Quick tips for improving your creative writing
By Bex Peterson, Editor-in-Chief
Between my job with the Other Press, my side hustle as a freelance editor, and my various collaborative creative projects, I read and edit a lot of writing. There are some common mistakes and weaknesses it seems like every writer falls prey to every once in a while. You may have a brilliant story idea and engaging characters, but if the prose itself isn’t strong, you might find yourself losing your audience along the way.
Here are some quick and easy tips for improving your writing!
Use simple, clean language
If you’re an especially avid reader of many genres, you probably have a pretty hefty vocabulary sitting in your head. It might be tempting to throw all of that onto the page, crafting endless paragraphs with ten-dollar words sprinkled throughout every sentence. As much as possible, avoid this temptation! You can still write in a sophisticated and verbose style without sounding like a pretentious 19th century English professor. Flowery and overcomplex language can easily read as amateur if not done perfectly well. Keep the big words for the big moments or cut them out altogether.
Said isn’t dead!
There’s a point it seems that every writer hits where the word “said” becomes their mortal enemy. Why use “said,” after all, when you can say that someone “opined?” Or “recounted,” or “crooned,” or “babbled?” The problem with dialogue tags (the part of the sentence that indicates who’s speaking and how they speak) that use words other than “said” is that they’re distracting; they call attention to themselves. “Said” is an invisible word—it melts into the page. The words themselves in strong dialogue should indicate the tone of voice without it having to be expressly described. Use dialogue tags other than “said” sparingly for a more powerful effect.
Shake up your sentence structure
Often, we don’t recognize our own bad writing habits unless someone else is kind enough to point them out to us. I apparently had a bad habit of writing sentences in threes, with very little variety in sentence structure. I would have an action, a descriptor, and another action—and almost every sentence was like that! Start paying attention to what your sentences look like on the page. Mix it up a little between short and long, feel out the rhythm of the sentences as you write them, and check your work over to make sure you’re not falling into a sentence rut.
Read your work out loud
This is the first thing I suggest to people who are trying to edit their own writing. Reading your work out loud helps you catch things your mind might fix or glaze over if you’re just reading it all in your head. It’ll help you pick up on awkward phrasing or repeating words and rhythms. Take your time and really listen to what’s coming out of your mouth: Does it make sense? Does it sound good?
I am a fact-checking and research hound. I have done hours of research for the sake of single sentences that wound up cut out of final drafts anyway. Before you write anything that isn’t just a product of your own imagination, hop on Google and fall down the rabbit hole of primary and secondary sources. It’s not just a good way to lend credibility and believability to your writing—you might make some exciting and very convenient discoveries along the way. I once discovered on a research binge that I could circumvent an entire court scene I truly didn’t have enough information on to write accurately by taking the plot in another direction entirely based on a legal precedent I essentially tripped over. No knowledge goes to waste, and you’ll only make your writing richer by getting your facts straight.
Try outlining using music
I don’t know about you, but I suck at organizing my thoughts. When I’m working on novel-length stories, I sometimes find it hard to keep track of where the plot is going. Traditional outlines tend not to work very well for me. Instead, I have a bunch of scattered notes across various devices and notebooks, as well as my ultimate outlining tool: Spotify. To outline my stories now, I associate songs with different scenes and arrange them in a playlist to help me keep track of what happens when and where. The song list can be easily altered and shuffled around if you need to change up the story progression—plus, it’s super easy to get into the writing mood when you can imagine the songs as the soundtrack to the epic scenes you’ve got planned out in your head.
Take all writing advice with a grain of salt (including mine)
What works for me may not work for you, and what works for you might not work for anyone else. There are plenty of successful and talented writers who think “said” is dead, who use overwrought and verbose language, and who don’t research a damn thing (believe me, I know). I feel like too often writers get caught up in trying to follow someone else’s formula for success, when really at the end of the day, the best thing you can do is be true to yourself. Don’t get me wrong, please accept constructive criticism when you’re lucky enough to receive it. But if you think the best part of your writing is the fact that every sentence is structured exactly the same, well—don’t let me stop you!