Improve Your Writing With Three Little Steps

Writing is difficult. There are tons of rules to filter through. Which “rules” are “rules” and which are just “suggestions?” Which rules are genre specific? Which rules are dependent on which version of English you are using (U.S. English and British English really should qualify as two separate languages!).

With seventeen years of editing experience under my belt, there are three little things writers can do that don’t require memorizing any special rules. Just using a little awareness and common sense.

So…about “So”

After you finish your story, use the search function to find every use of the word “So.” In 90% of all stories, this word appears needlessly (and redundantly) multiple times. Quite often, the first thing I do as an editor is hunt down every use of the word and determine if it is needed.

“So” is one of those filler words we use a lot in actual conversation, but rarely serves a purpose in written communication. If you are wondering why the overuse of this word is a problem, consider how you feel stuck in a real world conversation with a person who using a lot of filler words. That little tic in your neck you feel after the seventh or eighth “so” or “and um” or “like anyway”. Well, readers end up with that same tic when they have to read those filler words, too.

This is particularly true with dialogue, as many authors tend to write dialogue the way THEY talk, as opposed to the way the character would talk. While dialogue in general is a topic for another time, in this case, specifically, if you know you are personally prone to using “so” in your own speech, be extra attentive to it in your written work. Deleting half the “so” usage in your story will dramatically improve the general readability of the work.

Pronouns Are Your Friend

I get it. You put a lot of work into selecting the perfect name for your characters. But that doesn’t mean you need to repeat those names over…and over…and over again. Unless it is necessary to use the character’s name for purposes of clarity, you don’t need to repeat it every paragraph (or worse, multiple times in the same paragraph!). Go through your story and pinpoint every use of the character’s name and then see if replacing it with a pronoun would smooth the narrative flow.

Unless there is a specific reason to avoid using pronouns, use pronouns so long as it is obvious whom you are referring to. If there are only two people in a conversation, you don’t need to keep saying their names over and over again. Your readers are not stupid. They can follow along with who is in the scene assuming you established it clearly in the beginning.

Check Your Gender Descriptions

Most writers, I would hope, have heard the term “The Male Gaze.” The Male Gaze refers to the tendency of male writers to sexualize all female characters by describing them based on what appeals to heterosexual men. What you may not realize is that women authors can also fall for this, mostly due to spending decades of reading books that feature the male gaze.

It is an easy fix, however. Identify every female character in your story. Consider the scene, the context the character appears in, and what she is doing in that moment. Then flip the character’s gender and see if the description still makes sense.

A blond character is still a blond character. A tall character is still a tall character. A character making a sour face is still making a sour face. But if the character is “buxom” stop and ask what the male equivalent of “buxom” would be…and then see if it actually makes sense in the scene. If you find that your narrator is spending an inordinate amount of time describing the “peach-shaped posterior” of a female character, stop and ask if the narrator would be spending equal time describing a man’s backside. If you find yourself giggling at that, then remove that description. It’s the Male Gaze and serves no purpose to the story or the character.

Remember, everything depends on context

Context matters. Context always matters. If your narrator is actually a male chauvinist who sexualizes every woman he sees, then those sexualized descriptions in context make sense. If your character has a nervous twitch that causes him to use the word “so” a lot, then go ahead and use the word. Don’t consider these binding rules that must be followed at all times.

These issues are common, invisible issues that creep in to stories that you won’t always see when you self-edit. By adding them to your list of checks, you will be able to determine how to handle these issues on a case-by-case basis as they appear in your work. Simply stopping to think about these issues will often be enough to help you smooth over the rough patches of your writing that you would otherwise miss.