cover of Rolling Stone

6 quick and dirty writing tips

I may be a first-time novelist, but I spent a number of years editing magazine copy, both my own and making suggestions for  some pretty stellar non-fiction writers. I’ve neglected blogging for lack of time–the modern mantra!–but I thought I’d share six quick and dirty revising tips. Hey, this headline has a numbered list and the word “dirty,” it would be newsstand gold in the heyday of magazines, whenever that was. (Probably the 1980s.) When revising fiction or non-fiction consider:

  1. Tense Moments: Is your tense consistent throughout the piece? In my own experience: Probably not! Do a scan to check this. You’ll be surprised how often you lapse into present when you’ve chosen simple past as your dance partner. Once you’ve picked one, stay with it.
  2. Repeated Words Repeated: It’s easy to go on a word jag and become particularly fond of a term. In one draft, I used the word “just” so often it was like some bizarre product placement. Also look for words repeated within sentences or too close to the last use. That can really clunk. There are lots of words to choose from!
  3. Structure is Everything: Fiction or non-fiction, your story needs a skeleton. Paragraphs that stand alone like ransom notes are not going to cut it with a reader, especially not today. Story is actually everything. (I lied earlier.) But to get to story, you need structure–so make sure your story has a delivery system. If you open and close your writing in scenes (fiction or creative non-fiction) you won’t need to rely on the **** to show your breaks. Readers will sense them intuitively and have the satisfaction of being told a story in a familiar rhythm.
  4. Take it from the Bottom: Once you have an ending, revisit your beginning. Did you change your mind halfway through? Did new evidence or character shifts or some other writing voodoo take over and lead you down a different path? I once gave my contractor in Toronto an Xmas bottle of Scotch. He joked that he wanted to see if it tasted as good at the bottom as the top. Extrapolating from Contractor Joe, (who wanted us hide large cash payments for him in the backyard, yet was still by far the best contractor I’ve ever had) let’s just say we need to make sure our beginning matches the end and that it, um, all tastes like Scotch. Make sure you haven’t made the reader one promise, then given them something altogether different unless that was your intention.
  5. Imagine all the People: Okay, now that you have, do you really need them all? At least ask the question. In both fiction and non-fiction, make sure your characters or sources quoted are all pulling their weight. It’s easy to overload text with too many people saying too many things. You can paraphrase and interpret in non-fiction. You must source, of course, but just make sure everyone included is really needed. Same for characters in fiction. You know what to do with those darlings.
  6. Diction Friction: Don’t forget diction. In fiction, let’s not have characters who were supposedly educated in small rural fishing villages talking like PhD candidates in oceanography unless there is a good reason. Think: what terms would this person, of this age, and this background use? How people say something is just as important as what they say. But keep it consistent. How many times have you wanted to throw a piece down when you didn’t find dialogue credible? In non-fiction, it’s important to  keep diction consistent, answer reader’s questions as they arise (unless withholding for effect in creative-non fiction), explain terms seamlessly (I would often ask people around the office if they knew a certain word to gauge if it needed defining), and avoid using jargon. No reader likes to feel like an outsider when they’re enjoying a piece of writing. And here, of course, is a Rolling Stone special issue with Nirvana, because print is still kind of cool.

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