When I first started writing I wrote with abandon. Armed only with an academic background and a love for books, I composed sentences on a whim, letting the rhythm of the words guide my fingertips across the keyboard.Throughout my years as a writer I’ve been influenced by authors I’ve been reading. I think it’s something a lot of writers do when they’re learning to find their voice. You try out the style of writers you admire, discover what works for you and what doesn’t. Over time your own style emerges, incorporating little bits and pieces of techniques learned along the way.
In the early days, I read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, so back then my prose included a lot of adverbs and adjectives, and long sprawling scenes.
Then I discovered Maggie Stiefvater and filter words slipped into my writing, as well as unusual details and personification to bring the setting to life and make it a character rather than just a backdrop.
I also devoured lots of writing guides along the way, learning the “rules of good writing”. One of my faves (which I’m sure most writers are familiar with) is Stephen King’s On Writing. I usually re-read this masterpiece every year at Christmas when I visit my parents in Tasmania and have a little extra time up my sleeve. And, let me tell you, it’s not just the writing advice I enjoy, it’s the fascinating story of Mr King himself (yes, I admit it, I adore reading about other writers’ journeys to success. It gives me hope that one day I might find success too).
It wasn’t until I finished writing my first novel, though, and embarked on the long and seemingly endless journey of revising, querying and pitching my manuscript that I really began to discover my voice. Which, when you think about it, sounds kinda crazy because you’d assume the time you’d learn the most about writing would be when you are actually writing. But in all honestly, I think I’ve learned more about writing in the past 18 months than I ever did in my life previously as a student, reader and budding writer. The reason? Because it wasn’t until I put my work out there for others to critique that I got objective feedback. And feedback was the key.
One thing I learnt was that you can read all the how-to and rule books in the world, memorise the list of no-no’s and go over your manuscript with a fine tooth comb hunting for the sneaky little bastards (excuse my French), but no matter how hard you focus you’re not always going to be able to identify the problems in your own writing. Sometimes, when you are learning, you need somebody to point them out. Then, once you can see the “rules” in the context of your work and not some generic example in a manual, they become a hell of a lot easier to identify.I swear on more than one occasion I was certain I’d weeded out a certain kind of faux pas only to have someone else point it out after a single read through. And I’m sure there are still many more lurking in my prose – I just haven’t learned to effectively identify them yet. But I will keep on soliciting feedback and learning from my mistakes – because I know in the end it will make my writing that much stronger.
So without further ado, I introduce to you my two favourite pieces of advice I have picked up along the way that have improved my writing significantly.
1. Strong Verbs
To me strong verbs are the holy grail of powerful writing, and when I discovered these little beauties I couldn’t get enough of them.
Strong verbs can take a simple ho-hum sentence and give it oomph. And since they also make the use of adverbs and adjectives superfluous, you effectively kill two birds with one stone.
For those of you unfamiliar with strong-versus-weak verbs I will give you a few examples from fiction I love – namely The Wolves of Mercy Falls novels by Maggie Stiefvater (in my opinion, Miss Stiefvater is the queen of writing with verbs that kick ass – particularly of the personification kind):
Instead of writing “I angrily closed the phone” she wrote: “I snapped the phone shut.” (Forever)
Instead of writing “I sat lazily on my stool” she wrote: “I slouched on my stool.” (Shiver)
Instead of writing “I quickly got out of bed” she wrote: “I tumbled out of bed.” (Forever)
Instead of writing “She closed her locker roughly” she wrote: “She shoved her locker shut.” (Shiver)
As you can see, in all examples you get rid of a pesky adverb because the verb itself describes the action so well on its own.
And here are some of my favourite examples of personification using strong verbs:
Night crouched in the trees. (Shiver)
His expression poured back into his face. (Sinner)
The heat crept in around the door. (Shiver)
The music slapped its hands against the car windows. (Forever)
Here are some useful links to articles about strong verbs:
This is really two things, but I lump them into one because I learned about them at the same time. Back in August 2014, I entered an online event called PitchPlus5 where I submitted the first five pages of my manuscript and competed against 49 other writers for the chance to win an agent critique and free query pass. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it past the first round, but I was offered some of the most valuable feedback I’ve ever received.
It was actually just a short email, but the advice contained therein really spoke to me and changed the way I’ve written and edited ever since.
Namely, cut out the filter words and don’t name emotions, show them.
Filter words are words such as looked/saw/felt/knew/watched/wondered/thought and they distance the reader from what is happening. Instead of saying “I felt a hand on my shoulder” you should say: “A hand touched my shoulder” – it is more immediate and, especially in the case of first person POV, helps the reader become the character.
As for naming emotions (ie. saying “I was shocked” or “he sighed with relief), this is a prime example of telling instead of showing and should be corrected immediately. You can do this by describing the body language a person would use when feeling that emotion, or making sure the dialogue between the characters conveys that emotion without having to spell it out.
For example, in my submission I had written:
Susan and Breanna exchanged glances before turning to see who’d spoken. I was shocked to see it was Lachlan MacLean, and shocked further still to realize it was me he was addressing.
After receiving this feedback, I changed it to read:
Susan and Breanna exchanged glances before turning to see who’d spoken. I just stood there, blinking up into a pair of ice-blue eyes. Lachlan MacLean was asking me to dance? This had to be a mistake.
See how more vivid the passage is now?
Here are some links to articles about filters and naming emotions and body language:
I think knowing how and when to break the rules, and doing it in a way that is effective, is what ultimately defines a writer’s voice.
I mean seriously, if we all followed the rules strictly we’d probably all sound the same. And that would be sad.And here is a little addendum I found waiting for me on my computer when I returned from putting my boys down to sleep, courtesy of my cheeky, wannabe hubby (he often sneaks onto my computer and hides messages for me in my writing):
But for me, when it came to discovering my voice, I found the two rules above really helpful. The other was a loving partner who gave me the encouragement I deserved. Wow he is amazing! Love you darling xxx
And he thought I wouldn’t notice…