We’ve all been there. You’ve written a story, and although you’re certain that the ideas and the characters are a hit, the writing just doesn’t seem to do them justice.
You scratch your head a few times. You start to get that uncomfortable feeling in your belly — perhaps I’m not good at writing after all. Perhaps I should just bin it.
But before you screw up the paper, or click the little x without saving, I urge you to think again. Perhaps all that needs to happen in order to bring your writing to life is to play around with your word choice and sentence structure.
Tip 1: Consider your verb choices
Take a look at the following dull paragraph.
If we consider the verbs: walked, opened, retrieved, looked, and so on, we find that none of them bring the character or setting to life. Let’s just take a look at one of the verbs: walked.
‘Walked’ tells us nothing about the way that Anna really moved. We don’t know if she is young, old, able-bodied, tired, excited etc. Perhaps you could add an adverb — did she walk wearily. Did she walk quickly. However, I prefer to just change the verb itself. Use a thesaurus, or if you are typing on Microsoft word, simply place your cursor on the word ‘walked’ and hit shift+F7. Now we have a list of potential alternatives. Perhaps Anna:
If we were to replace walked with one of these alternative verbs, it would start to bring the character to life. Of course, you need to know your character first.
I’ve decided that Anna is hiding in an underground bunker after receiving a gunshot wound to the leg. Therefore, she isn’t just going to walk, instead she will hobble over to the pantry. I could continue this with the other boring verbs in my paragraph like ‘looked’, but instead let’s move onto Step 2.
Tip 2: Use the 5 senses
I’m happy with Anna hobbling across the kitchen to the pantry. But the next two sentences, ‘She opened the right hand cupboard. She retrieved a tin of baked beans,’ are perfectly terrible examples of simply ‘telling’ your reader what the character is doing. Let’s consider using one of the 5 senses to really ‘show’ the reader what is happening instead.
Thinking about my character and the setting, I know that the cupboard hasn’t been opened in a long time. I consider the 5 senses and decide to describe what it sounds like when Anna opens the cupboard. An unopened cupboard might squeak, squeal, whine or groan (thanks Mr. Thesaurus). I’m a big fan of using literary techniques like similes / metaphors / personification so because the cupboard hasn’t been opened in such a long time I imagine it groaning as though in complaint.
Now we have a slightly more interesting start to our paragraph:
Tip 3: Vary the way your sentences start
Sometimes we get into the habit of writing our sentences the same way.
If you look at the first two words of the above sentences, you can see that they have the same pattern. Anna hobbled… She opened… She retrieved…. She looked…
Varying the start of your sentences will help to remove the monotonous lilt to the paragraph. One option is to change some of the verbs to their -ing form to help the writing flow (For example, changing Anna hobbled across… to Hobbling across… or She retrieved a tin… to Retrieving a tin…).
This might mean that you have to join a couple of sentences together for it to make sense. I’m only going to change one sentence, which is the third sentence about Anna retrieving the baked beans. Now we have:
Tip 4: Include dialogue where appropriate
If you are just telling your reader what the character is thinking, feeling, or doing, it can become a bit of a hard slog. I’m going to add some dialogue into this paragraph to show Anna’s feelings about the out of date tin of baked beans.
Tip 5: Vary the length of your sentences
In the example above, the six sentences have: 8 words; 10 words; 12 words; 10 words; 12 words; 10 words. I call these ‘mid-range’ sentences, and if you write all of your sentences like this then the writing can become quite monotonous. There is no variety. No urgency.
Let’s try to embed some shorter sentences to create pressure or suspense. We could also include a longer sentence which can really sweep your readers up in the description. I’m going to play around with the length of the last few sentences to see if I can bring this paragraph to life. I’m also going to use some of the previous tips like using the 5 senses and considering my verb choice. Here is what I ended up with:
It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely better than the paragraph I started with!
As you edit your writing, consider your word choices. Is ‘walked’ or ‘ran’ really the best verb to show what your character is doing? Use a good thesaurus and try to draw upon the five senses to give your reader a feeling for the characters and setting. In addition, check for variety in the way your sentences begin, and consider changing some of your verbs to the –ing form if appropriate. Add dialogue where suitable, and vary the length of your sentences so that some are shorter or longer. This will help your writing to flow.
Have you got any other suggestions? Comment below.