Over the years, you pick up many useful writing tips and then you need to work out which are the most useful to you. Following on from an earlier CFT post of mine about writing tips, I thought I’d take a look in greater depth at why I use the tips that I do.
In general, I don’t look at those tips for playwrights, given that’s not my specialism, but one that is aimed at them (read your work out loud) is good advice regardless of what type of fiction you write. It also works well for non-fiction given it can help you pick up on whether your prose flows as well as you thought. So how do you deduce which writing tips are the most useful?
A good starting point is to look at those tips which cross more than one form of writing because they work when all is said and done. The tips I’ve found most useful and happily recommend to any writer are:-
1. Edit on paper and not on screen, especially for longer pieces of work.
I don’t know why it is but you miss things on screen that stand out as bold as brass on a piece of paper! Whether it’s a mind trick (I.e. your brain fills in missing words and that kind of thing), or whether the brain works a little differently when working with paper as opposed to a screen, I don’t know. All I know is this one is too true to ignore. What would be interesting to know is later, when screens have been with us for longer, whether this changes. After all, we have worked with paper for centuries. Screens are a relatively new development. Will our brains adapt given enough time do you think?
2. Write first, edit later.
I do this for all my writing. You need to see writing and editing as separate tasks. Writing is where you have the creative fun. Editing is where you need to eliminate the dross – there always is some! But you need to get the story or article down first and work out what is worth keeping first. I have known of writers who edit as they go but I can’t see how this works. Firstly, you could spend ages polishing up one sentence or paragraph before moving on. To me this seems tedious. Secondly, how do you know what to edit until you have got the whole picture to work with?
Also, ideas will come to you as you write and you need to put those into your draft. When you edit is the time to figure out are these ideas good ones and strengthen the piece? If so, good, they stay in; if not, they don’t! I have found I sometimes have to move paragraphs around to make the read a better one. You can’t judge if you’ve got your structure right until you have the whole piece written, ready to assess as a whole.
3. Put writing aside for a while before editing.
This is crucial. There are two reactions to a piece of work you’ve produced. You think it is the best thing since Shakespeare (it’s not!) or the worst thing ever put on paper/screen and why did you ever think you could write? (That’s not true either). What you will have written is something with potential but it is the nature of the beast you won’t see the potential immediately. You need to give yourself some distance and the best way of doing that is to put a piece of work aside for a while before coming back to it. It also makes it easier to come back to it and see it as a reader would. What will strike you when you return to the work is what you like about it and what you think could be improved.
It is always a good idea to get working on other material while you’ve got stories or articles put aside like this. You’ve always got something “on the go” for one thing and this work can then be put aside while you’re looking again at the first lot. You will be more productive.
4. Read work out loud.
Why is this one good, particularly for fiction writers? You literally hear how your words flow – or not as the case may be. If you stumble over “clunky” dialogue, so will your readers. Time to get the red editing pen out then! I’ve sometimes recorded a story and played it back later. I listen to the story as a listener would and the errors leap out at me. But it is better I spot them than a reader does. The reader never needs to know those errors!
5. Take time off any deadlines for writing competitions, when articles need to be in by etc.
This will give you time to polish up your work and ensure you submit it in good time for any deadline. In the case of these CFT posts, I start writing the next one almost immediately my post goes up on the Friday. I aim to finish it and have it scheduled “good to go” by Tuesday/Wednesday. I then switch to fiction writing alone for a day or so, then get back on with the next CFT post.
It is almost inevitable with writing competitions there is a flurry of entries a day or so ahead of the deadline. I’ve found it useful to try to get work in at least a week before the deadline. Firstly it means there is no danger of missing said deadline.
Secondly, it beats the rush! When I’ve judged competitions (something I’d like to do more of), I like to read through an entry at least twice to ensure I haven’t missed anything on the first read through. Only then do I feel I can judge it properly. As the writer who has sent the work in, you want to have the benefit of that for your stories. So help the judge here! Get your work in early. Then have a crack at another competition! (Oh and judges are usually inundated with stories so they do have to read work as soon as is practically possible to ensure they cover all the entries properly).
6. Check your spelling and grammar. Don’t assume it’s right.
This is one of the fundamentals to writing. Spell and grammar checkers are useful but they’re not infallible. They also won’t spot a correctly spelled word which is used in the wrong context, so writer beware. Double check everything before submitting work anywhere. Don’t be afraid to look things up here. Only you need know. I always have to check certain words – affect and effect! Writing buddies can be really useful here, especially if you know your weaknesses in this area (and every writer has some).
7. Mix with other writers!
This is fun and incredibly helpful. Great ways to do this are by going to writing conferences, going to author talks, joining writer groups (and online ones too. The best of these provide an incredibly supportive network of people). You will learn a great deal from all of these but over time will make friends in the writing community. When yet more rejections come in and it is tempting to chuck it all in, support here can make all the difference.
8. Develop your writing voice.
All writing books will tell you this but it is hard to define exactly what it is. I think of it as writing in such a way people who have come across your work before will know a piece of writing is by you by your style alone. For those who haven’t come across your work before, they will sense “authority” behind the piece of writing. It will ring true for your reader. The lovely thing, which I realised years ago, is because all writers have their own voice, there should never be rivalry between authors. I can’t write in the voice of, say, our own Mike Sedgwick. Nor could he write in mine. If you look at his posts and mine, you will see we approach things differently. There are phrases I use which he would not, his style is different to mine etc.
9. Read widely in and out of your genre, including non-fiction.
Firstly, you want to support the industry you’re trying to join as a writer because why wouldn’t you? Secondly, reading widely helps spark off ideas for your stories and articles. The wider you read, the wider you cast your imaginative “net” to haul ideas in and blend them so they are unique to you. It is said there are only so many basic plots – love, revenge etc – but it is what you do with those that is important.
You also find out what you like reading, what you loathe and so on. You also learn how books are set out in terms of house style, rules for dialogue and punctuation etc (you take all of this in unconsciously while reading) and this is vital when it comes to preparing your own book for sending out. Looking at how a published book “looks” can also be useful if you’re not sure how to set out punctuation in dialogue and that kind of thing, though it is best to refer to a near contemporary book to be up to the moment on this. Things change such as only one space being needed at the end of a sentence now.
10. Be open to trying new forms of writing
I developed a love of flash fiction and am now published in it, thanks to this. I also write for CFT because of this. Enough said I think!
Whatever you write, enjoy the process and hopefully good results!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.