Attention word weavers. Let’s do some writing lessons. In part, as a reminder to myself – and in part, because several people, as of late, have given me bits of their written work to comment on – I thought it would be easier to put some of the more common advice here. This stuff is basic. But, in this craft/art, basic doesn’t mean least important. No, no. These are the overlooked bricks on which word castles tumble to the crushing surf of jaded editors’ trash cans below. As a writer, you will not make yourself “professional” with fancy tricks, however, you can make yourself seem amateurish by ignoring the basics.
This is it. Ground zero. Every other bit of writing wisdom gets stacked on this one thing. But it gets ignored so often. The good news is, if you fix this, you’ll see results immediately. Running this single comb through your drafts will make your writing noticeably better.
Tear out your passive language. These are the verbs that are tired and don’t do a lot. I’ve already used a bunch of them just typing this much. Words like: are, is, would, will, be (or worse…“will be”), were, am, was, etc.
These things piss off editors. They bore readers (even if the reader is not consciously aware of it).
You should always try and find more active, more vivid verbs.
“Josh was running.”
“Was” (and all of its flaccid brothers and sisters) is an unnecessary verb. It’s fat. Make like Lorena Bobbit and cut it off! Now! These are the verbs that mean “to be,” that is, “to exist.” Based on the physics of our universe (which you will follow, more or less, even if you write the wildest of Science Fiction stories) if Josh is running…then Josh exists. You don’t need to tell the reader this.
That is a much crisper sentence. “Ran” is a much more interesting verb than “was.” Don’t bury your verbs under dead language just to tell your readers that your subjects exist. They already know.
“I am successful.”
“Joshua was being attacked by the evil penguins in his head.”
That sentence fucking blows! Notice, I didn’t say, “That sentence is blowing.” I said it “fucking blows.” That’s active. It fucking blows rancid chunks. That’s descriptive. In the semi-autobiographical sentence about evil mind penguins, I not only burried “attacked” under “was”…but I make the subject of the sentence the object of the real action. Don’t do that. “Joshua was attacked,” is better…but still passive, Josh is still having something done to him. Having something done is less interesting than doing. You can fix this by making the aggressor the subject…or making the original subject react more vividly. So…
“The evil penguins of the mind pecked and scratched Joshua.”
“Joshua slammed his head into the wall, to stop the pecking of the evil mind penguins.”
Notice how my new sentences were not only corrected, but elaborated? This is the other benefit of following these basic rules, they force a challenge upon you – the challenge forces you to come up with things you would not otherwise have thought of (much like self imposed rules a poet might assign herself for a given poem).
Even if a verb is not technically passive, they can usually be improved upon. Go over your sentences and see if you can use a stronger verb.
“Jimmy walked through the room, looking for women.”
Not bad. At least I didn’t say, “The women were being looked for by Jimmy” (barf!). But “walked,” while an active verb, is kind of bland. It’s the most basic locomotive verb…no flavor. Let’s try…
“Jimmy sloped through the room, eyes hungry for skirt wearing treats.”
Much better. “Sloped” sounds cooler and is a more descriptive verb. Notice how it puts a more specific context to the sentence. It makes Jimmy more animalistic, wolf-like. It inspired me to improve the next part of the sentence. Now, he’s not just looking, his eyes are “hungry.” Jimmy turns much more sinister, just by sloping instead of walking. Had I gone with the original sentence, I’d have to spend a whole other sentence (or two) telling the audience that Jimmy is unsavory. But why tell when you can show…with one sentence (one verb).
OK…three tricks are a good start. (1)Get rid of passive verbs (especially the incestuous family of “to be”). (2)Never have an action “being done” to something…just have the aggressor do. (3)Always look for more vivid verbs. These are of course guidelines at best (there are no rules in creative mediums). Some sentences are just going to have “was” in them. But…take out an old short story, improve those three things (it’ll take you ten minutes) and your story will be many times better. Oh…see…I just used passive language…sorry…I mean: Your stories shall howl in clearer tones.