I recently had the opportunity to serve as a guest speaker in the School of Communication at Illinois State University for a professional development event. And my topic (you guessed it!) was of course, on writing. I’ve authored five novels (so far), countless feature stories, press releases, social media posts, blogs, newsletters, website copy… truly, the list goes on. Writing is something I engage in daily—and I like to think I’m decent at it.
Which is why when I’m asked, “how can I best elevate my writing skillset?” I cringe. Because there is no easy answer. But there are a few things I can recommend, which inspired this blog post. And here they are:
My first piece of advice is to train your brain to avoid the word “was”. It has no place in good storytelling. When you use “was”, you’re telling the reader what’s happening, and not showing them. Passive words take the reader out of the story, rather than helping the reader feel as if they’re in the moment. For example, if I wrote, “she was standing by the bed,” I’m writing from a passive place. Rather, restructure the sentence to, “she stood by the bed”. Active writing uses less words and allows the reader to be in the moment instead of reliving it.
I often teach my students to apply the “by zombies” test. If you can write a sentence and use the phrase “by zombies” correctly, it’s a key indicator that you’re writing in passive voice. For example, “the party was hosted by zombies”. It’s passive. Restructure the sentence actively to “zombies hosted the party.” Active writing is better writing.
One thing I learned early on in my writing career is that dialogue tags do not need to appear every time a piece of dialogue is written. Generally, a reader can infer who is speaking based on the flow of conversation. You only need to include a dialogue tag if it’s unclear who the speaker is. Too many dialogue tags can slow the story down and have the potential to trip the reader up.
Additionally, it’s important to recognize what words work as a dialogue tag. I often see things like, “she breathed” or “she grunted”—neither of which are words that describe how a person speaks. When it comes to dialogue tags, nine times out of ten, “she said” is the best option.
I learned this tip from Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. Adverbs weaken writing. An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective or verb—often something that ends in “ly”. Based on Stephen King’s advice, I try hard to limit myself to just three adverbs per book (roughly 75,000 words).
Writing a play-by-play of a character’s actions is a rookie mistake. I learned quickly that the more compelling way to tell a story is to ditch the play-by-play and focus on what the character feels rather than their actions. Here’s an example about thirst. Which is more compelling for the reader? “Steve tiptoed across the creaky floor and grasped the handle of the refrigerator, pulling from the top shelf a cold bottle of water.” Versus. “The cold water dripped over Steve’s tongue, quelling his parched, scratchy throat on the way down.” Focus on the feelings, not actions.
Challenge “to-be” verbs. Eliminate the excess words; condense and ditch the unnecessary qualifiers. For example, instead of writing, “he will be a good communicator”, simply write, “he will communicate effectively.”
Challenge modifiers. Search for the stronger word rather than modifying it. For example, instead of writing, “we are very happy”, go with, “we are ecstatic.”
Challenge long words and phrases. Once again, we’re looking to eliminate unnecessary words. For example, instead of writing something like, “due to the fact that”, just write, “because”.
Eliminate prepositional phrases. Prepositional phrases will always weaken writing. Train your brain to remove them where you can. Here’s a list of prepositions for your reference.
Challenge long sentences. If your sentence has twenty-five or more words, split it up into two separate thoughts.
I wrote an entire blog post on this topic, but I’ll hit the highlights here, too.
Focus on the five senses. If you find yourself writing, “I heard”, “I felt”, or “I smelled”, etc.—you’re telling the reader, rather than showing them. These are sensory words but offer no detail. For example, instead of saying, “she felt cold”, challenge your writing skillset to describe what cold feels like. “Shivers erupted along her spine, sending goosebumps to parade across her skin.”
Lean into emotion. Similar to feelings, describing emotions are equally as important. Rather than saying, “he was so scared”, describe what scared feels like. “His heart beat wildly beneath his ribcage as a cold sheen of sweat glistened on his forehead.”
Identify trigger words. Be on the lookout for words that will inevitably lead you down the wrong path. For example, if I write, “realized”, “felt”, or “was”, I know I’m violating this important rule. Find your delete key and have another go.
Spot the correlation between passive voice and show, don’t tell. As I noted above, passive voice takes the reader out of the story. If you write from an active lens, you’ll show your reader, and not tell them.
Understand the power of non-verbal communication. 55% of the meaning in any message is generated by the face and body. Another 38% is derived from the way a message is delivered (tone, volume, etc.). Which means, only 7% of the message is dialogue. Allow your reader to make the connections on their own. You do not need to overexplain why a character behaves the way they do. Generally speaking, if someone blushes and plays with their hair, they’re likely attracted to the person they’re speaking to. Let non-verbal communication work its magic!
Be aware of homophones. Accept and except are not the same thing. Neither are affect and effect. Double check your work!
Subject/verb disagreement. If the noun is plural, the subject better be too.
Incorrect: “the struggles that the horse experiences while climbing the mountain is intense.”
Correct: “the struggles that the horse experiences while climbing the mountain are intense.”
Run-on sentences. Break up your thoughts when you need to!
Incorrect: “I enjoy writing immensely but my deadline is looming I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”
Correct: “I enjoy writing immensely, but my deadline is looming; I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”
Comma splices. Know where your commas go!
Incorrect: “He was very hungry, he ate a whole pizza.”
Correct: “He was very hungry, so he ate a whole pizza.”
Missing commas in compound sentences.
Incorrect: “Kate drove her brother and her mother waited at home.”
Correct: “Kate drove her brother, and her mother waited at home.”
Incorrect: “There are some things you can’t share, without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll, is one of them.”
Correct: “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.”
Incorrect parallel structure.
Incorrect: “The Triwizard Tournament challenges involved flight, swimming, and casted spells.”
Correct: “The Triwizard Tournament challenges involved flying, swimming, and casting spells.”
The more you read, the better you’ll write! This may sound like an obvious tip, but it’s entirely true. I also recommend reading all genres, not just what you’re interested in. My primary area of writing is contemporary romance, but I’m shocked at how many amazing ideas and examples I’ve pulled from reading mystery and thriller novels!
Write every day. Write as much as you can. And try a multitude of different types of writing. In my professional career, I mostly engage in feature writing and social media content. But in the evening, I dip into creative storytelling. The variety not only fuels my passion but teaches me versatility.
I’ve always heard the phrase, “done is better than perfect”. And I do think it’s true. You cannot edit a blank page. Get a draft down on paper and save the editing for the end. A good self-edit consists of eliminating unnecessary words, checking for grammar, spelling, and proofreading. It’s also wise to share your work with a trusted partner. It’s amazing how often errors are published. When we’re too close to a story, it’s easy to overlook something simple.
Thank you for taking the time to read through my list of best tips to level up your writing. If you have more to add, please drop them in the comments!