Writing can be quite the roller coaster. Some days the words flow off your fingertips, you love your characters, and you can picture your book lined up with the other bestsellers in Barnes and Noble. Other days, you just want to set your laptop on fire and find something to do with your spare time that’s actually fun.
Often those downer days come on the heels of some type of rejection. It could be a pass on your query from an agent or editor, failing to make a contest’s final round, or receiving some tough love from a critique partner or beta reader. The hard truth is, it takes years of work to get good enough to be published (think of it as an apprenticeship), and even once you are good enough, plenty of other circumstances can keep your manuscript in the drawer.
But, I’m happy to tell you that there are some things you can start doing right now to improve your writing dramatically. Today I’m going to share four simple tips that I wish I’d known when I was first starting out. These won’t help your character arcs or story structure, but they will make your pages instantly more polished and appealing to agents, editors, and readers.
Cut Filter Words
Readers want to be so absorbed into your story that they live it vicariously through the main character’s perspective. As writers, it’s our job to draw readers as deeply into the story world and events as possible, and one of the ways to do that is to avoid using filter words.
Filter words like saw, thought, felt, looked, smelled, realized, and heard (and most of their synonyms) create distance between the reader and the main character’s POV. While they can be used intentionally for a purpose (such as orienting a reader to a new character’s POV, or providing narrative distance for a traumatic scene), generally it’s best to avoid using filter words whenever possible.
Here’s an example:
Dan stepped in through the front door and heard several voices shout, “Happy Birthday!” Looking around the room, he saw his brother and his friends jump out from behind the furniture. He thought he could smell something sweet, like cake. He realized his brother must’ve put a lot of work into planning this surprise party. He felt surprised and delighted at Benny’s thoughtfulness.
And the same passage again, but modified to cut the filter words:
Dan stepped in through the front door. “Happy Birthday!” several voices shouted. His brother and his friends jumped out from behind the furniture. And was that the sweet smell of cake? Benny must’ve put so much work into planning this party. Surprise and delight warmed Dan’s insides.
Notice the word “smell” stays in the second version, but it’s being used in a different context, as a noun instead of a verb. But as you can see, the second version does a better job of dropping the reader into the scene. The writing is tighter and unnecessary words have been cut. As an added bonus, the changes have also taken care of the next item on our list.
I have my son’s literature & composition teacher to thank for this simple, lovely concept: No Two Sentences Start With The Same Word in the same paragraph.
If you look again at the example above, when we were using all those filter words, most of the sentences started with either “Dan” or “he.” Makes for a pretty boring paragraph.
In the second, I was able to rearrange the sentences so that each begins with a different word. Following this rule not only makes the language more inviting to the reader, it forces us as writers to be more selective in what words we choose to use.
Leading us to our next point…
Choose Your Words Intentionally
This one might seem kind of obvious, but honestly, in the middle of telling a story, we often get caught up in what we’re imagining and forget to make sure our words are conveying exactly what we mean. Now, I’m not talking about the first draft. The first draft can and probably should be a pile of creative story garbage. But once you’ve nailed down your big picture elements and you’re ready to edit, then it’s time to make sure each word is the one you want to use.
What do I mean? Here are some examples.
- Use strong verbs and nouns instead of weak verb/ adverb or weak noun/ adjective combinations. “Trotted” or “jogged” instead of “walked quickly.” “Called” or “yelled” instead of “said loudly.” A “mansion” or “estate” instead of a “large house.” You get the idea.
- Make sure adjectives and adverbs are adding something new, even if it’s subtle. I know some people hate all “ly” words and will get mad that I have one up there in the heading for this topic. But the English language is full of beautiful words, and many of them can modify your strong verbs and nouns in a meaningful way. But that’s the key – make sure you’re using that adjective or adverb because it’s necessary to get across what you want to say. Not because you’re too lazy to come up with a better noun or verb in the first place.
- Choose specific over vague words. I’ll admit this can be tough. Sometimes we writers don’t even know exactly what we want to say, so we throw some vague words in there to leave the passage open to interpretation. NO. Decide what needs to be said, and say it. Instead of using a verb like “gestured,” try “waved” or “pointed.” Rather than your character “moving” across the room, can they “glide” or “shuffle” or “waltz?” Instead of hearing a “noise,” can the MC notice a “thump” or “pitter-patter?
Replace Dialogue Tags with Action Beats
Have you ever read a book where every line of dialogue is tagged with some variant of “said?” “Asked,” “interjected,” “expostulated,” “proclaimed,” “insisted,” “yelled”… There are hundreds of possibilities. I bet you were never confused about who was speaking, but probably wanted to throw the book across the room anyway.
Of course, some dialogue tags are necessary for clarity, but instead of tagging every single line, why not use some action beats? Or even leave the line untagged where there’s no chance of confusion?
How about an example?
“Mom,” Nate said. “I finished my homework.” He held out a stack of papers as proof.
“Great,” Mom replied as she glanced at his work.
“Can I have my video game time?” he asked, heading for the basement door.
“Not so fast,” Mom interrupted. “What about your chores?”
“Aww, Mom!” Nate whined. “I hate chores!”
“Tough,” Mom insisted. She pulled out a soup pot to make dinner. “You’re on kitchen duty tonight.”
And now, without all the tags…
“Mom, I finished my homework.” Nate held out a stack of papers as proof.
Mom glanced over his work. “Great.”
“Can I have my video game time?” He headed for the basement door.
“Not so fast. What about your chores?”
“Aww, Mom! I hate chores!”
“Tough.” She pulled out a soup pot to make dinner. “You’re on kitchen duty tonight.”
By cutting the dialogue tags, we’ve streamlined the conversation but the reader still knows who is doing the talking. Of course, too many action beats can also weigh down a scene, so some dialogue tags might be practical if you have more than two characters in a conversation.
Sharpen Your Editing Scissors
Now it’s your turn. Pull out a page or two of your current WIP and try applying some of these tips. Or, if you’re ready to edit a finished draft, you can use the “find” tool in Microsoft Word to search for offending words. The nice thing is, the more you implement these simple concepts, the better your drafting will become too. Hooray for less editing later!
There are plenty of other ways to improve your writing, tighten your sentences, and cut word count. In fact, if you’re ready to go deeper, I recommend Rayne Hall’s The Word-Loss Diet.
What did I miss? Any of those pesky filter words that are your personal weakness? I’ve been guilty of all of these at one time or another!
Header image credit: Pexels.com, CC0 license.