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The internet is full of writing advice and it can feel overwhelming when all you want to do is to start writing and write well. Is said really dead? And what was it about adverbs? In this blog post, I will share my best beginner writing tips that will actually help you become a better writer without overthinking.
You can’t edit a blank page
I will talk about this ad nauseam if I need to: in order to write well, you have to let yourself write something. Often that something is a first draft full of lousy word choices and repetitive information. If you read any of my first drafts, you would wonder if I take any of my own advice at all, because there will definitely be characters doing nothing but raising their eyebrows and I’ll probably use the word “suddenly” at least once.
Many “writing skills” are actually “editing skills“. In my opinion, the true magic of writing is in the many rounds of revisions that come after the first draft, but you do have to have something written before you can fix it. With experience and with good planning, your writing will get better even in your first drafts, but until then, don’t worry about any of the writing tips until you’re revising your existing writing. Again, apply the writing tips to your existing writing, don’t let them hinder writing your first draft.
Choose a point of view and stick to it
I’ve written more about choosing the right POV, but here’s a short explanation of the points of view you can choose when writing your novel. (Writing The Intimate Character is another good resource on the subject.)
The first-person point of view and the third-person intimate point of view are essentially the same, except in the first-person you use the “I” pronoun and in third-person you use “she” or “he”. In both points of view, you see the world through one character and everything is filtered through their eyes and their worldview. When they think, you don’t need to say “I thought” or “she thought” because your readers will understand that we’re inside that character’s head and it is their thoughts we’re reading about.
Then there’s the third-person omniscient point of view where you also talk about he or she doing things, but instead of sticking to one character at a time, you have access to anyone’s thoughts, feelings and past in any given scene. You can talk about Kitty doing embroidery in the sitting room and then about Fiona writing in her journal in the next sentence, and then zoom out and talk about what the rest of the village is doing.
Point of view mistakes that writers make
You might be protesting here and say that you’ve read books with multiple POV characters that were still written in first-person. And so have I! Spinning Silver is an excellent example of how to do this well.
The “trick” is to stick to one person per scene or chapter. If your chapter is written from Steve’s point of view, you can’t see inside Margaret’s head even if you just wrote the previous chapter from her point of view. It’s for your readers to know and for your characters to find out.
When you choose a character’s point of view, you must be picky in how they talk about themselves. You can’t have them mention things that they naturally wouldn’t be thinking about, although I’m sure you’ve seen it in books that were less concerned about sticking to their chosen point of view.
For example, a character wouldn’t be saying something like “I have blue eyes and long hair” because that’s not something a person usually thinks about themselves on their own. Of course, some writers try to circumvent this by having the (usually female) character stand in front of a mirror and think about what they see there, but that is a weird and gross trope that I wish would just die already.
If it’s important for us to know your character has long hair, have them brush their hair and complain about how long it takes. If you really want your readers to know what colour their eyes are, write something like “Dad had always been amazed by how both mum and I had the same bright blue eyes.” If you find doing that too difficult, see if you would like to write in an omniscient point of view instead – it might suit your story!
Don’t do head-hopping
I already touched on this in the previous section, but it deserves more attention because this mistake is so easy to make. Head-hopping, essentially, is the sudden change in point of view in the middle of a scene. It usually happens because the writer didn’t know (or couldn’t be bothered to figure out) how to convey information about another character’s thoughts or feelings without going inside their head.
I adore Jenny Colgan‘s novels and they’re some of the few books I read in the romance genre, but she has a bad habit of head-hopping. The books are generally written from the woman’s point of view, but then at a crucial point we somehow end up in the male love interest’s head because apparently we need to know what he’s thinking about our heroine. Don’t do this. Don’t be lazy. If you already did this, please fix it.
Choose the exact right words
I know this piece of advice is pretty vague but I just want to remind you of the many things you need to do when editing your story. When you’re writing something the first time, it’s totally fine to use the first words that come to mind so you don’t lose momentum. But when you’re editing what you’ve written, you can’t just settle for any old word!
Is your character having a headache or is their head pounding? Are they hungry or ravenous? Is it a nice day or is it, in fact, sunny with gentle wind? There are no right or wrong answers, and I’m definitely not trying to say that the most complicated word choice is always the best. (More on that later.) Just make sure that what we read actually matches what you’ve had in mind when you came up with the story.
This is also the real problem with adverbs: they don’t paint a picture. “She walked quietly” doesn’t really tell us anything special, unlike “When she walked, she tried to avoid the floorboards that always made a sound.” But again, you as the writer need to do the choosing. Sometimes you do need to say “she added hastily”.
Cut out filler words
An important part of choosing the right words is to cut out the filler words. Words like really, just, suddenly, seemed, somehow and even are totally fine in your first draft, but later on, you should cut out most of them. (“Just” is a difficult one for me, it just seems to creep into my writing all the time.)
Sometimes we can cut out those filler words completely and our sentences will be perfect on their own. But other times, like with suddenly and somehow, we’ve been lazy in our writing and we need to do some more of the “choosing the right words” I mentioned earlier. “Suddenly” doesn’t really bring the feeling of something being sudden, and as the writer, you really should know the “how” in “somehow”. (Side note: any words are fine to use in dialogue.)
Don’t be vague about body language
Another important part of choosing the right words is not to always say the first thing that comes to mind when writing body language, because the first things are often over-used and vague. I sometimes come across snippets from other people’s writing on Instagram and I want to ask them what exactly is the character feeling because I have no idea what “she took a breath through her teeth” is supposed to mean. (Obviously I don’t do it, because randomly giving out feedback without being requested is kinda rude.)
Think about drawing a sharp breath – what could it mean? It could be a sign of surprise, or maybe your character realised they forgot the oven on. They could be shocked or aroused. Gestures and body language don’t necessarily mean anything on their own, so you might need more substance around them and you could consider swapping them for something more specific and less often used. You can’t raise your eyebrows at everything.
If you need help with describing body language in different situations, 1000 Character Reactions is a great resource for coming up with actions other than shrugging and nodding! I use it every time I’m editing my novels and I realise I’ve used the same descriptions 12 times.
Sometimes a simple word is the best
All throughout my life I’ve heard comments about my choices of words. It’s not that I want to sound smart or different, I just like cool words and I’ve seemed to accumulate an interesting array of them. Still, your story is not the place to show off the extent of your vocabulary, and obscure words don’t make your writing any better.
One of my favourite Finnish authors has degrees in theatre, drama and creative writing, and you can definitely tell. I love her stories but her writing has one big problem: oftentimes it is unnecessarily flowery. Sometimes the door simply opens – you don’t need to write about how the door cuts the air with its sharp opening. (This was not a direct quote but I’m also not exaggerating.)
Mind you, I’m not saying you need to dumb down your writing. Use the words that feel natural to you and that fit your genre. But using a plethora of words that have your readers reaching for the dictionary will only distract from your story and make you look like you chose words at random from the thesaurus, and I can only assume you don’t want that.
Said is not dead
I don’t know who came up with “said is dead” but they were clearly a big dum-dum. Dialogue tags, i.e. she said or he asked, are best when they’re barely noticeable. You really don’t need to find multiple different synonyms for “said” to use in your writing, I promise it’s not going to get repetitive and your readers are not going to notice anything. (Actually, you can often cut out the dialogue tag completely, especially if there are only two people talking in one scene. Just don’t replace it with something flashier.)
It’s totally fine to occasionally use words like whispered or murmured, but the majority of your dialogue tags can absolutely be “said” or “asked”. If your character is saying something in a very specific way, make us really see it. Other characters’ reactions are also a good way to show how your other character is saying things.
Dialogue doesn’t have to be exactly like real speech
I’ve seen a few Tumblr posts “reminding” writers that real people use filler words in their speech and that they stumble in their words and say “um” and “like” frequently. While this is true, there is no need to include all of that in your writing.
Dialogue in writing should resemble real speech, yes, but it needs to be an enhanced version of it. Because real people use those filler words a lot and they rarely form coherent sentences 100% of the time. I’m not entirely sure if I have ever uttered a complete sentence in my life – I’m probably a writer because I’m not much of a talker. Reading genuine speech gets really tiring and we don’t need that in fiction.
People also try to get to the point of what they’re saying fairly quickly unless there is a reason to use more words than necessary. When I edit my dialogue, I usually find I can cut out almost half of the words I initially wrote and make the remaining words into shorter sentences. Unless they have a reason to use longer sentences and bigger words, I do this to almost all of my characters, keeping in mind their individual quirks and habits.
Don’t over-explain things
Something that many beginner writers end up doing is explaining things that don’t need to be explained. Although we live our own complex lives, there is a staggering number of similarities between all of us here on Earth.
If somebody is up, we can pretty safely assume that that person has woken up that morning (or at least at some point during the day). Unless there was something interesting about how they woke up – maybe the ceiling collapsed on the foot of their bed – we don’t need to be told about it. If they take their sunglasses with them, we can assume it’s sunny. Somebody is drinking a glass of water because they’re thirsty.
There will also be numerous things in your character’s backstory that we don’t need to hear the details of unless it’s pertinent to the story. Readers are pretty good at filling in the blanks. For example, if your protagonist wants to avoid seeing their ex-boyfriend, your readers can more than likely imagine why that might be. Bad breakups are not that uncommon. Unless the ex or the old relationship are relevant to the story and will affect the events later on, you can probably spare the details.
When you’re wondering if you’re providing important details or falling into over-explaining, remember that readers think everything is relevant to the story. You might think that mentioning something is relevant and important, but if it never comes up again in the story and doesn’t affect anything that happens, it’s a superfluous detail.
Don’t tell your readers what you just showed them
You’ve probably heard of “show, don’t tell”, or differently put, “demonstrate, don’t narrate”. Most writers know about this already, but then they lack the confidence to actually pull it off. They show something in wonderful detail and then go and explain what we just saw. Wah-wah.
For example, someone might write something like this: Ruth gritted her teeth when she heard the news and crumpled the letter before throwing it into the bin. She was angry. You don’t need to tell us that she is angry – you already showed us. Those are very angry actions. If you’re not sure we got it, add sensory detail, dialogue, inner monologue or other people’s reactions. Believe in yourself enough to know you can bring your readers into your story world instead of just telling your personal account of it.
Above all, remember this about the best beginner writing tips
All these “writing tips” are so much easier to remember and infuse into your writing when you just remember that your words are supposed to paint a picture.
Your first draft merely primes the canvas for you, and then you’re responsible for telling your story in such a way that your readers will really see the story on the page like you see it in your mind. It will take several rounds of adding more things and taking something else out, and occasionally taking a few steps back to see everything better, but eventually, all the layers will bring out your masterpiece.
What to do next?
If you’re worried about how to incorporate learning these things into your writing, you should start with shorter writing exercises.
Choose two characters who disagree with each other and they’re trying to have a conversation without it turning into a full-blown argument. They’re in an environment that is new to them and it’s uncomfortably hot that day. Write a scene without using the words hot or angry, and don’t use any other dialogue tags except said or asked.
If you would like more writing exercises for beginners, you should check out my 30-Day Writing Challenge. It’s full of useful writing exercises that actually help you learn all those writing tips you’ve been reading.
Do you need more help with writing a book?
Sometimes free tips and a useful ebook aren’t enough to guide you on your writing journey, sometimes you need something even better. I can’t hold your hand through the whole process of writing a novel, but I can give you a step-by-step process for writing your book and help you strengthen your writing skills. That is why I created Writing Your First Novel and I would love it if you could join us there!