Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Strengthen Your Writing

(My blog is seriously taking a backseat to all of my other projects right now. So to keep you interested I'm re-posting one of my weekly columns I do for The Voice newspaper here in Botswana. Hope you enjoy!)

Everyone wants stronger more interesting writing. Today let’s look at some easy changes you can make that can begin to wake up a boring, tired story.

1. Get rid of adverbs and adjectives.
In English there are different parts of speech and each part has weight. Nouns and verbs are the heaviest, they have the most impact. This is because every sentence must have them. Adjective and adverbs have less weight. We use them to modify nouns (adjectives) and verbs (adverbs), but writing becomes stronger when we choose descriptive nouns and verbs and leave out the adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples showing how adverbs and adjective can be removed to make the sentence stronger.

Her haunting, thoughtful eyes made him remember strongly his past love.
Her eyes haunted him, reminding him of his past love.

He was always hopeless and negative so people didn’t easily become his friends.
His hopelessness and negativity kept friends away.

This doesn’t mean you should rid your writing completely of adverbs and adjectives but make sure that you chose exciting, fresh modifiers or you use them in an interesting way. In the example below the unexpected use of brightly makes the sentence pop.
She watched them walk away through tear-filled eyes. “Enjoy yourselves,” she said brightly.

2. Get rid of qualifying modifiers.
A modifier like an adverb or an adjective is bad enough, but when you now add a word or group of words to qualify the modifier you’re weakening your writing even further. Look at the example below:

She was very unforgettable.
She was unforgettable.

That date is a bit noteworthy.
That date is noteworthy.

3. Be careful with the Be Verbs
We all know the be verbs, and there is no way a writer can toss all of them to the wind, but too heavy a reliance on these little verbs make your writing weak. Look at this example:

Elephants that are disturbed by people often become vicious.
Elephants disturbed by people often become vicious.

4. Use Active Voice
Active voice is when the subject of the sentence is the one performing the action. In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is being acted on and it makes for complicated and less energized writing. Look at the example:

The ball was thrown by Dineo. (passive)
Dineo threw the ball. (active)

5. Vary Sentence Length and Structure
If your entire story uses only compound sentences it will be very boring for the reader. And you shouldn’t think that using simple short sentences will mean your story is simple and uninteresting. Often it will mean the opposite. Look at this passage:

Mpho stopped at the lights and looked at the man in the car next to her. She knew him. She’d seen him many times before. When he turned, she quickly looked the other way. What was she afraid of? Herself. She knew herself too well. A man like that was the exact wrong sort for a woman like her. Not that it would stop her.

The passage is interesting because different types and lengths of sentences are used. And what happens when the writer uses the short, snappy sentences with the element of repetition? The suspense builds. If you have too many short sentences the reading becomes choppy, but the right amount helps to build tension and speeds things up.

6. Remove Clichés
I think most of us know common clichés, phrases such as: right as rain, everyday life, winds of change, bright and early. These are easy to spot and need to be removed and replaced with something more interesting. But other clichés can be found in lazy writing. I’ve been working through some edits for an upcoming book and the editor pointed out how many times I used almond eyes. This is a cliché too. A reader just passes over it, and because it is overused, it adds nothing to the excitement of your writing. Keep a keen eye out for those sorts of clichés too.

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