Easy reading is damn hard writing.
~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
Of all the #writetip quotes floating around the web, Hawthorne’s quote remains one of my best. Why? Because it addresses 2 key focus points that every writer should have at the top of his/her writing checklist:
- The reader; and
- The writing.
Just because you’re a writer does not mean that you should forget about being a reader. Readers desire a smooth reading experience. They don’t want to be slowed down by verbosity, or trip up on grammatical errors, or be confused by tense inconsistencies and discontinuity.
While non-writers may think that good writing is simply thrown together by a skilled writer, we writers know better. Writers know that good writing takes time, effort and revision. Easy reading is the result of word economy and readability, which is not the result of one draft, but several.
Keep the reader in mind when you’re revising your work. Read it out loud and ask yourself questions relating to readability. Do you trip over grammatical errors? Is your love of exposition and description slowing down the story? Do you need 10 words or can you say it with 5? Is there continuity and flow between sentences, paragraphs and chapters?
No matter what you’re working on (poetry, fiction, non-fiction) these 10 writing tips will give your writing an instant makeover.
Inconsistencies in tense will weaken readability. Unless you’re intentionally moving from one tense to another, it is best to stick to one tense otherwise the reader will get confused, or worse, question your knowledge of language and writing.
“I emerged from the darkness of the cinema, escaping a halloween horror, freedfrom the terror of a masked murderer, only to exit into the dark night. The cinema crowd spilled onto the street, filling up the night with texture and sound, momentarily, but quickly dispersed and dissipated.”
As you can see from the words in Italics, the mixture of past and present tense will either confuse or annoy the reader.
“I escaped the terror of a halloween horror and emerged from the darkness of the cinema only to exit into the night. The cinema crowd temporarily relieved my nerves as they spilled onto the street, but as soon as the crowd dispersed my mind travelled back into the cinema where I had spent the last hour with a masked murderer.”
2. FIND AND REPLACE REPETITIVE WORDS AND PHRASES
Most, if not all, writers favour and over-use certain words. I will call them a writers ‘go-to-words’.
Examples of go-to-words:
feel/felt/feeling, at last, thought, suddenly, all of a sudden, etc.
As we all favour and overuse different words, I suggest the following exercise:
- Read through your work and identify your go-to-words
- Make a list of your go-to-words
- Make a list of alternative words AND/OR Make a list of words to delete
- Use the Find and Replace command on your computer to either Replace or Delete your go-to-words
3. LESS IS SOMETIMES MORE
When you read through and revise your WIP try to spot superfluous words that can be replaced with 1 word or 2 words. Sometimes, it’s as simple as replacing an adjective with a verb, OR, removing an adjective when a verb will suffice.
“Released, at last, from the torture of date night, I marched off indignantly.”
- Delete ‘at last’ – it doesn’t add any value
- The word ‘marched’ suffices; ‘indignantly’ is a superfluous word that doesn’t add value to the sentence or the action.
“Released from the torture of date night, I marched off.”
3. SHOW VS TELL
The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader [transformed by film and television] is increasingly visual…We prefer to witness an event to hearing about it afterword secondhand. Which is why I urge writers to “show a story” instead of “tell a story”.
~ Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
If you haven’t heard of Show vs Tell, then I suggest that you do some research (reading resources at the end of this post) to learn more about it. It sounds simpler than it is, and even when you understand it from a theoretical perspective, it is much more difficult to apply that knowledge. If you are familiar with Show vs Tell, but need help with putting the theory into practice, then I would recommend reading. It’s only in reading that you start to understand the concept of Show vs Tell, and recognise the value of it.
But do keep in mind, Show vs Tell is about striking a balance. You can’t possibly ‘show’ your entire story, and you will bore the reader to death and/or slow the story down if you ‘tell’ your entire story. Balance is the key!
“I endured the last awkward moment and stiffly hugged my date farewell.”
I endured the last awkward moment – this sentence tells the reader how the character feels and what the character is doing. Additionally, it only tells the reader what 1 character is doing/feeling about the date.
“I crossed my arms around my stiffened body when my date opened his arms for a farewell hug.”
This sentence shows the reader that the narrator/protagonist is uncomfortable with her date, while the date is the opposite with open arms.
(n) a phrase or expression in which the same thing is said twice in different words.
“The muddy, silt-laden water lapped forcefully against the blackened wood of the jetty.”
“Muddy” and “silt-laden” say the same thing, so the sentence would be improved by removing one or the other.
“The two twins are going to the party.”
Twins means two – so unless you mean 2 sets of twins i.e. 4 people, this would be grammatically incorrect.
5. ACTIVE VS PASSIVE VOICE
Active – the subject performs the action stated by the verb
Passive – the subject is acted upon by the verb
The earthworm was caught by the magpie (passive voice).
The magpie caught the earthworm (active voice).
Using the passive voice is not grammatically incorrect, and there are instances in which it
adds emphasis. However, for fiction and poetry, active language is far more powerful
because it is generally more succinct and economical in its structure and meaning.
For more information on the passive and active voice, I recommend reading this article:
Do you need 10 words or can you say it with 5? Wordiness turns reading into a chore and it will encourage the reader to either skip it or stop reading altogether.
“Had the sun been sitting in her throne of clouds, the sound of water might have reassured me, but the combination of howling wind through mangrove trees and lapping water reverberating into the dark, empty, silent night unsettled my heightened senses and I reverted to a state of tension – an owl on high alert, scanning left and right, front and behind, up and down for signs and sounds of danger.”
I’m sure you’ll agree that the wordiness of this sentence impedes readability.
“The sound of lapping water and wind howling through mangroves did little to reassure; I scanned the menacing environment like an owl in the night, and tried to comfort myself by envisioning the sun on a throne of clouds.”
Be more specific with words. Adding specificity will improve readability and paint a vivid picture.
A bird caught a worm (non-specific)
An Australian magpie pulled a plump earthworm out of the damp soil with its black beak.
A magpie plucked a slimy earthworm out of the freshly mown grass with its long, sharp beak.
By adding specificity to the type of bird, the type of worm, and the conditions paints a more vivid picture. Furthermore, by changing words and being specific, you can change the meaning.
8. WATCH OUT FOR COMMON MISTAKES
Nothing puts a reader off more than simple spelling and grammatical mistakes. Here are some common mistakes to watch out for:
YOUR vs YOU’RE
Your – it belongs to you
You’re – contraction – you + are = you’re
It’s cold today. Don’t forget your cardigan.
You’re the only person who understands me.
IT’S vs ITS
Excerpt from Apple Dictionary: usage: A common error in writing is to confuse the possessive its (as in turn the camera on its side) with the contraction it’s (short for either it is or it has, as in it’smy fault; it’s been a hot day). The confusion is at least partly understandable since other possessive forms (singular nouns) do take an apostrophe + -s, as in the girl’s bike; the President’s smile.
It’s (it + is) going to be hot and humid today.
It’s common to judge a book by its cover.
THEIR vs THERE
Their – it belongs to someone
There – direction or location
The Jones’ own a lake house. It is their house.
I’m going to Cathy’s party. I will meet you there.
9. TREAT EVERY LINE AS A POEM IN ITSELF
Number 9 is reserved for poetry. As poetry is about word economy, word choice and word
placement, it is greatly beneficial to treat each line as a poem in itself. Refer #3,5,6 and 7 above. Try to weed out superfluous words that don’t add value. Be specific with words (bird vs magpie/raven/wren/sparrow). Specificity will sharpen your text and change/add meaning.
10. REVISE, REVISE, REVISE
The mantra in academia is revise, revise, revise. Why? Because “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
A piece of writing is no different to a sculpture. The blank page, is the same as a block of marble or wood. It starts out blank or formless, and it is slowly shaped into a poem or story or sculpture. But, it is only in the process of revision and chipping away at the details that the work is transformed into a work of art.
Having said that, one does need to know when to stop revising – when not to cross that thin line where the revision undermines the soul of the piece, and erases the original voice that birthed the idea.
HAPPY WRITING, HAPPY REVISING, HAPPY READERS!