Here are five of the most obvious-sounding writing tips in the entire world. You’ve probably heard most of these a quadrillion times, but they’re not the beginner tips they sound like. These things inform my entire writing life, and I want to share them with you here. If you’re not doing these five things, you should, and I’m not going to qualify that statement. You should.
- Read your work out loud.
This is Numero Uno for a reason. It’s the biggest, best way to polish your own fiction. When you think it’s finished, read it out loud. Whether you read it only to yourself or to another, your own voice is a great tool—and don’t trust dictation software, either. Reading aloud does a few different things for you. One is that it helps you to judge flow and euphony; if your words taste good in the mouth, they’ll feel good in the minds of your readers. Another is that it slows down your eye on the page and ameliorates some of the tricks your brain plays when you read your own writing. Did you really write what you thought you wrote? Are there typos, missing words, or clunky spots? Reading aloud can really help you pinpoint this stuff. It’s a pace change, a change of format, and sometimes that makes all the difference.
The speed at which you read doesn’t matter. You can be the slowest reader on the face of the earth, and you should continue to read. Taste others’ words. Read what you love and find new phrasing, techniques, things to try. Read what you hate and find the same things, plus what not to do. In your genre. Out of it. Nonfiction. Fiction. It’s okay if someone else’s voice bleeds a little. It really is. You’ll hit that on the edit if you see it, and either take it out or work it into your own tapestry. Read old books. Read new books. You can’t be state-of-the-art unless you know what the art is. It doesn’t matter how hard you’re going at the writing, either. Take an hour or two every day and fill the word well.
- Study grammar.
This should go without saying. It is impossible to overstate the importance of grammar to good writing. Even if you’re a bad-ass grammarian, you could use a refresher course, couldn’t you? Your preferred styleguide doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter how well you think you know it. Whether you like Strunk & White or Grammar Girl—study it. If you are insecure about grammar, do the same. Study it. If you think it’s boring, study it anyway. This is your passion, right? It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you didn’t pay attention in middle school, now is the time to teach yourself. Get a workbook if you have to. There’s no shame, absolutely none, in gaining a new skill. None. The only shame is in not learning what you need to know.
- Use a thesaurus.
Yes, that’s right. Be aware that a thesaurus will not teach you the connotations, or even the definitions of words. They just offer alternatives, and that’s sometimes really helpful—so yes, use one. Sometimes you can’t think of the right word at a certain point, and the covers are falling off of mine. But be in love with words. Learn new ones. Big ones. Little ones. Smaragdine and futhorc and casein. Love how they look and how they sound.
I don’t mean copy-and-paste what you like and fiddle with the rest. I mean type out every last word over again. Revise from hard copy. I can’t say that enough. I know it sounds like a pain in the ass. Writing in general is a pain in the ass. Revise from hard copy. Even when faced with a perfectly decent sentence, you might have something better now, and revising is all about making it better. Revise from hard copy!
There it is. Try one. Trust me.