A well-written story is like an undertow in the ocean; it should pull readers in, take them for a ride, and only spit them out at the end. Read on for tips that will give your writing more strength and power.
1. In a story, have powerful sentences stand alone. It’s far more effective when the strong sentences, especially those that indicate action, are separated from the rest of the text.
I opened an eye a crack and saw him step closer to the bed. I wondered why he had come in here. Maybe he forgot a toothbrush and wants to borrow one. Maybe he meant to go into the living room to watch TV. He sat down on the bed. Maybe he’s hungry and looking for the kitchen. He’s going to be disappointed though; the only thing in my fridge was mustard and week-old chicken fried rice that smelled like feet.
I opened an eye a crack and saw him step closer to the bed. I wondered why he had come in here. Maybe he forgot a toothbrush and wants to borrow one. Maybe he meant to go into the living room to watch TV.
He sat down on the bed.
Maybe he’s hungry and looking for the kitchen. He’s going to be disappointed though; the only thing in my fridge was mustard and week-old chicken fried rice that smelled like feet.
This technique builds suspense as well, because it makes the action easier to follow. In the edited text, what the narrator is thinking is now separated from what the stranger in the room is doing.
2. Vary sentence length. Follow a long sentence with a short one. Long after long is boring; short after short sounds choppy and childlike.
The late American author and writing instructor Gary Provost says it beautifully here:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
3. Don’t use words like very. They dilute descriptive text.
New York was a shock. Growing up in a very small, rural town in Canada, no one ever honked except as a friendly hello or to get a cow off the road.
New York was a shock. Growing up in a tiny, rural town in Canada, no one ever honked except as a friendly hello or to get a cow off the road.
4. Avoid weak adjectives and most adverbs. They weaken powerful writing. So instead of walked quickly or ran fast, write dashed or bolted.
5. Details and description are critical. The best fiction writing makes you visualize the scene as if you’re watching a movie. Non-fiction should do the same. Don’t tell your reader something, show them with descriptive imagery.
Instead of saying, it’s raining - describe what the scene looks like. Use descriptions like glistening pavement or driving horizontal sheets of rain or describe images reflecting in puddles. Instead of writing tall man, describe him towering over something.
6. Use the active voice as much as possible.
An active voice follows the SVO sentence sequence - Subject, Verb, Object.
She ate the pizza with pineapple. (Yuck)
The subject she, the verb is ate and the object is pizza with pineapple.
The pizza with pineapple was eaten by her. (Yuck and awkward.)
Passive sentences are often weak, awkward and wordy. But sometimes we do want to emphasize the object of a sentence and, in those cases, passive voice is fine:
The suspected thief was apprehended without incident.
7. Do a search of the word that when you are done with a piece. Then delete the unnecessary ones.
He said that he didn’t do it.
An editor once threatened that I’d have to pay her $5 for every unneeded that. Now that's incentive. There's nothing like getting hit in the wallet to break bad habits.