October 5, 2009

Writing Diet

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague
~William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Yep. That’s where I, the almighty Writing Apprentice am standing regarding my novel. Editing’s friggin’ tough work.

Before I started writing, or writing seriously let’s just say, my idea of being an author was of someone spending 75% of his/her time daydreaming, and the rest of the time putting words together in an easy, pleasant atmosphere (hmmm, how about by the crackling fire when it’s pouring outside?).

Reality: Totally. Not. It.

Writing’s more about re-writing. And, in my case, (re^25)-writing. Yep. Currently am on my 12th draft. Over half of them was about me finding how I wanted to bring about the story (example: points of view, which characters to put in, etc), and how I wanted the story to develop (yeah, I know, a minor detail).

And what does this draft consist of? Cleaning. Yeah! I’m my own manuscript’s maid! I’ve never been that fond of dusting or doing the dishes (except for the soap bubbles that come out of the bottle--I always have fun with those) or vacuuming or doing the laundry, but writing cleaning is turning out to be fun!

Don’t believe me? Well, it’s true. Why? I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA. Trust me, it’s hard work, and there’s (sadly) still a lot for me to do to tighten up my novel, and to give you an idea of what lexical calories I’m shedding I’ve decided to give you my recipe (gathered from various sources over the internet).

1. A good word should only be used once in a book. Same goes for an expression or a turn of phrase, no matter how enamored you are with it.

2. Try to avoid repetitions, they do get noticed.

3. Flat writing is a sign your story's dragging.
Red Flag: you’re bored with your own writing. I’m not kidding. That actually happened to me in Draft 2. I was so bored with my own story I couldn’t come up with what to write next. I’d killed off my muse.

4. Be brief.

5. Be specific: don’t use “it,” “someone,” or “something.” Generalizations are annoying and can turn into clichés (yes, I’m guilty of that as well).

6. Avoid passive verbs/‘To be’ words. Passive: The gun was taken up by the meanie and the poor princess was shot. Active: The meanie took the gun and shot the poor princess. Which one do you like best?

7. Resist using too many adverbs. These are most of the ‘-ly’ words. I’ve noticed that in most cases dropping the adverb is more effective than leaving it in there. Sometimes, this requires finding a better verb to describe the action (note: having a thesaurus at hand is recommended). Ex: He walked slowly and with difficulty through the mud vs. He trudged through the mud.

8. Other types of words to use sparingly:
a. “-ness” words
b. “-ize” words
c. “-ing” words
d. “-ingly” words

9. Avoid intensifiers: very, so, quite, extremely, really, absolutely. . .

10. Avoid qualifiers: just, sort of, quite, somewhat, usually, always, never. . .

11. Avoid lists.

If you decide you’ve arrived at a good point to give a good description of the place in which your hero stands, pretend you’re him and describe what HE would see. Would he notice everything? What details would he find striking? Which ones would his eyes glaze over?

12. Show, don’t tell: makes for longer passages, but these are so much more dynamic as they allow us to feel like we’re really there too. Hence think about how your senses would be affected if you were to be in the character’s situation. Showing can also be done through dialogues.

13. Dialogues shouldn’t be phony.

Try to make your main characters distinctive through their speech as well. Even then, however, you want to use short sentences, avoid pleasantries (how do you do? Well, and you? Awesome, this is such a beautiful day! -- Bleah, oh-so-boring!).

Don’t overuse names (I totally have the habit of doing that!). And they’re an awesome place to bring in tension too, as characters can come directly into conflict here.

14. Have people take action: don’t have them “begin to” or “decide to” do things. Even scratch “knew that”, “sees/saw that,” or “ seem.”

15. Reduce speaker’s attributions (helps reduce the “-ing” words at the same time. It’s like buying 2-in-1 shampoo!).

And it’s by following these guidelines that I’m purging my own writing. A lot of work but, in the end, doesn’t it feel better to have a shiny, nice-smelly, smooth-touchy piece of work?

--The Writing Apprentice

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. “ ~Enrique Jardiel Poncela


  1. My favorite writing tip is #11

  2. I always use lots of intensifiers. I had no idea they're considered poor form but after re-reading my work, yeah, I guess it makes sense...

  3. I have to admit I've been guilty of ALL these mistakes. But going over my manuscript with all these in mind was (should technically use 'is' as I'm still in the editing process) a real eye-opener!

  4. Because #11 appears in a list! That's more irony than the USS Monitor (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uss_monitor)

  5. Oh. I didn't even think about that! However I believe that the lists mentioned in my LIST are slightly different, as it's rare to find a novel with actual bullet points...