Timeless tips that changed my writing for the better

I mentioned in a previous post that I had the pleasure and good fortune to work with freelance book editor Laurie Rosin on my first novel. I saved every letter because her advice was – and is – timeless. Once I grasped and implemented her suggestions, my writing improved enormously. I still review the dog-eared notes from time to time and always find a gem I can apply to my current work, so I thought I’d share a few with you. These four points comprise Laurie’s essential general guidance:

1) Show readers your story, don’t tell it. One of the most common errors made by new writers is relying on narrative to explain what characters feel, think or have endured rather than allowing readers to learn about these experiences through the character’s interactions with their world. When the author tells the story, he/she is inserted between the reader and the action and characters, and impact is lost. Example: Don’t tell us your main character loves her home, show us through dialogue and actions. She may lovingly smooth the silk throw placed just so on an antique white chaise, straighten a picture, or stand in the doorway of the newly renovated great room with a friend, sipping wine and discussing how the dappled light falls through the linen drapes at dusk.

2) Tighten your manuscript at the sentence level by editing out unnecessary words, clichés, and bland or wordy phrases. Old lines such as “sick as a dog” have been used enough – banish them! Also, become aware of and delete redundant words such as following after (after is unnecessary). In addition, slash “throat clearing phrases” such as these:

Rather than:                use:
due to the fact that         because
at that point in time        then
a vast amount of              much or many
for the purpose of            to
in the event that              if

3) Enhance your word choice and build a fabulous vocabulary! Laurie inspired me when she wrote, “The challenge of being a good writer is to find new and vivid ways to use words to paint mental pictures.” Try these suggestions:

  • Substitute alternate phrasing for “It is/was” and “There are/were” at the beginning of a sentence whenever possible. “There are three things you must understand” is a bit dry, but the sentence “I insist you memorize the three basic rules of this household” is compelling – and I’d like to know more about that character!
  • Hard-working writers may fall into a rut – and bore the reader and stagnate the story – by depending on a few “go-to” word choices. You can provide your readers with a powerful, moving experience by growing your vocabulary. For instance, the first review of my novel Mark of the Loon revealed at least 100 uses of “wonderful.” I used Word’s find and replace option to locate and substitute or rewrite 98%.
  • Laurie taught me to recognize my habit of overusing certain words repeatedly within scenes or pages. Last week I read a story about a hike through the countryside, and I imagined the screech of fingernails scraping a chalkboard as I read the word “trail” in graph after graph of the 7-page short. Suggestions: rutted path, rural route, muddy, weeded course, graveled track, overgrown passage, misty byway are all interesting alternatives and paint a stronger picture of the scene. Conclusion: every writer should own a great thesaurus, such as my 1997 edition of Rodale Press’ “The Synonym Finder,” which Laurie recommended. Even Word’s programmed thesaurus can be valuable. And because it’s often impossible to catch them all as you’re crafting the plot, ask a beta-reader with a good eye to review your manuscript and circle instances of overused words

4) Grammar counts. As a writer, it’s up to you to have a good grasp of grammar and sentence structure and to apply it as you’re crafting your manuscript. Don’t depend solely on your editor or beta readers to resolve grammatical problems once the entire story has been written. Learn your craft. Read books, take a class. Know what a sentence fragment is, recognize comma splices, understand the correct use of the apostrophe. Poorly-written passages stop the reader’s progress and insert the author between the characters and a wonderful reading experience.

Hope this helps – even if it’s a review of the obvious!

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36 Responses to Timeless tips that changed my writing for the better

  1. alberta ross June 21, 2011 at 6:05 am #

    I have found I have a few words that I always over use in my 1st drafts (discovered usung autocrit) in correcting them as you say finding alternatives tightens the writing.

    My problem is dyspraxia and no matter how well I know the rules I do rely quite heavily on my friend from forever/editor to pick up the missing puctuation and misplaced tenses – I am getting better but she has the patience of a saint!!

    I read and re-read silently and aloud to try and locate the mistakes.

    All your friend advice seems to be great not surprized you kept them all

    • Molly Greene June 21, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

      We all have those words we rely on, Alberta — and we all rely on our friends! Thank you so much for visiting and your wonderful comments.

  2. Jettica June 21, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    A very useful piece. Good advice for all writers. Thank you!

    • Molly Greene June 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

      SO glad you liked it. Thanks so much for your comment, Jess!

  3. Jacqui Murray June 21, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Great list, Molly. That last one–Grammar counts–is the most likely to be ignored. I even have members of my writer critique group who swear it’s not important because their ‘editor’ will fix all that. Not if it doesn’t get that far.

    • Molly Greene June 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm #

      I think if writing is our business we should have a working knowledge of the mechanics of the craft. I didn’t say perfect grammar! Just … pretty good.

  4. Carol J. Garvin June 23, 2011 at 5:00 am #

    Great advice, Molly. We can always benefit from a review of the obvious. I always have to watch out for those throat clearing phrases. I get lazy and write the way I speak (not that I should speak that way, either), then have to do serious editing.

    • Molly Greene June 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm #

      Carol, thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment, I appreciate it. Happy writing!

  5. stacysjensen June 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    I’ve been using the find and replace more frequently to break my “repeating” habits. Thanks for the list.

    • Molly Greene June 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

      After a while you’ll pick out your repetitions easily as you re-read. Thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment!

  6. Lane Diamond July 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Sounds like you have a good editor. She hit the three High Commandments of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell; Make Every Word Count; and Keep It Strong and Direct. We writers have much more to address, yet those who adhere religiously to the three High Commandments will likely produce the best work.

  7. Ryan Schneider (@RyanLSchneider) September 23, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    Great stuff, Molly.

    In college I had an English professor from West Berlin who on day one of class said it was a matter of “form versus content.” Form includes spelling and grammar. If one’s form is bad, a reader cannot get to one’s content (what one is trying to say).

    I also feel too many writers (aspiring or otherwise) fail to read adequately. We must read great writers if we ever hope to be counted among them.

    PS ~ I like the tiny little smiley guy at the bottom of the page.

    • Molly Greene September 23, 2011 at 12:47 am #

      Love and appreciate your comment, Ryan! I would agree that writers should be widely read, and add not just familiar with the “greats.” I think a lot of superior writing can be found on the midlst, as well. Thank you SO MUCH for the read and comment!

  8. Mark Andrew Edwards September 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm #

    All great advice, thank you, Molly.

    Though I actaully like the way “There are three things you must understand” sounds. It’s got an honest, clear simplicity to it. It’s very direct.

    • Molly Greene September 30, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

      There are always certain instances where only those words will do :-O

  9. John Abramowitz (@onthebird) October 28, 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    Another insightful post. I thought I had banished my “telling” instincts and am amazed by how often the person who currently acts as my chief editor sends me back notes saying “Show, don’t tell!”

    (Two comments in one day. Feel lucky. :P)

  10. Melissa October 28, 2011 at 10:20 pm #

    What a great reminder. Especially the repeating words part. Sometimes it’s difficult to look at the big picture when editing, but it sure pays off when we do!

  11. Phantomimic February 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Great tips Molly. It’s only using the “find” key that I can proofread any story for specific mistakes. If I don’t do this I get too caught up in the story!

  12. Maggie Hames March 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Very helpful piece. Thanks!

  13. Jennifer Jensen March 5, 2012 at 8:06 am #

    I grinned when you mentioned your Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Mine is from 1986 and is water-stained with a creased cover and crumpled page corners. In other words, much loved!

    • Molly Greene March 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

      Love that book – has taught me SO much!

  14. Angela Tjong March 15, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Thank you Molly for sharing the tips. This is a great tip for me personally.

  15. Sherrey Meyer April 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    Thanks for these great tips! Definitely going on the list of “reference tools” I’ve been building in Evernote. 🙂

  16. TomQuigley_Writer April 27, 2012 at 7:02 am #

    Excellent blog, Molly; both insightful and very, very helpful.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Molly Greene April 27, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

      Thank you for stopping by!

  17. Donna Galanti May 4, 2012 at 2:50 am #

    Good stuff! I too love making note of those echo words and then FIND and REPLACE to change them or eliminate. Or for those other pesky words like just, that, and -ly words. I have to wonder how writers worked so efficiently on typewriters years ago – or by hand!

    • Molly Greene May 4, 2012 at 6:13 am #

      Hey Donna! “Find and replace” is my best friend. Thanks so much for visiting!

  18. Belinda Pollard July 4, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    At my public speaking club a few weeks ago, my evaluator said I say “a bit” a lot. I never, ever knew that. Now I notice it all the time… in my conversations, in my emails and, of course, in my WIP! (They have now been eradicated from my WIP – “a bit” at a time!!! Ha.)

    One of the things I love about Scrivener is that it has a Text Statistics function. Which just revealed to me that there are 411 occurrences of the word “just” in my WIP. Hmmmm….. *scratches chin thoughtfully*

    • Molly Greene July 4, 2012 at 7:21 am #

      … and I hear myself saying “actually” all the time. It’s a quirky placeholder. I write it into my novels as well, and then use Word’s find function to clear them all out. Ha!

  19. Sherry Gloag September 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    Like you my first editor was a gem and I learnt so much from her. The echo-words in my forst drafts ae rarely the same all the way through but come and go in batches that change through the length of the story. I find it a bit spooky when I’m doing my first draft edits. 🙂 Great post.

  20. Ismael September 12, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    Molly –

    Good stuff! I’ve always wrestled with talking like “big people” or “normal” – I always go with normal! Besides it’s much easier that way!

    I recently began a blog called “Real Talk From A PK (Pastor’s Kid)” to talk about some of my life experiences and was looking for some advise from pro bloggers like yourself. This is the best advise yet!

  21. Cyndi Tefft November 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Great list! I like to use visuwords to come up with synonyms. Are you aware of any other online tools like that?

  22. Debbie Young March 16, 2013 at 3:58 am #

    Great advice, thanks, Molly. Every writer should regularly read tips like these as it’s too easy to fall into bad habits. I find myself too often using the word “delighted” and have to edit it out. Well, I guess it shows I am a happy bunny – it could be worse!

  23. Marilyn Chapman January 9, 2015 at 11:21 am #

    Brilliant advice. I checked my debut novel for duplicated words and it was a real revelation! I searched for and deleted several of them but I’m never going to write ‘of course’ again!!

    • Molly Greene January 9, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

      Ha! Made me laugh but I feel your pain, Marilyn. I use the word “gorgeous” about a million times in every first draft I write!