Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Disclaimer: I Don't Always Follow these Rules

I got the task tonight to conjure up a set of writing tips for Uncharted writers. Came up with a set of lucky 13. I don't always follow them, recognizing the power behind Rule 13. Here they are for what they're worth.

1) Write in active voice, not passive voice.

It doesn’t matter if the mountain was climbed, the rapids were run or the portage around the rocks was hard. What does matter is that I climb a mountain, we run the rapids or the portage nearly killed me. Replacing forms of the verb “to be,” especially those in the past tense (was, were, et cetera) will make your writing as active as you are.

2) Closely related to the first rule – write in present tense often, past tense when necessary.

We hike, we swim, we climb, we breathe, we sing, we smile. Only if something is fixed at a certain point in time have we hiked, swum, climbed, breathed, sung or smiled. Writing in the present tense helps our readers feel as if they’re with us on the adventure, rather than listening to us tell about it after it’s over.

3) Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly – instead, use descriptive verbs and nouns.

Waterfalls are often amazing and awesome, scintillating and such. But these and other adjectives and adverbs are overused. Instead, use verbs – thundering – or nouns – turbulent – to describe that waterfall.

4) Read what you write aloud.

A good way to test your writing is to read it aloud. You’ll find, as all writers do, that you stumble over a few passages while you read. Re-write those passages until they’re easy to read aloud. They’ll make for better writing.

5) Find your voice.

Each writer has a different way of communicating. Some use long sentences, others use more descriptive words, others use sentence fragments. It’s good if your writing sounds different than others – that’s your voice coming through.

6) Show, don’t tell.

In the words of Mark Twain: “Don't say the old lady screamed . . . bring her on and let her scream.”

7) Resist cliches.

Familiar sayings are comfortable as an old shoe and as friendly as a dog, but presenting our readers with unexpected imagery will surprise them.

8) Take risks.

There are no bad writers, only timid writers. It’s okay to take a risk, to experiment with a bit of writing – try a bit of poetry in a story, quote a song lyric, throw in a few sentence fragments. These kinds of risks bring your writing to life.

9) Read. A lot.

The best writers are often the best readers. Start a journal of sorts of beautiful passages from the books you read, and study authors like J.R.R. Tolkein, Zane Grey and Terry Pratchett, who excel at description and dialogue. Start with imitation, but then move quickly into applying Rule 5 so what you write is your own.

10) Don’t fall in love with your writing.

Once you’ve finished a piece of writing, put it away for a day or two. Pull it out again and read it. You’ll find ways to improve even the best writing this way.

11) Don’t let writing intimidate you.

If you’re having trouble with the beginning, skip it and write the middle. Or the end. Or just sit down and write out a few thoughts. The act of writing itself often will help you form your thoughts and help you around the inevitable writers’ blocks that fall in your path.

12) Let someone else read what you write.

Writers often get too close to their work. Letting someone else read what you write puts a fresh pair of eyes on your prose and helps you identify areas of improvement.

13) Relax.

Not everything we write is going to be stellar. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work at a piece, the writing is difficult. Sometimes, it’s a breeze. Revel in the moments when your writing sings and look at the times when your writing clunks like a brick as learning experiences. Author Ray Bradbury says that 90 percent of what a writer writes is terrible – so a writer has to write a lot to find that remaining 10 percent.

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