Tips for Newer Writers by Neil McGowan

In the couple of weeks leadig up to Christmas, I had a sit-down (virtually, of course) with some writer friends, and we spent quite a lot of time discussing the mechanics of writing. All of us have have recently been working with new writers, trying to help them, and someone (not me, wish I could take the credit for it) thought it would be an idea to get a set of guidelines and tips together, based on things we'd seen and questions we'd had. (Yes, the inevitable question was asked – how do you write a book? My answer was the same as, I suspect, most authors – one word at a time, until you have a lot of them that hopefully forms a coherent text.)
What was interesting, though, was the views of some people on the whole process. We started the process of collating this material, but the following is the top 4 things that came up:

  1. "I don't rewrite or edit as it spoils the creative flow." This came up several times. Quite simply, I suspect there are few writers, if any, who can write polished prose as a first draft. First drafts are meant to be a working copy, a way to get your ideas down and see if the plot hangs together. If you get to the end of a first draft, congratulate yourself, have a drink, celebrate however you wish, and then start something new. But after a few weeks, go back to the first draft and re-read it with a critical eye. I guarantee there'll be phrases you can improve, adverbs to prune, and a myriad of other ways to tighten the narrative and make the story a better, more engaging read. For example, I've just finished the fourth rewrite of my latest book, a YA novel of 57,000 words. Looking back at the first draft, I've got rid of three characters who were weak and combined them into one who is much stronger. I've also removed a couple of plot points that didn't really go anywhere, and generally gone through it page by page looking for ways to improve the writing. I'd recommend reading it aloud (and out of sequence) to see how it sounds – this is a great way to pick up stilted dialogue, for example. If you really can’t bear the thought) or lack the privacy to do so), then try using the text-to-speech function in your word processor (if it has one) or create a Kindle file and use that.
  2. "My way of writing makes more sense than all those rules we did at school." Yes, someone said this. No. Just…no. The rules of grammar and syntax have been developed over time in order to remove ambiguity and avoid misunderstandings. The phrase, 'let’s eat, grandma' takes on a whole new meaning if you remove the comma. Some writers do break the rules (Will Self and Irvine Walsh spring to mind) but the point is, they know the rules, and when they break them it’s with a definite purpose in mind.
  3. "You should use lots of ways to describe speech." When writing dialogue, the best form of attribution is none. Well-developed characters have their own voice and polishing the prose (see Tip 1 above) will allow that voice to shine through. It's normally possible to know who's speaking by the rhythm of their speech, the nuances and inflections they develop as a character, but in an extended scene, the next best option is 'said.' The words used and the context of the scene should convey the tone of voice and volume of the words. Using a multitude of dialogue tags detracts from the story and can become a form of author intrusion. Let the reader do the work – they will assign their own idea of speech that fits with their image of the character. Telling the reader 'he/she whispered/shouted' [insert the adjective of your choice] should be a last resort. Make the dialogue work. For example, if we have a scene where the protagonists are hiding from someone, then the context of the scene should allow the reader to infer that the character is speaking in a whisper:

'The flashlights swept the darkened floor of the warehouse, illuminating stained patches of concrete for a moment before moving on. Crouched behind a stack of packing crates, Tom looked at Ben and mouthed, "We need to get out of here, now." Ben nodded, his expression grim.'
Not the greatest piece of prose written, but it does, I think, illustrate the point. It doesn't say, 'Tom whispered,' or even 'Tom said,' because there is no need. Tom and Ben are hiding and clearly being hunted; the reader can infer the words were uttered quietly. Also, it visually indicates Tom 'mouthed' the words – another indicator. 

4."My story is shorter than was asked for; I'll add some padding." This is a very bad idea and any editor will see through it immediately. Usually, the opposite occurs – your first draft is too long, and subsequent rewrites allow you to prune the word-count back. I once sold a story to an anthology where the max length was 2,000 words, The first draft came in at a shade under 3,000 words, but a couple of rewrites later it was down to the required length and was a better story for it – tighter, more fast-moving and definitely more engaging. Do not, under any circumstances, pad your work just to meet a word count. If a story isn't the right length, adding unnecessary words isn't going to help. Remember, some stories don't need a glut of words to be told. 


Peter Leyland said…
Interesting post about the mechanics of writing Neil. Although I know it is about fiction, it can be applied to the autobiographical writing style that I'm trying to develop, especially about avoiding ambiguity, first drafts and so on. Thanks for the suggestions.
Griselda Heppel said…
Were these points made by your writing friends, or the new writers you are all working with? I do hope the latter because they show the writers have a LOOOOOOONG way to go. The first point is interesting because it's OK not to edit while you're getting the story down - you do need creative flow for that. But yes, your suggestions for drafting and redrafting are crucial! A wonderful video made by prizewinning children's author S F Said shows exactly why

And the other 3 points - yup. Replacing 'said' with other speech words is one of the most cringemaking rookie errors, I aver.

Great post reminding us of the pitfalls!
Neil McGowan said…
Thanks Peter, I hadn't thought about how this could apply to non-fiction before. Griselda, yes, these are new writers (mostly - one isn't, but that could form a whole blog...)
I've made all these errors myself, and wish someone had pointed them out to me, so really happy if it helps someone else. Great YouTube link, by the way
Reb MacRath said…
I'm with you on almost all points Neil. My reservations arise from pojnt 3 on attribution. It doesn't bother me all when it's done simply, without bells and whistles: a clean 's/he said' as opposed to 's/he responded' or 's/he opined.'

That said, I do think a bit of guidaance now and then can be a good think. Occasional stage directions--such as 's/he growled; or 's/he roared'--can bring a scene to life.

But in general I do agree that active stage direction--Beth lowered eyes or John pounded on the table--can effectively take the place of attribution.

Nothing, including any writing rule, to excess?

Well done, post, Neil.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Neil,

Writing guidelines are good to have, as are resources such as dictionaries, thesauruses, editing tips, etc.

Still, this all assumes one knows the basics of writing. More than anything else, it's important to actually write.

We cannot know what we don't know unless someone points it out to us. And they can only do this if they see a written piece.

Talking about writing is merely an intellectual exercise, and one of the reasons I hate talking to other writers about the "craft of writing." Kidding, sort of... ;)

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