7 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine

We hardly ever use our tub, preferring the walk-in shower, but I keep cleaning the tub. And I love that tub. When I clean it faithfully, it shines and shines. Kind of like writing. If you practice and practice, the words become all shiny and bright, bringing a glow each time they’re read.

I have to remind myself of that and make time for rewrites, even when I do a short blog post like this one. Oh, you’ll find the occasional typo or other error when I’ve just not  checked as closely as I should or despite my best efforts my eyes have missed something. But most days, my post is error-free and, I hope, an interesting read.

Writing a novel is a little like cleaning house. If you keep putting off all the revisions that deep down you know need to be done (like destroying spider webs drifting in the slanting sunshine) you’ll never have that shining book. If you know there is a problem with your opening scene or your main character is just a little flat, fix it. Buckle down and rewrite the sucker, even though it takes days or weeks. Sigh.

Here are 7 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine

  1. Check that your verbs are active and that you haven’t got caught in a web of  “to be” words. Even though Hamlet used it with great results–he was talking about suicide, for Heaven’s sakes–the verb “to be” can make for dull prose.
  2. Make your characters real; that is, not perfect. Do you know anyone who is perfect? I don’t. And yet we like and even love these people, perhaps because of their idiosyncrasies. They make us feel good because, like us, they have faults. If misery loves company, so does imperfection.
  3. Polish up your sentences. Vary their length. Give your reader a break from long, drawn-out lists of thoughts and feelings and mountain scenes and rivers and solitary goats tripping along beside babbling brooks, their whiskers dripping with sparkling drops of nectar from the gods. Wow! Isn’t that sentence nasty? On so many levels? Of course, I exaggerate but you get the point. Do you see how fast your eyes moved over the two short bursts at the start of this point? And got absolutely bogged down with the long one? The judicious varying of sentence length and type will work wonders for your prose.
  4. Learn the correct usage of “it’s” and “its”. Here I go again harping on this one. If you are a writer you want to be able to use the language properly and join the ranks of those of us who decry its desecration. (Did you notice its?) It’s a shame to see talented and educated people misuse these two forms. For a lesson check out this post where I ranted about this one other day. 
  5. Study the artful use of dialogue to enliven your story, show characters at their worst or their best, and to make scenes real. Many good books on writing devote chapters on dialogue. One example is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers which has chapters entitled Dialogue Mechanics, See How it Sounds, Interior Monologue, and Easy Beats, among others. I think I’ll go back and read those again, now that I see them once more.
  6. Voice. Your voice as a writer. This one has been as ethereal as that floating cobweb back up a few paragraphs. For me, anyway. Anne Lamott explains it well in bird by bird in the chapter entitled–what else?–Finding Your Voice. Get her book, read it, reread it, take it to bed with you, read it until the ink starts coming off the pages.
  7. Forgive yourself. Yes, I know, that’s a strange one but if you tend to be on the perfectionist side, you’re going to get awfully angry with yourself at times. When you realize you should have done a major plan of some sort before you actually started writing. When you forget to follow the formatting rules for a submission and get lambasted by a writing professional. Or when you realize that short story you spent a week developing is just utter crap. Forgive yourself and then find the way to overcome the latest obstacle.

Time to take a good long soak in that shiny tub.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. What might you add to it to help your fellow writers polish their writing to the shiny stage? If you’re not a writer, what might you add for writers to make your reading life heavenly? Consider leaving a comment below.

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22 thoughts on “7 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine

  1. Hi Elaine:

    Nothing like making a statement “But most days, my post is error-free” to trip you up. Grin. Give it one more look.

    Now I’d better read this over one more time.

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  2. As usual, great advice, Elaine. Ann Lamont’s Bird by Bird sounds like a good read especially with your recommendation.

    I couldn’t agree more: polish, polish, polish and then let it go when it shines.

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  3. I’ve been thinking about the importance of using lists as a writing technique. It can add a lot to novels. It’s counterintuitive. You wouldn’t think so. But it adds substance and reality to stories. For instance, lists composed of minor things a protagonist sees, or buys. Richard Ford uses this technique to great advantage in his latest novel, “Canada.” I loved Canada, by the way, until part three. Ford failed to let the reader know what the plot meant. Therefore, “Canada” lacks transcendence.

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  4. Thanks for the tips. I need to work on the dialogue part. I’m writing my first fiction book ever and admit to being a bit lost on the proper rules of writing dialogue. For now I’m just writing and figure I’ll go back to fix the punctuation later.

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  5. Point 3 ” On so manner levels?” Point 4 “Learn the correct usage of “it’s” and “it’s”.” These are very interesting points of discussion.
    All right, I’ll try to get rid of the perfectionism. You can chastise me in Embro on the 1st. Yes, I am coming home for the Caledonian Games.

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    • I stand corrected, Brian. And totally embarrassed. The automatic spell checker really messed me up and I didn’t catch it. My bad. Thanks for finding my errors, Brian. Obviously I need to follow my own advice.

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  6. Lots of good advice, as usual Elaine. I was going to mention the same thing Ruth did, but she beat me to it. I can’t believe sometimes how mistakes can get right past me even though I read my posts (or comments) over several times. That Bird by Bird book sounds interesting. I like the “Forgive yourself” part. I think we’re more inclined to want to kick ourselves when we do something that we feel is stupid. POV is another point (no pun intended) to consider too. We need to make sure we don’t wander back and forth between different POVs. There is so much to consider when writing a novel. Now I’m going to say “Goodnight”. I’m starting to ramble as I begin to nod. I’m calling it a day – right now! 🙂

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  7. And do all of this AFTER you’ve written the first draft, right? 🙂 Although, in the second book I feel I’m trying to do it all at once and not waiting for the rewrites.

    Again, great advice. The KISS principle only for writing right? I use the K.I.R. principle. Keep It Real.

    Can I add one? Be wary of hindsight. I’ve read several books where the characters don’t have it. They always say exactly the right thing at the right time.

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  8. I am a faithful tub soaker. I might be able to write entire novels in the tub if someone would invent waterproof laptops. I love the advice of keeping people real. Some of the most interesting book characters have idiosyncrasies that make them come to life.

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  9. Thank you for your great article – again. My characters seem to take over my typing, thinking, leading up to the next chapter, and sometimes, making important chapter decisions. Naturally I allow ‘them’ to do this as I just type away – letting the ideas flow. I almost hate to have to stop, read what I typed, make changes, then start over the next day. So I’m going to wait until I’m ready to finish my novel before I have to edit away.

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