and character development.


Use character names sparingly, pronouns have purpose


This is self-explanatory, but make sure your pronouns point where you want them to point. Likewise, you can often find more than one way to refer to a character.

Such as:

Joan and Mary are sisters; Hans is Joan’s son; Harriet is Joan and Mary’s mother. You can refer to Joan as Joan (of course), Mary’s sister, Hans’ mother, Harriet’s daughter, she, her, etc. Just don’t get carried away with it! The one you use has to make sense.


Search and destroy the overused and useless


Look, like, at, that, such, just, so, very, much, little, up, down, really – just a few examples. If it doesn’t add, drop it! Is the ground usually down? Then ‘fell down’ is excessive. If you say fell, everyone will know the person went down. It’s just such a very lovely morning! Yeah? What does that tell me? The writer was trying to get Scrabble points by using words with U. Try: A rare blue adorned the sky. The dewy leaves glistened in the early sun. (Now that’s a beautiful day!)


Follow the flashback recipe


A trigger (Usually an event that initiates a line of thinking for the character.)

Two sentences (or so) in past perfect (for the beginning of the memory)

As many sentences or paragraphs as you need to share the character’s flashback (Don’t be gone too long, however, flashbacks slow the story and take the reader away from the action.)

A couple more sentences in past perfect to indicate to the reader the flashback is ending (You can skip this one if you decide on another method to indicate, such as an extra line return between paragraphs as Dan Brown uses in The Da Vinci Code.)

A trigger back to the now of the story.


A trigger for going into flashback is usually a scene or event – most likely something that begins an emotional reaction. Triggers for coming out could be a distracting noise, a smell, voice, or touch.


Start with a bang


Even a little one. Big action is good, or at least, a gasp and a big question – grab the reader’s interest. You’ve got one chance and one sentence, maybe two; make it good. Starting in the middle of something drags the reader into wondering what he missed, and he has to read on to find out! Even tantalizing dialogue can do the trick.


Don’t name him if he knows him


Don’t use names when characters address each other, unless it’s appropriate. If it’s obvious whom they’re addressing or they’re well acquainted, drop it.


Vary your descriptions


Adverbs and adjectives aren’t forbidden, but use them wisely. And don’t keep using the same ones. Expand your vocabulary. Your readers will appreciate it! Just don’t sound as if you’ve swallowed a dictionary like Radar in MASH.


Read aloud


This is especially important to test your dialogue for that natural feel. It can also benefit your narrative to read it aloud. Likewise, do the gestures that accompany it (every writer is a closet actor) and see if they are realistic.


Spelling, punctuation, and grammar


Two manuscripts sat side-by-side on a shelf. They both had merits that qualified them as good stories. One was riddled with typos, bad grammar, lousy punctuation, and irresponsible formatting. The other was beautifully composed. Which one did the editor choose?


Putter-in-er or Taker-out-er?


I ran across this in a book on writing. If I could remember which one, I’d put the credit here. (Please note I’m not claiming I thought this one up! Just, shamefully, can’t remember where I read it.) Most writers fall into one of these categories. Do you write short and then add, add, add as you edit? Or do you write long and take away until your heart bleeds for the lovely words left lying on the floor?


Naturally, there are plenty more items that could be added to this list, but it’s a start. Lord knows, volumes have been written on all these topics, and I’ve not even scratched the surface of characterization, dialogue, point of view, and story arc … whew! This is more of a synopsis to get – and keep – you thinking about the many nuances of this art form with words.


I welcome you to put a copy of this on your computer and add to it as you discover new pieces of advice to aid you as you work. Down the road, once you’ve got a handle on the rules, feel free to break them from time to time and try something new. Few rules are written in stone, and some, once you’ve learned them, can be broken with style and one-of-a-kind impact. When you feel you’ve "mastered" these elements, pass it forward, because there’s always someone else coming up behind you who needs good advice, too.





Since graduating with a BS in English from the University of Wisconsin, Dawn Boeder Johnson has been a graphic designer, marketing professional, and museum director. This diversity allowed her to explore many subjects and provided fodder for her active imagination. In her heart, she has always been a writer—since the day she published three hand-written copies of a family newspaper when she was barely old enough to construct a sentence. These days, her time is divided between family and writing—her two greatest loves. Dawn lives in northern Illinois, USA, with her family. She is currently immersed in creating a novel she just can’t put down!