On April 23, 2021, Fantasywriter6 wrote, What are some ways that y’all would suggest to improve writing technique? Aside from writing all the time, obviously. How can I learn to make my language, mood, and overall technique better? (If this is a dumb question, and the answer is just “you have it or you don’t,” then sorry!:) I just have recently read a work done by a peer, and, I mean, I generally think that my language is pretty good, but when I read her work- even just aside from the plot and characters, her language, pacing, and overall voice were phenomenal. I’d like to get better at all of that!
A discussion followed.
Me: Not a dumb question! I’m adding it to my list. In the meanwhile, if you’re thinking about language, I’d suggest you read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a very old book, which came out in a new edition last year. I used to lick the elegant sentences off the page!
FantasyFan101: I know how you feel. My friend’s writing is, as you say, phenomenal. I’d just say, think about yourself. What do you sound like in your head? Smart, curious, happy, sad etc.? If you’re doing close focus 3rd POV, my favorite, make your voice sound like the character’s personality. My friend from above has a character that is very resentful and has had a lot of loss, and the story definitely revolves a lot around that when she’s writing. It makes her romance especially hard, because she doesn’t want to possibly lose another loved one. She tries to keep herself cold and cut off from any possible friendships. The voice of the story always has to do with the characters involved. Technique, I don’t know. It’s your story, so write it as you want. The mood also depends on what your characters are feeling. If they’re happy, describe everything brightly and joyfully. Sad, you know what to do.
Katie W.: I’ve found that analyzing things you really like can be quite helpful. Not just “Oh, that’s really good,” but “What is it about this story that appeals to me? Which techniques does the author use to create this effect?” Once you have those answers, you can look for a way to incorporate that into your writing. You can also absorb those things by osmosis, but it takes longer and the process is harder to put into words. If you can manage it, I would suggest asking the peer you admire how she got to be so good and see if she might have any tips. But analyzing and osmosis work, too.
Christie V Powell: It’s definitely something you can learn, not something you have or don’t. In addition to Strunk & White, may I recommend Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark? It’s another excellent book that talks about the little ways you can play with language to make it work for your story.
And, of course, read a lot! I usually get so involved in reading stories that I don’t pick apart details as I go (except sometimes some big picture things like plot structure points), but even if it’s by osmosis, you’ll pick up a greater vocabulary and greater mastery of word usage.
Just saying, comparisons with a peer may be unreliable. We are hard on ourselves! I started wondering (ignoring the timelines of their lives, which overlapped by only one year) if Charlotte Brontë may have thought Jane Austen above her in writing quality. Or vice versa. But if you read the two, the question dissolves because their work is so different in mood, tone, and style. They’re both great.
Having said that, it’s always worthwhile to work at our writing. I’m with Christie V Powell on reading a lot, which makes osmosis happen.
I’m also a fan of close analysis of what’s going on in prose I admire. A minute ago I looked at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (high school and up). The first paragraph is one long sentence after another until the penultimate one, which is just eight words: Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. The shortness packs a punch.
On a technical level, I see how effective sentence variety can be. Fitzgerald also changes things up with a dash in an earlier sentence. We can include a question or two or an exclamation. Even a colon followed by a series can wake up a bit of prose.
And isn’t that sentence fascinating? The whole paragraph immerses us in the thoughts of Nick Carraway and sets him up to be a reliable narrator. (Please argue with me if you disagree. I’d love to know your thoughts on this.)
You can find the paragraph online, and you don’t have to be at least in high school to read the excerpt. We can learn from it about jumping into the strangeness of a character’s mind.
I took a look at Christie V Powell’s suggested Writing Tools and read some of the sample Amazon offers. In the beginning, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to start sentences with subject and verb, and he provides examples of the effectiveness of that approach.
I thought, Whoa! What about Shakespeare’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech from Hamlet? I googled it and read it, and the subject and verb are all over the place. To his credit, Clark goes on to include examples that don’t follow his recommendation and that are still terrific. He draws our attention, as mine never had been drawn before, to subject-verb placement and the effects we can achieve. Cool!
I’m attentive to word repetition when I revise. Generally, I don’t want words to repeat in the same sentence or paragraph, sometimes not even in neighboring paragraphs. These include handy little ones like even or just. Sometimes, I’ll recast a sentence to get rid of them because they create a sameness in our prose.
Paragraph length can be varied too. An infrequent one sentence paragraph can heighten a dramatic moment. But this should be used rarely, or there’s the danger of seeming gimmicky.
We can scrutinize our adjectives and adverbs (the weakest parts of speech in English prose) to see if we need them or if we can substitute stronger nouns and verbs for them, like rushed instead of moved quickly. We can bring in detail to show whatever we’re describing, rather than beautiful building, we can show the reader the marble columns, the balcony guard wall decorated with a frieze of dancers—and so on. The reader will glean that this edifice is beautiful.
Then we can zoom out to consider bigger issues. We can consider how an admired author revealed character through dialogue, action, appearance, and, in the case of an MC, thoughts and feelings. We look for consistency. If there’s change, how was it set up?
We can look at plot twists and whether they were both surprising and believable at the same time. If yes, how did the author prepare the reader? What can we learn?
Same approach with setting and worldbuilding. Did they support the story, or were they just window dressing? I think a little window dressing is okay, since the author is allowed to have fun, but the world and the setting need also to be woven into the story so that the plot doesn’t work without them. We can think about how the author accomplished that. When did the worldbuilding and the setting enter the story? How was it done?
Of course, we’ll pay special attention to the issues that are hardest for us. How does this author accomplish whatever those are (plot for me)?
We can be critical too. Is there anything in the book we’re studying that doesn’t work? What could we do to fix whatever it is? I twitch when I spot a little mistake that could easily have been revised out of existence. Didn’t somebody notice?
The biblical story of Joseph has myriad plot twists. Two of these three prompts pick a twist to fool with, but you can look the story up if you don’t remember the details and choose different ones.
- Joseph is oddly clueless about the resentment he will cause by revealing to his brothers the dreams that predict they will bow down to him. In your version, he guesses how angry they’ll be and tells only his brother Reuben, the one who is kind to him. Write how Reuben handles the secret and what happens to the story.
- Without making any changes to the story, write the scene when Joseph tells all his brothers about the dreams. Choose three brothers and Joseph to bring to life during the revelation and what follows. This one and the one above seem to me to be especially character driven.
- For a ghost story, the Jews fleeing Egypt in the time of Moses break their promise to take Joseph’s bones with them. The ghost is not pleased. Write what happens.
Have fun, and save what you write!