An old friend of mine recently decided to tackle a book he talked about writing ever since we met, almost fifteen years ago. We had been out of touch a long time, but when I started my Facebook Page he sent me a quick message. Then he emailed me some of the snippets he’s been collecting for his book through the years. In seconds, I was laughing so hard I was almost crying.
His writing voice is so distinct I felt as if he was sitting across the table, telling me the story himself. That “voice” is something many would argue can’t be taught. And, it’s why I believe his book is going to go so FAR.
When I collected myself from the teary puddle of laughter heaving on the floor, I was so excited about his book that I offered some snippets of what I’ve learned about writing so far . . . which definitely can be taught. As a psychologist who authored countless papers over the years, he already knew many of these tidbits. But, when I started writing, these were the tricks of the trade I had to learn.
Use Single Spaces After Periods: Okay, this one is easy, but when I attended school (back in the 80’s and 90’s) I was taught to use two spaces after a period. The two space rule was a remnant from the age of the typewriter. Now that computers have been around a while the rule is obsolete, as sentences are spaced automatically.
Don’t be Wordy: Words are money. Spend them where it’s important, and save them where you can. Readers will skim those extra words. Direct them to what you want them to see by writing EXACTLY what you want them to see.
Which do you prefer?
- Sarah had been walking slowly down the sidewalk. But, when she had seen Tommy coming up quickly behind her, she had sped up.
- Sarah sped up when she spotted Tommy behind her.
See what I mean? Cut those extra words and get to the point.
Vary Sentence and Paragraph Rhythm: A series of long sentences and/or paragraphs will tire your reader. Conversely, a series of short sentences and paragraphs are boring.
You Don’t Need Dialogue Tags: Editors prefer showing over telling. Although usually unaware of it, readers prefer it, too. Dialogue tags are telling. Take a look at these two examples:
- “Get it through your head,” Sarah said. “I don’t want to date you.”
- “Get it through your head.” Sarah threw the bouquet at Tommy’s chest. “I don’t want to date you.”
The action beat, Sarah threw the bouquet at Tommy’s chest, says everything the reader needs to know and MORE. No longer am I merely suggesting that she said it, now I am showing you what she did while she said it. Allowing action beats to stand in place of dialogue tags can also be great for cutting out those pesky extra words:
- Tommy laughed. “The flowers are for your sister,” he said.
- Tommy laughed. “The flowers are for your sister.”
Those two extra words, he said, may not seem like a lot here, but consider how many of those he said, she saids might pile up in an entire book!
If You Decide You NEED Dialogue Tags, (which you don’t): Writing a variety of dialogue tags, such as: he shouted, she cried, he lamented, and she murmured, will only serve to distract your reader from what your characters are saying. Don’t bother. Use “said,” almost every time.
Another Quick Word About Tags: Adverbs don’t belong on the tail end of tags. If Prince William Fancypants is saying his sentence lovingly, have the DIALOGUE relay that tone. If you have to tack on the adverb, your dialogue is probably garbage. It’s true, J. K. Rowling didn’t care much for this particular rule while writing Harry Potter. But, unless you ARE J. K. Rowling, your editor will tell you to stick those adverbs where the sun doesn’t shine.
While many writers attack their work in different ways, when I read a book that doesn’t abide by these simple rules, nine times out of ten, I’ll put it right back where I found it. What puts YOU off from reading certain books? Join the conversation. Leave me a comment in the comment section!