The marshy field in this photo teems with life. When our car speeds by it, though, we don’t notice or experience the wildlife hidden in the grasses, wading in the mud, singing from the reeds. One day we stopped our car, rolled down windows; looked through binoculars; listened, felt, smelled; tasted the breezes. Myriads of bird life, colors, textures of fauna and flora brought the place alive to us. Good writing does that also: draws in the reader, reveals hidden things, opens possibilities.
I taught from the following list at a recent writers workshop. Afterwards, a couple of wide-eyed writers said to me, “You really want good writing.”
Well, yes, I do! The better-written a manuscript comes to me, the more I like it. Here at Cladach we may resonate with the premise and material of a nonfiction manuscript—we may like a novel’s characters and plot—so much that we are willing to devote the editing time needed to bring the writing quality and style up to these standards. We may ask an author to go back and re-write/revise/re-work a manuscript. Then we also do in-house macro editing, line editing, and copy editing. The following list gives most of the elements of style and “good writing” that we look for in a manuscript and strive for in the books we publish.
Here’s how to give your writing pizzazz so readers will want to invest in it, engage with it—be entertained, convinced, and inspired by what you say. Check your writing against this list to make sure it communicates as clearly and persuasively as possible.
1. Have you written from your heart as well as your mind? (If not, read this post. If yes, go on to the rest of the list.)
2. Write in the active voice. Choose strong, active verbs.
3. Write concretely, rather than abstractly. Show, don’t just tell. Appeal to all the senses.
4. In nonfiction as well as fiction, use storytelling as much as possible.
5. Stay in a definite, consistent POV. Through whose eyes is the reader seeing?
6. Hook the reader on the first page/ first paragraph/ first sentence/ first word.
7. Keep the reader’s attention as each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter leads to the next.
8. Maintain a logical or chronological flow of thought or action. Use transitions when needed.
9. Strive for precision and conciseness. Cut extraneous/ repetitious words and phrases. Less is more.
10. Give thought to word choices—consider subtleties, connotations, nuances; find the zing and zest of the right word.
11. Vary sentence structure and length. Use periodic sentences often (as in these examples).
12. Search for and remove troublesome words that hide like gremlins in your writing, words that are used compulsively but often aren’t needed. (Click here for my list.)
13. Use your ear. Do the sentences flow well? In fiction, is that how people sound when they talk? Try reading your writing out loud.