How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 Tips for Clear, Concise, Powerful Writing

by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Today’s tips, a last-minute fill-in here, come from the handout for a talk I gave to a local writing group whose members were very divergent in their writing projects. These succinct pointers apply to blog posts, magazine articles, and nonfiction writing, as well as fiction writing.

When revising your work, keep these 15 tips handy to help you clarify and strengthen your message and keep your readers engaged.

1. Write in a clear, casual, friendly accessible style. Avoid formal or stiff writing. Pretend you are talking to people you know and like. Let your personality and warmth show through.

2. Grab the reader’s attention at the beginning with a compelling statement, question, scene, or example.

3. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. Don’t send your readers away from your story to look up a word. Fancy, erudite, or pompous words are show-offy and frustrating. Besides, immediately recognizable words make for instant comprehension and keep the pace going and the reader turning the pages. But look for the strongest, most evocative word for the situation.

4. Don’t confuse, annoy, or bore your readers with unclear or vague writing. Avoid generalities and vague terms like “things,” “food,” “people” and “animals.” Use specific examples and sensory imagery to paint a clear picture and bring your ideas to life.

5. Vary your sentence structure and the lengths of your sentences. Avoid starting several sentences in a row with He or She or the person’s name. Break up long, convoluted sentences.

6. Write lean. Make every word count. Take out all unnecessary and repetitive words and sentences and go for an easy flow of ideas. Avoid repeating ideas and watch for those little words that just clutter up your sentences. Take out “It was,” “There was,” and “that” wherever they’re not needed.

7. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

8. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

9. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.

10. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power. But keep -ing verbs for ongoing action that was going on while something else occurred: The phone rang while he was washing his car.

11. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

12. Avoid the passive voice. For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” and “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

13. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

14. Read your pages out loud to make sure the ideas flow naturally. Wherever you stumble or have to reread, your readers will, too.

15. Pay attention to white space. A solid wall of words for a whole page can make readers anxious, especially reluctant readers. Use frequent paragraphing. For nonfiction and blog posts, use bolded subheadings and lists wherever appropriate.

Do you have any other good tips to keep in mind for the revision stage, especially for blog posts and magazine articles? If so, please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.
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Tips for Loosening up Your Writing

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, presenter

As a freelance editor, I receive fiction manuscripts from lots of professionals, and for many of these clients, whose report-writing skills are well-researched, accurate and precise, my editing often focuses on helping them relax their overly correct writing style.

Writing fiction that sizzles is a world away from nonfiction writing, especially scholarly, professional, or technical copy. In fact, people who have had a lot of experience writing academic, professional, legal, or business documents often have the steepest learning curve when it comes to switching to fiction. Professionals typically have the most “bad” (correct but inappropriate for fiction) habits to unlearn when they’re trying to create a believable story world with a casual, even quirky voice; lively, fast-paced writing; and colorful characters from various walks of life.

Here are some concrete tips for relaxing your writing style, trimming the clutter, and finding an authentic, appealing voice for your story, whether you’re a professional or not. Most of this advice also applies to writing engaging, zippy, natural-sounding blog posts.

~ To loosen up, read lots of popular fiction – and blog posts.

An excellent first step to counteract stiff, overly correct, nonfiction-type writing habits is to read a lot of bestselling fiction in the genre you want to write. Even better, try reading the novels aloud, or buy the audio books and listen to them in your car, on walks, or while puttering around the house or garage. You’ll soon get into the rhythm of the writing and start to develop your own natural, compelling fiction voice.

~ Relax and pare down any overly correct, convoluted sentences.

Remember, it’s about communicating images and concepts and carrying your reader along with the story. Don’t muddle your message with a lot of extra words that just clutter up the sentence and hamper the free flow of ideas.

Here are some well-disguised examples from my fiction editing of trimming excess words:

Before:
“Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective walked in the direction of the station’s front desk with a purposeful, nearly aggressive, gait. He shoved himself bodily through the swinging door and locked eye contact with the uniformed officer on reception duty.

Notice how the ideas flow better in the revised version:

After:
“Bastards. Why am I always the last to know?” Pivoting, the detective marched toward the front desk. He slammed through the swinging door and glared at the officer on reception duty.

Before:
Nathan paused a moment before replying as he slowed the car in preparation for a right-hand turn onto a smaller road, resuming the conversation as the car again picked up speed.

After:
Nathan paused as he slowed the car to turn right onto a smaller road, then continued as the car picked up speed.

~ Don’t drown your readers in details.

Too much unnecessary detail complicates the issue and impedes the flow of ideas.
Leave out those picky little details that just serve to distract the reader, who wonders for an instant why they’re there and if they’re significant:

Before:
He had arrived at the vending machine and was punching the buttons on its front with an outstretched index finger when a voice from behind him broke him away from his thoughts.

After:
He was punching the buttons on the vending machine when a voice behind him broke into his thoughts.

In the first example, we have way too much minute detail. What else would he be punching the buttons with besides his finger? And we don’t need to know which finger or that it’s outstretched. Everybody does it pretty much the same. Avoid having minute details like this that just clutter up your prose.

Before:
The officer was indicating with a hand gesture a door that was behind and off to the right of Wilson. An angular snarl stuck to his face, he swung his head around to look in the direction the officer was pointing.

After:
The officer gestured to a door behind Wilson. Snarling, he turned to look behind him.

Before:
Jason motioned to a particular number in the middle of the spreadsheet that Tom currently had on the computer screen.

After:
Jason motioned to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet on the screen.

Or:
Jason pointed to a number in the middle of the spreadsheet.

Or even better:
Jason pointed to a number on the spreadsheet.

~ Condense long-winded dialogue and make sure it reflects the speaker’s personality and background.

People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences, especially when they’re in a casual situation, in a hurry, or angry, upset or scared. Overly correct dialogue just doesn’t sound natural. Unless you’ve got two professors or other professionals speaking to each other in the workplace, don’t have your characters speaking in long sentences in lengthy paragraphs.

In tense or rushed action scenes especially, go for incomplete sentences and one or two-word questions and answers. Read your dialogue aloud or even role-play with a friend to hear where you can cut words to make it sound more realistic.

Before:
The homicide detective looked at the CSI, who was on his way out. “Leaving already?”
“This wasn’t the crime scene. Not much for me to find. You would do me a huge favor by making sure that the next time we had a murder I had an actual crime scene to investigate.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”

After:
The homicide detective looked at the CSI, who was on his way out. “Leaving already?”
“This wasn’t the crime scene. Not much for me to find. Next time can you get me an actual crime scene to investigate?”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Before:
“C’mon, I don’t believe that. Lance knew you’d tell the cops about the connection. He just wanted the excuse in place because he knew Perkins might not be leaving.

After:
“C’mon, I don’t believe that. Lance knew you’d tell the cops about the connection. He just wanted an excuse in case Perkins didn’t leave.

Before:
Craig flipped a page in his notebook. “Do you keep records in your system that specify which of your inmates have had access to this room?”

After:
Craig flipped a page in his notebook. “Do you keep records of patients who’ve had access to this room?”

So be sure to read or listen to lots of fiction, and read your story out loud to see if it sounds natural, like people in those situations would actually talk and think. And delete all those extra little words that are cluttering up your prose, to create a smooth, natural flow of ideas.

For more on this topic, see my blog post, “Making the switch from Nonfiction to Fiction Writing,” on Joanna Penn’s award-winning blog.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-Captivate_full_w_decalof-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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10 Ways to Add Depth to Your Scenes

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author

[By the way, check out our growing list of resources in the TKZ Library.]

Congratulations! You’ve gotten a first draft of your story down, perhaps after writing madly for NaNoWriMo. Now it’s time to go back and reassess each scene to see if it’s pulling its weight.

Besides advancing the storyline, scenes should: reveal and deepen characters and their relationships; show setting details; provide any necessary background info (in a natural way, organic to the story); add tension and conflict; hint at dangers and intrigue to come; and generally enhance the overall tone and mood of your story.

To bring your characters and story to life, heighten reader engagement, and pick up the pace, try to make your scenes do double or even triple duty  but subtly is almost always best.

For example, a scene with dialogue should have several layers: the words being spoken; the viewpoint character’s real thoughts, opinions, emotions, and intentions; the other speaker’s tone, word choice, attitude, body language, and facial expressions; and the outward reactions, attitudes, and actions of both.

Ten key ways you can intensify your writing and enhance the experience for readers:

1. When introducing new characters, remember to show, rather than tell. Reveal their personality, motives, goals, fears, and modus operandi not by telling the readers about them or their background, but by their actions, words, body language, facial expressions, tone, and attitude. If it’s a viewpoint character, show their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Also, show characters’ reactions to each other. Then let the readers draw their own conclusions about the characters and their true intentions.

2. Enhance your descriptions of the setting and other characters by filtering them through the mood, attitude, and reactions of the POV character for the scene. This not only gives the readers a visual image of whatever the character is looking at, but helps with character development. We learn more about the character’s personality and what is driving / motivating him by his observations of his surroundings and others around him. And add in other sensory reactions – sounds, smells, even tastes and tactile sensations.

3. Use close point of view to deepen characterization of the protagonist and other POV characters by showing inner conflict, doubt, or indecision, or by contrasting their words and outward reactions with their true inner feelings.

4. Make dialogue do double-duty. Dialogue should not only convey information, but also reveal character & personality and advance the storyline. Dialogue action tags, which can replace “he said” and “she said,” tell us both who’s speaking and what they’re doing, as well as often providing info on how they’re feeling and reacting. For example:

Chris stood up and ran his hand through his hair. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Jesse set his coffee down, determined to stay calm. “Hey, man, relax. I told you about it last week. Don’t you remember?”

 

5. Show subtext during dialogue. A couple might be arguing heatedly about something fairly trivial, when inside one or both are really angry or resentful about deeper problems, which you can hint at by inner reactions, or which can come out at the end of the scene or later.

6. Introduce suspense or heighten anticipation through the use of hints and innuendos, or snippets/fragments of critical information.

7. Show sexual tension between love interests by revealing heightened sensory perceptions and physical reactions. Be sure to show the inner reactions and often-conflicted feelings of your POV character.

8. Show brief flashbacks to reveal character secrets and fears, little by little.

9. Deepen connections between characters by having them discover similar values and goals, and showing these through dialogue, tone, body language, actions, etc.

10. Increase the conflict between characters by showing opposing goals and values, through dialogue, body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.

How the experts do it. Here’s an example of a brief scene with lots of intriguing info subtly embedded in it, presented in a natural, casual way, organic to the character and the situation:

This is how James Lee Burke introduces his main character, Dave Robicheaux, as well as the local executioner, Val Carmouche, on page 2 of Purple Cane Road (Robicheaux is narrating, in first person.):

That was when I was in uniform at NOPD and was still enamored with Jim Beam straight up and a long-neck Jax on the side.
One night he found me at a table by myself at Provost’s and sat down without being asked.
[…]
“Being a cop is a trade-off, isn’t it?” Vachel said. […] “You spend a lot of time alone?”
“Not so much.”
“I think it goes with the job. I was a state trooper once.” His eyes, which were as gray as his starched shirt, drifted to the shot glass in front of me and the rings my beer mug had left on the tabletop. “A drinking man goes home to a lot of echoes. The way a stone sounds in a dry well. No offense meant, Mr. Robicheaux. Can I buy you a round?”
As a first-time reader of Burke, I found out quite a bit about his main character through this very brief scene on page 2, including that Dave was in the NOPD, had at least somewhat of a drinking problem, and was probably lonely. I’m definitely intrigued and want to read more.
Writers – Do you have any points/techniques to add? Would you like to share a paragraph or two in your writing where you do double (or triple) duty to enhance a scene?

Readers – Can you give us a powerful paragraph or two from a book you’ve enjoyed, where the author has effectively accomplished several things at once?

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
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