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7 Simple Ways to Make Your Writing Instantly Better

Is this you? You’ve written a great first draft. You banged out 100,000 words in an inspired frenzy, your plot points are tight, your characters are so sympathetic they’re crying, your beta readers are raving. You’re about to send your manuscript off to be edited, but you wonder if there’s any way to improve your writing before you do. Maybe you’re a perfectionist and just love to tweak the details. Maybe you want to see how far you can take the editing yourself to save money. (Perfectly okay and highly recommended!) Whatever the reason, you want to whip this thing into shape, and do it quickly.

Well, my friend, let me deliver. (Just call me UPS.) These seven simple fixes can be done in the span of an afternoon, and they’ll make your writing instantly better.

  1. Put in the series comma where needed.Love it or hate it — no one can deny this tiny punctuation mark provokes more passionate feelings than any has a right to. But, what is it?

    The series comma is the one that brings up the rear in a list of words or phrases. Example: “Lions, tigers, and bears — oh my!” The unassuming little mark between “tigers” and “bears” is the source of so much angst and ire.

    Gallons of ink and billions of pixels have been wasted on defending or deriding its use. As Benjamin Dreyer points out in one of my favorite editing books, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, U.S. book publishing prefers it, so I highly advise its use.

    Also Dreyer: “No sentence has ever been harmed by a series comma, and many a sentence has been improved by one.”

    And, yet again, Dreyer: “It uses up fewer brain cells simply to apply the damn thing every time, brain cells that might be applied in the cure of more serious issues.”

    So, make things easy on yourself, and just employ it where appropriate.

  1. Make your parallels, well, parallel.This mistake goes hand-in-hand with the series comma, because where you find one, you might find the other.

    First, the example. See if you can spot the head-scratcher here.

    “Jax likes to eat, to sleep, and licking his fur.”

    Do you see and hear the weirdness in that sentence? My cat, Jax, has three favorite activities and loves them all equally. They all have the same meaning in the sentence. But . . . they do not share the same equal construction as written.

    The concept of parallelism says that parts of a sentence with the same meaning (the list of his equal activities) should have the same construction. So, I should rewrite the sentence as:

    “Jax likes to eat, to sleep, and to lick his fur.”

    Adding that last to adds parallelism.

    (Or, I could simplify it further: “Jax likes to eat, sleep, and lick his fur.” That would be just as correct.)

  2. Rescue those danglers.Dangling modifiers, dangling participles — don’t let the technical names for this easy mistake scare you. Even famous writers get tripped up by this one, so chances are good you’ve done it a few times. It’s hard to catch, but a cinch to fix.

    “Bounding down the road, the mail truck stayed just out of the dog’s reach.”

    Umm . . . I’ve never seen a mail truck bound down the road. Have you? Probably not, but the image of a dog bounding down the road after one is a great visual.

    “The dog bounded down the road, but the mail truck remained out of its reach.”

    That’s better. Now the subject (the dog) and the action (bounding down the road) link up correctly.

  3. Ferociously slay word repetition.Here’s a softball tip about a mistake every writer makes. This is an actual paragraph I wrote today in an email:

    “I noticed a few things in a few of the chapters that you should definitely pay attention to. There are more than a few ways to write a character description; the one you chose is awesome! When you have a few minutes, you could try out some of the others . . .”

    Ay yi yi. I’m so glad I read over it before hitting Send! I was in a hurry and trying to get the email out before moving on to something else that urgently needed my attention. But, I see this a lot in my fiction editing. It’s easy to get caught up in your writing to the point where you don’t notice you’ve used the same word over and over. No biggie! And easily fixed — just give your thesaurus a workout or rewrite those sentences to take out extra words altogether.

    For example, this was the rewritten sentence in the email I actually sent:

    “In multiple chapters, I noticed a few things you should put on the list to potentially rewrite. You chose one of the best ways to describe your characters and used it throughout the book. When you have some time, you could try some of these other methods for variety . . .”

  4. Ditch unnecessary nouns after action words.Question time: Have you ever seen a person nod their leg? What about shrug their nose?

    My guess is, probably not. Most people would assume when someone “nods,” it’s their head, or when they “shrug,” it’s a shoulder movement. So there’s no need to spell it out.

    Do this instead: “Sarah asked if I was going to the ball and I nodded in response.” “Sam shrugged.” Drop the head and shoulders.

    The same goes for this perennial favorite. When a character pauses, there’s no need to say, “She paused a moment before answering.” Instead, a reader is smart enough to guess that a pause is momentary. Revise to: “She paused before answering.”

    Look through your writing carefully for all those other extra qualifying words. Nine times out of ten, they aren’t necessary. Ditch ’em.

  5. Remove hedge and filler words.Benjamin Dreyer moans that his nightmare sentence is, “And then suddenly he began to cry.”

    But why? What’s wrong with it? It’s grammatically correct, every word is in the proper order. It’s punctuated correctly. What’s the deal?

    There’s technically nothing wrong with it. But Dreyer argues that a sentence written that way is in serious need of a trim — because it’s full of so-called hedge or filler words. These are words that writers sometimes use subconsciously when they either a.) lack a bit of confidence, or b.) are inexperienced in their writing. They’re words that give off a sense of hesitation or non-commitment and keep your writing from sounding certain, passionate, bold, and straightforward.

    Common hedge words include: then/and then, of, suddenly (and other overused adverbs), a bit, seems, maybe, somewhat, possibly, perhaps,  a bit, a little . . .

    There are many more, and they should be avoided. Instead, commit to the emotion of your writing. Don’t be ashamed of it. You want your writing to be strong, unafraid, and powerful.

    So, instead, write this: “Tears gushed from his eyes and he poured out a gut-ripping sob.”

    Whew! No hedging there.

  6. Don’t let the beat drop.You know and love your dialog tags. He said, she said, they said, and all the many varieties and permutations of “said.” Most writers can whip out a dialog tag blindfolded, with their hands tied behind their back. (Figuratively, of course.)

    But action tags/beats? Errr . . . not so much.

    I’m sure you’ve seen this gem: “Whatever,” he shrugged.

    This is an absolute do-not-do. Why? Because an action tag or beat (shrugged) can’t speak. In other words, action needs to be separated from dialog.

    An action tag/beat is some kind of physical motion that accompanies dialog. It’s a useful tool for adding rhythm, motion, description, and even characterization to your dialog’s sentences and paragraphs.

    But they always come before or after spoken words and are never used in place of a dialog tag like “said.”

    Here are some illustrations:

    “Whatever.” He shrugged. <– Action beat separated from the dialog by a period. A beat is a complete sentence that offers more of a pause to show some action in the dialog flow.

    “Whatever,” he said, shrugging. <– Dialog tag, then a comma, then an action tag. A tag is an action used as part of the dialog tag to more closely couple the action to the spoken words. Notice in this case you still separate the dialog from the dialog tag with a comma, not a period.

    An action beat can also interrupt dialog, but make sure it’s a complete sentence, separated from the spoken words with periods.

    “Whatever.” He shrugged. “I’ll just get the chicken sandwich instead.”

    “Whatever,” he said, shrugging. “I like chicken better anyway.”

So, there you go! Go through your draft and see how many of these you can spot. Pretty soon, with a little practice, you’ll start noticing them as you write too.

And if you’re really in a rush, or just don’t feel like tackling any of these quick fixes, all of the above are part of either my Style Tune Up or Nuts and Bolts editing packages, which come with a free trial edit of a chapter in your story. I’ll be able to tell you, after your trial edit, which package fits best. Send in an application here.