Five Tips For Stronger Writing

As an editor-for-hire working under Tiffany Colter, I see a lot of writing—good writing, beginning writing, and all stages in between. I’ve learned, most often, strong books and stories are but a few tweaks away. Today I’ll offer a few freebies—some snippets I share with paying clients—on how to take your writing from good to great.

1. Give your reader credit.

As writers, we want to make sure our reader understands what we’re trying to say, catches the foreshadowing, correctly reads the intended emotion, so we slam them with an abundance of colorless words. Then we repeat the idea again. And again. And again. There’s nothing worse than reading something numerous times, even if it’s presented in a new way. Give your readers credit and expect them to pick up on your message the first time. Most of them will catch the frown, the shift, the narrowed eyes, the chill breeze, and will feel quite proud at having done so.

For non-fiction, keep similar ideas lumped together and present them in a concise and clear manner. After each chapter, ask yourself: “What information or idea does this paragraph provide and have I already presented that in a previous chapter or section? If so, delete. (Starting with an outline is imperative!) When writing chapter summaries, remember you’ve already sufficiently expanded on the idea. Now’s not the time to rephrase everything, but instead, to breifly recap key points.

2. Be original.

This applies to big-picture content as well as words and phrases. Avoid clichés and find unique ways to phrase things instead. I’ve read about enough stomach flutters and racing pulses to give me a migraine. The occasional stomach upset is okay, but skilled writers go beyond the common descriptions, perusing psychological sites and body language books to find other equally telling, less clichéd physiological responses.

Speaking of originality, take the time to add unexpected twists to your books or novels. Scan your local newspaper, stalk your neighbors—whatever you need to do to move out of the Sunday School classroom into an area not yet explored. And keep me guessing. If I know what you’re going to say or how the conflict will resolve before I finish the book, why do I need to finish it? This can be difficult for novel writers. When crafting a novel, the writer needs to move the story toward an emotionally satisfying ending. But you still need to keep the reader guessing. As your hero and heroine move toward happily-ever-after, throw a few obstacles in their way. Create a reader expectation, then flip things. Give them a reason to turn that next page…otherwise they won’t. 

3. Address a felt need.

This is true for novel and non-fiction writing. If you want people to talk about your books, articles, and blog posts (i.e., if you want to generate a book-selling buzz), you need to hit readers where it counts—at their heart. What do people long for and how can you bring that into your writing? For fiction, it’s often best to have one of your main characters struggle with that need. For example, your hero could be nearing a mid-life crisis. What does he need? Purpose? A dream to believe in? Something to live for? Or perhaps your heroine is lonely, or lugging around baggage and longing for freedom.

But again, don’t slam your reader over the head with this. “Jane longed for freedom from the emotional scars plaguing her….” Gag! Instead, weave hints throughout your novel, perhaps a glance toward a fun-loving couple, a tear after reading an emotive poem, a sifting through old mementoes. And remember, you’ve got an entire novel to introduce your characters to your readers. By itself, each clue may seem insignificant, but over the course of a story, they paint a vivid picture. Be creative and contemplative, asking yourself what events, scenes, or objects can convey whatever emotion or need you’re trying to express.

For non-fiction writing, there are two ways to address a felt need. You can either tell your story, including your struggles and lessons learned along the way, or you can create a point-by-point informative book that presents a problem (loneliness, fear, anxiety, depression) then provides step-by-step solutions or aids. Regardless, the information presented needs to have value *to the reader*. It needs to move beyond a personal life history essay, because honestly, unless your Steven Curtis Chapman or Michael Jordan, no one cares.

4. Connect the dots for your reader.

You’ve got a story to tell, one you believe can inspire and encourage others, one with significant meaning to you. Unless you find ways to connect your readers, to show them how your story relates to their life, your account will be little more than a “What I did last summer” essay. Boring! This points back to that *felt need* and requires a bit of work—of knowing your audience.

5. Make sure every word packs a punch.

The best writing is clear and concise. Why take two paragraphs to state something that can be said in one? Why use ten words when five will do? For example, spoke softly can become whispered. Nodded her head simply nodded. Do we need to know a smile “graced her lips”? Where else would a smile appear? On her foot?

Speaking of clarity, whenever possible, use words that evoke images or stir emotions. For example, don’t tell us he sat in the shade of the tree. Name the tree so we can see it. Don’t tell us her perfume smelled sweet. Describe the scent so we can smell it. The young child you describe resting in his mother’s arms, is he a toddler or an infant?

In a nutshell, great writing takes work, knowledge, and perseverance. Select each word, each plot or idea, carefully, and take the time to get to know your reader. Address a felt need and do so with creativity, immersing your reader in your book and giving them every reason to turn that next page. Doing so will add punch and emotive value to your work which in turn will create a loyal readership.

**Let me help you. Because I’m in the Christmas spirit, I’m offering free one chapter critiques. To claim your *gift*, simply leave a comment or subscribe to this blog.

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About Jennifer Slattery

Novelist and speaker Jennifer Slattery, also writing as Jen Pheobus, uses humor, grace, and truth to inspire God's children to live abundant, Christ-centered lives. She does content editing for Firefly, a southern fiction imprint with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and is a regular contributor to Crosswalk.com; Internet Cafe Devotions; Faith, Friends and Chocolate; and manages the social media for Takin’ it to the Streets, a ministry that serves Omaha’s working poor and homeless. She’s placed in numerous writing contests and her work has appeared in numerous compilations, magazines, and e-zines.

Posted on December 22, 2011, in fiction, non-fiction, writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. These are great tips–especially number 1! I feel like I’m guilty of not giving the reader enough credit even in my own writing and overly stating a point. This is certainly advice I’ll take with me as I begin my next piece.

    • That’s easy to do! I’m glad you found this article helpful! And Merry Christmas! Let me gift you with a free critique. Send your chapter, blog post, or article to jenniferaslattery@gmail.com. If your name is not included in your email address, please put it in the subject heading so I don’t miss the email. And have a great day!

  2. Have you ever thought about teaching a class or writing your own version on – how to- novel? You know, something else to add to that long list of items threatening to topple over and bury you. Anyway, thanks for the tips. They are simple and true, straight from the heart, for the Glory of God. Terry

  3. Thanks, Jennifer! I’m about to search my manuscript for occurrences of “stomach.” I have flutters over this.

  4. Great advice. Clear, to the point, practical, and very helpful. Thanks for the tips.

  5. Terry, thanks for the encouragement! (I answered this on fb) but yes, I have started to pray about perhaps teaching a creative writing class at my church. And please send your chapter/article/blog post to jenniferaslattery@gmail.com and I’ll gift you your free critique.

  6. To my recent subscribers, check your email inbox for a message from me inviting you to send your material for critique. Maggie, I didn’t see your email listed with your gravatar. Feel free to send your material to jenniferaslattery@gmail.com and I will gift you your free critique. Have a great night!

  7. I already subscribe and I’m curious: How much do you normally charge to critique someone’s book?

  8. That’s okay, Gently Mad. You still receive a free one chapter critique for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂 And for a book, I charge $2 per page. We can start with the chapter and then you can evaluate my services and decide if you’d like to continue from there, if you’d like. You can send up to 2,500 words to jenniferaslattery(at)gmail(dot)com. And I can send you references from other authors I’ve worked with if you’d like.

    Have a great night!

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