5 Devious Ways to Improve Your Writing

I’ve written as a hobby for a long time – as such, I’ve had a lot of inspiration from friends, family, people on the internet, and (a few times) teachers. I’m not formally trained in linguistic arts, so I try to keep the best tidbits of advice close at hand whenever I put my fingers to my keyboard.

5. Comma Rules on Coordinating Conjunctions

When I was a freshman in high school, I found out that my elementary and middle education had been sorely lacking in grammar. I taught myself parts of speech and some other pieces of basic grammar, but as a sophomore I got a red-inkedCommas paper back from my teacher that showed just how lacking my skills with grammar were. I got a book from my teacher and taught myself one of the most easily forgotten and easily broken comma rules.

The rule states that if a sentence has two independent clauses separated by a coordinating conjunction, it needs to have a comma before that conjunction.  Just as importantly, if one of those clauses is dependent, the comma should *not* be there.

I wrote an entire series on my favorite comma rules, complete with examples, mnemonics, and other goodies.  If comma rules are something you’d like to brush up on, these are some of the most easily forgotten and useful rules.

Click here to go to my first of a series of comma articles

4. Minor Characters Can Enhance a Story – Or Bog it Down…

justice_league_unlimited_primary

Justice League Unlimited – somehow I liked it, but wow… terrible idea.

In high school English, I had a teacher who made the class spend a long time focusing on how Beowulf, titular character of the English epic, made certain to pay tribute to the poor sod who had to remain with and guard his ship.  With that one action, in just a small stanza, Beowulf’s honor and concern for the common man is accentuated.

When minor characters serve as foils, drive the plot, or serve to embellish a main character’s traits, they are extraordinarily useful.  Minor characters can have as much depth through what is left out as what is written plainly.  Named or unnamed, minor characters add a richness and depth that you can’t get without them.

At the same time, I’ve beta read and edited enough books to know that there are ways to overuse minor characters.  One book I read introduced a named character approximately every 1,000 words, and in a 100,000 word story, it became entirely untenable.  It was impossible for the writer to do justice to each of the characters with so little time dedicated to any of them.  If a character is invented just to show off an item, have a magical skill, or sit around being pretty, they may be better off excised from the story.

3. The Hidden Way to Indicate a Speaker During Dialogue

group of people in a meeting

If you’ve followed my site for a while, you may remember that I am an engineer by trade.  I learned this technique very late in the game, so I’m pretty sure it’s not obvious.  I even made a more detailed post about it here.  There are three ways to indicate speaker: directly tagging, back-and-forth with no tags, and interspersing with action.

Direct tagging serves a great purpose and makes it easy for the reader to pick out the speaker with almost no effort.  This is the way that you learned in grade school, and it should definitely still be in your repertoire.

Using actions around your dialogue adds another dimension to your writing and makes it more interesting for your reader.  The reader forgets that you’re telling them who said something and instead falls into your narrative.

Click here to read a more detailed article about dialogue.

2. How to Seek and Reduce Passive Voice

dr strangelove

Passive voice can be really useful, but it can also make a passage drag.  Being able to identify, assess, and change passive voice sentences tightens writing and draws a reader into the activity.  While passive voice has its uses, they are a bit more obscure (and for obfuscation!).

A quick and dirty explanation of passive voice sentences is a sentence where the actions are performed on the subject, and the subject seems to take a passive role.  I.e.

The dog was rewarded.

vs the active version:

I rewarded the dog.

Note that in the passive version, the actor – the person giving the reward – is completely missing.  If you want the focus off the true actor and onto the person receiving the action, that’s when you want passive voice.  It’s not quite as powerful or engaging for any other purpose, so identifying the voice and being able to change it is important.

For greater detail on passive voice, I wrote an article you can find here.

1. The Best Word Isn’t Always the Biggest Word

This is something I would have balked at before reading Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  It doesn’t just serve to use a word with more syllables or more arcane qualities.  The goal of writing is to communicate thoughts, not to impress people with your intellect.

Aim for clarity, precision, and ease.  Sure, you’ll probably use a couple words your readers won’t know just out of general differences in people’s vocabularies, but people in your target audience shouldn’t have to look up many words as they read your book.  Be wary – if people reading for fun have to work for it, it’s going to stop being fun.  Once a book stops being fun, people are much more willing to put it down.

For more on this topic, you can find an article here.

See you Around!

Hope you enjoyed this ‘Greatest Hits’ article!  Are there writing tips that have helped you through your ventures?  Any that you wish you’d known long before now?  Craft books that you love?  Pop that in the comments!  I’d love to find out more things that I need to learn!

5 thoughts on “5 Devious Ways to Improve Your Writing

  1. Sophia Ismaa says:

    I am going to be completely honest and say I do not understand any of the terminology used for writing such as clauses, coordinating … ah, I can’t remember the names for it. Although, I have to say, learning languages including English is a very mathematic process.

    Hmm, didn’t know much about passive and active voice, but I can see there’s a huge difference between the two. The sentence became more impactful when you introduced the active voice.

    I recall reading a book once where there were so many big words that I just had to put it down. I didn’t want to read a boy where I had to refer to a dictionary for every sentence. It was like that episode of Friends when Joey used a synonym for every word.

    Great tips! I’ve learned a whole lot after reading this.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      When I was in high school (so from 14-18 years old), I found out that I had been desperately uneducated in terms of grammar structures and the like. I worked very hard, with some help from a couple excellent high-school English teachers, to teach myself a lot of these things. Because of that work, I didn’t have to take a single English class in college (though I did elect to take technical writing anyway).

      None of these things are required for one to write well. Native speakers, especially, tend to just intuit a lot of these rules. Knowing them, however, tends to at least reduce the time and money spent editing. And active/passive voice? That can be used in such a devious manner.

      • Sophia Ismaa says:

        I love that you’ve clarified for the Brit regarding high school (and thanks)! It seems that middle school grammar lessons do not always prepare students very well? But I’m glad to hear that your high school teachers were able to teach you so well that you didn’t require any further teaching in college. And that’s interesting! Technical writing, huh. I would have thought that that would be the least popular style of writing to learn, but I can understand why you would want to, and it is very difficult to perfect. I can see how it would appeal to you if you enjoy writing Sci-Fi and fantasy!

        I’ve always wondered how we are able to intuit our native language so well by simply hearing and reading it so much that our brains just adapt to it, I wonder if it is done in our youth it makes the process easier? There is a Bollywood actress (Hindi films) who has been in the industry for around 15 years and Hindi isn’t her first language, and to this date, she still struggles, so I’m wondering if age plays into it. Anyway, I digress, but wow, the human brain is fascinating.

      • H.R.R. Gorman says:

        I took technical writing because I went to school for chemical engineering. I was able to test out of or otherwise skip a lot of the ‘breadth’ requirements in the humanities.

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