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Creative Writing Tips for Fiction Writers

Editing one's own work is a crucial skill for a writer, and these creative writing tips will help. Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner once wrote that we teach ourselves through our own mistakes. People learn only by error, he wrote. However, it's not always easy to spot errors at first. We're too close to our own writing. We love what we write, especially directly after we write it.

Using a Checklist of Creative Writing Tips

Initially, you may find creative writing tips in the form of a checklist helpful. Use the checklist and then read your work aloud to catch spots that don't "sound right." Reading into a tape recorder and playing the tape back or having someone else read the work aloud is useful because you're more likely to hear what is on the page, not what you meant to put there.

Forget About Perfection

Perfection isn't necessary in your first drafts. After all, what's the point of editing a paragraph that won't survive past the second draft?

Use this list of creative writing tips to remove the initial sloppiness of free writing, to refine the plot and structure, and to improve dialogue, and then move on. With time and ppractice, your editing checklist will shrink, and you'll catch errors as you write.

This list of creative writing tips is not comprehensive, but a short compilation of common and easily detectable errors—the sort that will cause an editor to reject your work. Polish your work before anyone else reads it, as writing littered with passive verbs, adverbs, adjective strings, bad dialogue, and mixed up sentences is like a beautiful floor littered with garbage. No one will admire the rich hardwood below until someone removes the garbage.

Creative Writing Tips A-D

Action/reaction

Write actions and their reactions in chronological order.

Not: She read the letter after she opened it.
But: She opened the letter and read it.

Adverbs

Do a search for "ly" and edit as many adverbs as possible. The strongest, most powerful writing uses few adverbs because adverbs assist weak verbs, which should be replaced with stronger, more accurate verbs.

Not: He spoke softly and gently.
But: He whispered.

Another way to resolve the "adverb problem" is to rewrite the sentence.

Not: He wrote magnificently, and his essays gained the respect of all.
But: He wrote magnificent essays, respected by all.

Begin at left margin

It is customary to begin a story or novel at the left margin, and to return to the left margin for each new chapter or scene. Leave one extra space between scenes.

Begin to

Characters should not "begin to" do things. Have them take direct action.

Not: They began to speak
But: They spoke...

Crying, sobbing and tears

Crying, sobbing, and tears are considered clichéd and melodramatic. How else can you show the emotion?

Not: "Please don't do it," she cried, and fell sobbing to her knees.
But: Her grip on his arm tightened and her voice grew raspy. "Please don't do it."

Decide to

Rather than have characters "decide to" do things, just have them take action.

Not: After lunch, she decided to go for a long walk.
But: After lunch, she went for a long walk.

Dialogue

For more natural dialogue, write in short sentences, use contractions, forgo pleasantries, and compress your dialogue. Edit dialogue to its barest essentials, and avoid the overuse of names.

Not: "Well hello there, Jackie. What a pleasure it is to see you again. I was just wondering, Jackie, if I would ever see you again on this trip or if I would have to wait until we got back to London to give you a call."
But: "Jackie. I wondered if I'd see you again."

More tension in dialogue also makes it snappier and more interesting. Use the following techniques to increase tension:

  1. Have characters talk at cross purposes, so that one character either misunderstands or is purposely nonresponsive.
    Not: "Did Tom find Jack?"
    "Yes, I think he did."
    But: "Did Tom find Jack?"
    "Was he looking for Tom, too?'

  2. Avoid direct responses in favour of oblique ones.

    Not: "What time were you there?"
    "Eight o'clock."

    But: "What time were you there?"
    "The time is irrelevant. The better question is what can we do about it?"


Creative Writing Tips E-I

Going to be

Wordy. Use "will" instead.

Not: She is going to be angry.
Better: She will be angry.

"ing" constructions

One way to make writing more polished and sophisticated is to use only occasional participial phrases. There is nothing ungrammatical about a properly placed participial phrase, but beginning writers tend to overuse them. Instead, separate the ideas into two sentences, or use conjunctions to join them.

Not: Lifting heavy tires all day, he wrenched his back.
But: His job requires him to lift heavy tires all day. That's how he wrenched his back.
Not: Jogging down the street, he saw Shirley and her daughter get into a car.
But: He jogged down the street and saw Shirley and her daughter get into a car.

I'm not going to

This is wordy. Write "I won't" instead.

Indenting dialogue

Create a new paragraph when dialogue changes from one character to another. You may add the character's thoughts and actions after their dialogue without beginning a new paragraph.

Intensifiers

These are the words placed before adjectives and adverbs in an attempt to intensify an effect. Search for such words as very, so, quite, extremely, really, and absolutely. We're very hungry. Thank you so much. The play was extremely good, etc. Removing them almost always improves the sentence.

Internalization

Showing a character's thoughts through internalizations often helps resolve the problem of too much telling.

Not: Alice felt frustrated by their slowness because she needed to be home in ten minutes.
But: Alice checked her watch again. She had to be home in ten minutes. Couldn't they speed up a bit?

It

Be specific and name the "it" wherever possible.

Italicizing internalizations

Use italics sparingly. They're seldom needed for internalizations. Quotation marks are not used around thoughts, so readers will understand that the internalization is not spoken. Also, don't have characters speak thoughts to themselves, in the first person, as if another character were present.

Not: "I've got myself in a real jam this time. But there's a wall up ahead. Maybe I can climb it and get out, but I sure hope there are no dogs on the other side."
But: Burt massaged his forehead. He'd got himself into a jam this time. Maybe he could climb the wall and get out. With luck, he'd find no dogs waiting on the other side.

Creative Writing Tips J-N

Knew

This is another one of those times when you can cut right to the action.

Not: He knew she'd be right over.
But: She'd be right over.

Name repetition

People don't often repeat names in real life, so they shouldn't in dialogue.

Creative Writing Tips O-Q

Overwriting

Remove extraneous details. If you want a character to get in his car and drive away, don't have him insert the key in the lock, twist it, lift the door handle, open the door, and sit. Have him start the car and drive away.

Passive verbs

Too many passive verbs slow and weaken a narrative with wordiness—tighten and strengthen your sentences by naming who did what. This is where your list of creative writing tips will help. Add is, was, were, am, and are to your personal checklist and change as many passive verbs as possible to the active form.

Not: The papers were laid on the desk.
But: Morgan laid the papers on the desk.

Not: What was most worrying to her...
But: What most worried her...

Qualifiers

Like intensifiers, these words qualify adjectives and verbs. Look for such words as just, sort of, quite, somewhat, usually, always, and never. They're unnecessary. Let them proliferate, if they must, as you write the first draft, but weed them out in the second.

Creative Writing Tips R-Z

Repetition

Don't repeat words in close proximity unless you do it for deliberate effect. Find a synonym for one of them.

Not: "Okay, I'll meet you at your place." She placed the receiver back in its cradle...
But: "Okay, I'll meet you at your place." She set the receiver back in its cradle...

Saw/sees that

Wordy and unnecessary.

Not: He saw that she crossed the street.
But: She crossed the street.

Seem

Not: The fruit seemed ripe so he ate it.
But: He bit into the ripe pear.

Not: The car seemed to bounce along the road.
But: The car bounced along the rutted road.

Speaker attributions

If you remove unnecessary speaker attributions, you can also eliminate the "ing" constructions that often follow. For a more polished feel, eliminate as many speaker attributions as possible, and only use them if not using them will confuse readers. Show who speaks through character action, and when you do need a speaker attribution, stick to "said," and "asked." Never use speaker attributions as verbs meant to convey action. Keep action separate.

Not: "Take it," Betty said, pushing the book on him.
But: Betty pushed the book on him. "Take it."

Not: "I like it that way," Joe coughed, laughing and winking.
But: "I like it that way." Joe laughed and winked at her.

Thinker's attributions

Avoid using "thinker's attributions" in the third person limited POV. If a character internalizes (interior monologue), the context will let readers know that the his words are thought, not spoken.

Not: I've got him now, Tom thought.
But: Tom struggled with his fishing line. There he is, I've got him now.

Things

Always edit the word "thing" or "things" and replace with a more specific word.



For more important creative writing tips about how to recognize and avoid passive verbs, see the Passive Verbs page.

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