For Writers

    1. Avoid overuse of alternatives to “said” (exclaimed, observed, cried, muttered). Minimize use of “said” when possible, by using other methods to identify who is speaking.
    1. Avoid overuse of dashes, ellipses, em-dashes, and exclamation marks.
    1. For that matter, avoid overuse of anything (not to be confused with “use of.” You can use these words, just don’t abuse them). This includes overuse of the following words: that, had been, there were, seemed like, for a moment, suddenly, just, or whatever is your “crutch word” of choice. Some word programs sort word use frequency to help you find your personal crutches.
    1. Avoid “started to” or “began to” unless the character won’t get past the starting/beginning. If he was starting to run, why not just say he ran?
    1. Avoid a character saying something “to him/her” unless it needs to be clear that the character is specifically speaking to that one individual. If it’s already apparent, such as there is nobody else in the area, then eliminate it.
    1. Eliminate “felt” where possible. Weak: She felt tired. Better: She was tired. Best (show don’t tell): Unable to stifle a yawn, she leaned against the wall and rested.
    1. Eliminate “could” when paired with something like “could hear” or “could see.” Better is “heard” or “saw.” Best is to eliminate those and just describe it. Rather than “She could hear the train coming,” use “The train’s whistle signaled its arrival.”
    1. Read your work aloud to look for inadvertent rhythms or patterns. The latter often happens when a writer gets into the habit of starting sentences in the same ways, such as with the ing-verb first (“Raising his sword, George said…” followed by “Swinging her hair, Mary said”).
    1. Where possible, try to replace “was” and “were” sentences with a more active verb. For example, replace “the tree was standing” with “the tree stood.”
    1. Exchange weak verbs for stronger ones. For example, “He looked at her.” The word “look” is nothing more than a stage direction. Did he gaze, glare, peer, stare, study, glance, gawk, blink at, glower, frown at, or gape at her? Any which are more specific for the reader.
    1. There is a constant controversy over how many adverbs are acceptable in today’s writing, varying anywhere from none allowed on up to liberal use. I’m somewhere in the middle. Sometimes an adverb is the best word for the sentence, but they can also be easy crutches for description. If you can show the action, then it’s almost always better than just inserting the adverb.
    1. So this is a good place for the old “show versus tell” reminder. Telling an audience is lazy writing and it keeps the reader at a distance from the story. But showing requires readers to interpret the story and brings them into the heart of the action. Readers love to discover subtleties and complexities in a story, but a writer robs them of this when they tell.
    1. A telling description might be the writer telling his readers, “Jane was a good person.” But showing is much richer, as the writer shows Jane helping others, giving to the poor, or engaged in whatever behaviors she defined as being good.
    1. Telling sentence: Jane was becoming angry.
    1. Showing sentence: Jane’s firsts curled into balls and her muscles tensed.
    1. Give variation to your sentence lengths. Again, reading your work aloud should help to find these.
    1. Know the difference between helpful details and distracting ones. It is too much detail for example, to write, “He stood up, smoothed his clothing, cleared his throat, smiled ever so slightly, and walked forward, beginning with his right foot.” Choose the details that matter and leave the rest out.
    1. In first person writing, try to avoid “I” when possible. This can often be accomplished through some restructuring of the sentence (and has the advantage of getting rid of usually weak verbs). For example, “I saw her run” can become “She ran.” Or “I felt the sting” can become “It stung.”
    1. Since we’re talking about point of view, keep control of whatever POV you have. The “ping-pong point of view,” where an author jumps into heads whenever it is convenient for the writing, can become dizzying to a reader. Sure, some authors make it work for them, but all beginning writers should choose a POV and stick with it consistently.
    1. Poorly defined characters will kill a good story. Your main character must have easily defined A) goals; B) strengths; and C) weaknesses. A flawless character is boring and gives you nowhere to go in the story. Use a character chart to help develop these.
    1. Eliminate clichés. The general guide is that if you read it or saw it somewhere before, don’t use it. There’s a great website at where you can enter your prose and it will identify the clichés for you.
    1. Eliminate redundancy. It’s an insult to your reader to repeat the same information over and over. Unless there’s a need to reinforce a fact, consider having written it the first time as good enough, or find a different way to express it.
    1. Phony dialogue. Reading aloud helps catch this. A lot of times we write things that nobody, not even the character, would ever actually say.
    1. Info dumps. This happens when the reader needs to know a lot of information right away, so the author pushes “pause” on the story and dumps the information out. Readers hate it.
    1. Be careful as well on back story. If you must use it, put it as late into the story as you can so that the reader has had time to care enough about the character to want to know their back story.
    1. Be factually accurate. Don’t put your characters in situations where they can’t logically accomplish what you’re asking them to do. Even though you won’t always show it, characters must eat, sleep, and take bathroom breaks. Unless they are superhuman, they cannot accomplish superhuman feats. They are subject to their environment (can’t see well in the dark, can’t run fast over ice, etc)
    1. Avoid author intrusion. Occasionally I read a story where it’s apparent the author has an ax to grind. So the author has his character give a political or religious statement outside the context of the plot, for example. Readers usually resent this, even if they agree with the author.
    1. Avoid too many lucky coincidences. One of my favorite books to read was Inkheart, because it seemed like every time the characters got into a bad situation, they needed just this one thing to work out and then everything would be okay. Only, it didn’t work out and things just got worse. I loved it that they weren’t lucky and didn’t have these moments of, “Oh what a coincidence! The one exact thing I needed to have happen just did happen!”
    1. Characters unconnected to their settings. Whatever place you define for your character, he must act within it. It’s not enough to describe the setting at the beginning of the story and then let the character do whatever he wants with no connection to his environment.
    1. Remember that if they were writing the story, villains would consider themselves the hero. Your villain must be just as strongly motivated as your hero, and a great antagonist will be stronger than your hero, and likely to win.
    1. Speaking of villains, making them crazy isn’t a motive. That’s a copout for giving them a strong enough reason to act.
    1. Be careful on your time period! Research carefully to make sure the words, objects, and technologies you include exist in the time of your story.
    1. Revise. And revise and revise and revise. Learn to love revision, because this is where good writing becomes great.


Have suggestions for more tips? Email me and I’ll add them in!