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Writing Tips

Author: Kaitlyne McLeod

Email: kaitlyne_mcleod@yahoo.com

Okay, so I've been a writer for years now, taken a few classes in the subject, read a lot of books, and here's a few things that might be helpful to someone looking to improve his/her writing.

1. Point-of-View

There are a few things to think about when considering point-of-view. First of all, what are you more comfortable with? It sounds silly but if you aren't comfortable writing from the first person, don't do it. Another thing to consider is how many characters there are, and how much do you want to be known about those characters. First-person is by its very nature a limiting perspective. While it gives you greater insight into one specific character, it means that you aren't going to get to see things from other characters perspectives. Also, I tend to see first-person as a very biased view. Not only do you not get to see what happens from the other characters, what you do see is seen through the storyteller's eyes, which may or may not be accurate. Most importantly about this tense, be consistent. People don't always think about it, but when you are writing in first-person, you are writing from another person's viewpoint. Try to be consistent to the voice that you give the character.

If you have many characters or multiple storylines third-person seems the best option. For multiple storylines I almost consider it a must, but I will come back to that. Third-person allows you to have better control over things like plot (in my opinion) and gives you the option of knowing what many characters are thinking. It allows a lot more freedom than first-person. I've never read this in any writing book I can recall, but I also feel that third-person should have a character focus. That doesn't mean its limited to that character, it just means that the writing has a center to it. Sometimes when I read third person, it jumps back and forth between characters constantly within the same scene. This can be confusing to read, and honestly I think the best way to avoid it is to choose one character to focus on and to have the other character's actions given in relationship to that character. It's a difficult thing to explain, and perhaps one of these days I'll write out an example to show what I mean.

As for multiple storylines...I've read a few stories in which these have been done in first person, which each chapter being written in a different character's point-of-view. Sometimes this can be done very well, but is difficult to pull off. Generally it's just easier to stick to third in these situations.

As for second person, I generally avoid this as well. Very few stories are capable of being told in second person, and very few writers can actually write well in this pov. If you want to be really experimental, go for it, if all else fails you can rewrite it later, but keep in mind that it's not an easy thing to do.

2. Tense

Be consistent! This is very important with tenses, and one of the easiest things to overlook. This becomes especially difficult when writing flashbacks, but the best thing to do is pick a tense and stay with it. Then reread and pay attention specifically to tense. If you aren't sure, ask someone. Even the best writers screw up tenses sometimes, but hey, that's what editing's for.

3. Show don't tell.

This is one that they stress in just about every writing class in the world, and also one of the most difficult things to pull off. To sum try to sum it up in a few words, the idea is basically when you are writing a description, it is best not to just tell for instance what a character looks like, or why they perform a certain action. This is the sort of thing that's easier to show an example than to explain, so for instance:

Telling: He had blonde hair.

Showing: The wind blew through his blonde hair.

All right so not the best example, but hopefully you can kind of get what I'm saying. I think of showing as being a more indirect form of description. I mean in essence you are still telling (I mean heck, that's the nature of writing isn't it?), but the first is coming straight out and hitting the reader over the head with something, whereas the second is more indirect.

This doesn't just apply to descriptions, it can apply to a characters motivations as well. I see this most often posing a problem when people write dialogue. For instance, a person may write: "Yeah, right," she said sarcastically. Now, chances are the sarcasm was obvious from the dialogue itself, and this is as it should be. But I will get to dialogue more in a bit. The point here is that when writing dialogue, always go back and check for these things, a lot of times such phrases are unnecessary.

This same type of motivation problem can be found outside of dialogue well, of course. It's fairly common to come across a sentence like this: Sally was mad because her boss had yelled at her at work. Now at the beginning of a story, this sort of thing might work fine, but why not just write the scene showing Sally fighting with her boss? Or why have her throw her purse down a little harder than necessary and then have her husband as her what happened? Honestly I'd lean towards the first, but the point is you shouldn't have to tell something like that. Emotions, motivations, this sort of thing should be clear from your language. Words can be chosen because they convey the correct connotation, entire tones can be set which allow you to understand what the character is thinking or feeling without ever having to be told. Now honestly, this is one of the most difficult parts of writing. We all "tell" to some extent. But it is something that you should look for, because oftentimes changing a few "shows" to "tells" can really make a difference in the impact of your writing.

4. Dialogue

Personally, this is what I have the hardest time with when writing. Pulling off a convincing dialogue is a very difficult thing to do as a writer. There are some tips, however, that can really improve your dialogue writing skills. One good thing to do is go to a crowded area and listen to people talk. Talk a notebook, jot down things people say. Just observe, try to get a feel of the way language works when spoken. When people talk, we don't normally use correct grammar. We use slang, we phrase things oddly, we say "good" instead of "well", stuff like that. Don't be afraid to write in fragments in dialogue, or run-ons. Don't let all those little green lines scare you. Don't be afraid to write things like "gonna" instead of "going to." I'm not saying you have to write everything in a dialect, I'm just saying to try to be more casual. Also, think about the characters and what sort of voice you think they'd have. If you need to, pay attention to the way different people talk in different circumstances. A boss is probably going to talk differently to you than a coworker.

Another thing to consider when writing dialogue is what I'm gonna call bumps, though I might have totally made that term up. Basically they're things that a person does that break up the dialogue (i.e., "he nodded"). These can be VERY helpful. Generally dialogue should have a natural rhythm. When we speak, we don't talk continuously (unless very excited or something), there are pauses, breaks, things like that. The easiest way to get these in is to add these "bumps" as I like to call them. Also, they can keep you from having to say "he said" over and over again.

Speaking of "he said," I'm gonna go off on this for a second. First of all, don't be afraid to say "said." I think a lot of us feel like "said" is the mark of a beginner or something. I see people often use synonyms here, such as "he retorted," or "he uttered." Using words like that usually just ends up drawing attention to the word, which isn't really a good thing. There are some circumstances where saying something else is required, for instance you might want to say "he whispered" or "he answered" or something like that. Just try to avoid using something that stands out. Also, keep in mind that you don't need to say "he said" after every line, especially when only two people are talking. In general, I try to avoid saying "he said" and use bumps instead, just because its my preference in terms of my own style, but honestly you can generally go at least a few lines without stating who is speaking. Usually when in doubt I tend to leave it out. The best thing to do is write up the dialogue in a way that you think it can still be followed by others, and then have someone read it over for you and let you know if they have problems keeping up with who's speaking.

5. Tips

Try writing to music. Choose something with the right tone for what you're trying to write and listen to it while you're writing. You'd be surprised how helpful this can be.

If you're stuck on a scene, there are a couple of things you can do. What always helps me best is to find someone to talk it out with. Usually I'm stuck on some small detail and once I can figure out how to fix that I'm good to go. Another good idea that I'm going to contradict here in a second is to give it a break. Put it down, read a book, watch a movie, do something relaxing. If you have a habit of thinking too much (which I do) then maybe you're just worrying about it too much and not thinking about it for a little while will help. This doesn't mean set it aside and never come back to it though. Plan a time to work on it again. Make yourself at least try, which leads to the next bit of advice: don't wait for inspiration. I know, I know, everyone says you have to be inspired to write. Honestly, it's just not true. If you're just writing a short story, then go writing when inspired is probably not gonna hurt anything because you can probably whip it out in one sitting. If you're trying to write something long, however, this just isn't going to work, the thing will never get finished. It is possible to write when you aren't inspired. Might take a little more work, but you can do it.

Have someone else read your work. When I say someone, I don't mean someone who will just automatically tell you its wonderful and boost your self-esteem. I mean someone who you know will be honest with you and who can offer you some constructive criticism. Outside readers are going to notice things that you didn't. They're going to take things in ways you didn't intend. It's always good to know these things, and it will make your writing better and more reader friendly to do this.

Read your writing aloud. Especially dialogues. You'd be amazed how much you'll notice when you read aloud that you didn't notice when you were just reading it on paper.

Edit. This is a big one. Revise your work. Not just once, but many times. Fix the grammar problems. Fix the typos. If you aren't sure have someone else help you do it. If you aren't happy with a scene work on it until you are. Granted as a writer you'll probably never be 100% satisfied with something, but there's a big difference between having a work that you feel good calling your own and having something that you look at and see a mass of problems in. Writing is about continual improvement. Your work can always be better than it is. Not only that, but in editing you will begin to notice things that you may not have noticed before, which will help your writing in the long run.