Open a Book
"Read lots of books" is common advice, but have you ever considered, really considered, the fact that the author’s craft is laid bare for you to see in every piece of writing? There are no secrets, no mysteries to the words you see on the page. While you can never know the thoughts that led to the construction of those words, the end product is available for study. But how can you study it? What should you look for? Below are four exercises to get you started on becoming a better writer.
Take a book that you enjoy reading. Open it to the first chapter. Read the first sentence. Now read it aloud. Does is grab your attention? Does it make you want to continue reading? Now read the rest of the first paragraph. What picture has the author painted in your mind? What scene and/or characters has he or she established. What questions have been planted. And how has the author accomplished these things? These are very important questions, ones that you should think about.
Do this exercise with several books to see what techniques authors are using. How can you apply these techniques to your own writing? Try writing some opening sentences and paragraphs of your own using what you have learned as a guide.
Flip through your chosen books and read the first sentences and paragraphs of chapters 2–6. Notice how the author is drawing you into the action or introducing a new topic with powerful images or intriguing dialogue. Do you notice patterns? Do some styles appeal to you more than others? Think about how you can apply what appeals to you in your writing.
Now think of a short story. Don’t fuss about the plot. It could be as simple as telling about your day. Now divide your story into four to six distinct parts; these are your chapters. Write an opening sentence for each chapter using what you have learned from other authors.
For this exercise, take a close look at the final sentences of the introductory paragraphs that you were looking at in Exercise 2. What are they doing? In other words, how is the author using them to conclude the topic of the paragraph and, perhaps, leading into the paragraph that follows.
Go back to the first chapter of your chosen book and read it. Take a few minutes to think about what you just read. Where did the author take you in the space of that chapter? When you first opened the book, you didn’t know what would happen or who you would meet. What information did the author convey by the end of the first chapter?
Now skim over each paragraph in the chapter. What is the purpose of each paragraph or chunk of dialogue? Can you see how the author built the story by giving you descriptions and information that helps draw you into his world? Try to see how the author structured the first chapter and how he used descriptive words and phrases to convey the story.
Write an opening chapter of your own. Remember that your reader doesn’t know what you are thinking, so you need to convey a clear picture with your sentences. And make sure something happens or that you pose a mystery or question, so your reader will want to find out more. Choose your words carefully to convey needed information, but not so much that you bore your reader.
Have a Plan
Whether you intend to write a few paragraphs or a longer piece, think about the structure of your work before you begin. What do you want to say? What information do you need to convey? If it is a report, decide how to arrange the information. For short stories, have a clear idea of how you will start, what will happen, and how it will end. This will allow you to focus on the actual writing, so you are not trying to invent the story at the same time.
If you are writing a long, complex piece, it is even more important to outline it, so you will have a clear idea of the overall structure. Although some writers do not outline, most do. And when you are new to the craft it certainly helps to know where you are going before you start.
Bring readers into your world. Many beginning writers like to tell readers about their world and characters (much like early fairy tales do) instead of showing them.
An example: “Once upon a time there was a kingdom ruled over by an grizzled old king. He had a lovely daughter, Princess Violet, who had blond hair and pretty blue eyes. One day the armies of . . .”
Unless that’s the style you’ve consciously chosen, it’s often better to take us inside one or more of the characters’ minds and let us experience the story through their eyes. This allows us to better empathize with their lives, even if they’re not very nice people from the outside. As with all rules about writing, there are exceptions, but this technique is a great way to immerse readers in your story and make it feel far more immediate.
So, in contrast to above: “The old king rose from his throne and gazed at his daughter. As always, her hair and her eyes reminded him of his long-departed wife. He sighed, feeling the weight of his years, and turned toward the chamber window. A stir of motion close to the horizon caught his attention, and his breath stopped in his throat. Surely it wasn’t! Lord Ulfrec had sworn he wouldn’t attack, not so long as the Reavers were threatening them both. . . .”
And When Was That?
If you are writing a story set in the past, be careful about using words that didn’t exist at that time. For example, you wouldn’t want to say, “The knight slayed the dragon in short order,” because the phrase short order refers to fast food cooking, something that hadn’t been invented in the Middle Ages.
Likewise, be careful about clothing, food, and things. Check and see if they are era and area appropriate. For example: corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers are New World foods that wouldn’t have been grown or eaten in pre-Columbian Europe.
Cut and Tighten
Look at your sentences with an eye to tightening them. Can you cut excess words without losing the clarity? If so, cut them.
Check your descriptions. Have you chosen the best descriptive word or words? Sometimes one powerful word conveys an image or thought better than a phrase cluttered with tepid, conflicting, or synonymous words.
If you’ve heard it before, don’t write it. Good writing is not “as easy as pie.” Nor should you dismiss advice “like water off a duck’s back.” If you have something to say, try to find your own way of saying it. While it might be permissible for a character to use clichés in dialogue, if it truly fits with that character’s personality, in general, clichés are distracting, taking the reader out of the world you are creating.
Once again look at your writing. See if you have repeated the same words again and again, cut them, replace them, or find another way phrase your sentences. As you can see, again, repeated words can be distracting and annoying.
And watch for repeated phrases or descriptions. Authors sometimes fall into patterns, overusing the same word or sets of words without realizing it. Aim for variety.
Like it or not, knowing the rules of grammar is vital to good writing. It helps prevent confusion and allows you to present your thoughts clearly. One comma, for example, can make all the difference: “Let’s eat, Grandpa.” is very different from “Let’s eat Grandpa.” Get a good grammar book and review the basics often. It’s not so important that you know all the arcane details but that you have a good working knowledge of how to construct sentences and paragraphs and how to punctuate correctly.
Read Your Work Aloud
It’s easy to overlook mistakes in your writing. Your eyes skim over the words and your brain fills in what you really want it to say. Reading your words aloud, with feeling—as if you were telling the story to someone else—makes many things become apparent.
You may notice missed words, ones that you forgot by accident, or words that you typed twice. In some places you may find that you need to add words to give clarity or to help a sentence read more smoothly.
Try to put yourself in the mind of someone reading your work for the first time. What exactly have you said? What images do your words convey? Do they describe your vision accurately and convey all vital information? Keep each concept in a paragraph of its own. End sentences with periods, and when you need a pause, add a comma. It’s really not too difficult to get the basics right.
Read Aloud to Someone Else
Once you are satisfied with your piece, read it aloud to someone else, or better yet, several people. Ask them if the prose is clear. Do they understand what you had in mind? Are they confused or feel that points need to be clarified? Did the dialogue sound clear and appropriate to the character and situation? Pay attention to what your listeners say and edit as necessary.
Find an Editor
“But I don’t know an editor,” you might say. Well, you don’t need a professional editor to start with, but it is useful to find someone to point out obvious errors and help you strengthen your writing skills. Don’t be shy about asking for help. Ask your local librarian to introduce you to an English teacher, journalist, or professional writer who might be willing to review your work and give advice. Also, see if there is a local writers group in your area.
Whether you are interested in writing short stories, reports, articles, novels, or nonfiction books, with a bit of persistence you can learn to express yourself clearly. The more you practice and pay attention to your technique, the more your skills will improve. Now find something that excites you, gather your thoughts, and write!