Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.
In celebration of Writer’s Digest’s 100th year, here are 100 tips, hacks, and mini tutorials on how to make your novel ready for the world.
1. Clear your work area.
2. Print out a copy and read it slowly. You’ll catch things your eye skims over on the screen.
3. Learn your word processing software’s search-and-replace function. If you’re not good at it, force yourself to get better.
4. You’ve had a working title for months. Is it still brilliant? As you revise, if a word or phrase pops out with special meaning or satisfaction, you may have found your best title.
5. Get rid of things twice told.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
Just have him say no or shake his head.
6. Write your back-cover copy early, then play with it as you write and revise your book. This goes for indie or traditional publishing.
7. Aim high. For anything. Words per day. Books per year. Sales per quarter. A top publisher. Or simply the satisfaction of having done your very best.
8. Crop out any narrative preachiness. Let your readers draw their own moral conclusions from your brilliant characters and plot.
9. Heed this peeve:
Reticent means reluctant to speak.
Wrong: She was reticent to talk about the divorce.
Right: She was reticent about the divorce.
10. Start at the top and cut one word per sentence. If it’s easy, keep going.
11. Search for the following commonly overused words and cut a bunch: realized, really, very, began to, started to, suddenly, frowned.
12. Be patient with yourself and your material. If there’s an obstacle before you and brute force isn’t working, step back, rest, and embrace that obstacle. Then you’ll be able to see creative ways around it, or maybe even turn it into a friend.
13. Go on a cliché hunt. Find, destroy, and recreate the likes of these: grinned from ear to ear, crawling with cops, strong as an ox, weak as a kitten, for what seemed like an eternity, my heart skipped a beat.
14. If you’ve changed a character’s name, search on all forms of it: Raymond, Raymond’s, Ray, Ray’s, Ray’d. Be sure to “match case,” so the word stingray doesn’t become stingmatthew.
15. Don’t be a drudge about proper grammar. Sometimes characters and narrators use bad grammar, and in the proper context (you’ll know), that can be OK.
16. Think about how your book’s hardcover or paperback spine will look on the shelf in stores and libraries. It will have the title and your last name. Make a statement!
17. Reject self-doubt.
18. Intensify your descriptions of scene beyond the visual. Put in the other senses, even the sixth sense—intuition—when appropriate.
19. Let it sit for two weeks.
20. Need more drama? Add an embezzlement. Or a botched surgery. Or unrequited love. Better still, love renounced for a greater love—of honesty, of country.
21. Learn keyboard shortcuts for bold, italic, print function, and common diacritical marks such as accents acute and grave.
22. Pay lots of attention to your high points—your climax passages. Don’t rush them. They’re what the reader will remember.
23. If stuck, pretend you’ve already achieved greatness. How would future you proceed?
24. Search out and destroy qualifiers: somewhat, rather, a tad, a bit, kind of, seemed.
25. Learn and use proofreading symbols now; savvy writers do.
26. Round out your character portraits. Give description, but also give personality: quick to laugh, afraid of conflict.
27. Heed this peeve: “… made a face.” That descriptor does nothing. At least use “grimaced.”
28. Make a note, just for yourself, at every temporal change:
Chapter 10 [still Thursday]
Chapter 11 [one week later, so now in early June]
Now you can quickly see and catch any timeline inconsistencies.
29. Be open to the glorious messiness of taking stuff apart, having pieces fall on the floor, and getting your hands dirty. That’s where the best learning happens.
30. A handy thunderstorm or blizzard can economically shift mood or even serve as a pivot point.
31. Writing is a nuanced art. Be suspicious of blunt instruments like “Write what you know,” and “Show, don’t tell.”
32. Indulge in lush description when you need to slow the pace.
33. To add depth, humor, or both, show a character performing a mundane chore well or poorly.
34. Save all your notes and side material until the thing is published.
35. Cut extraneous “thats.” He decided that the killer must be right-handed.
36. When in doubt as to whether to break a longer chapter in two, do it. Same with longer paragraphs.
37. Minimize the phonetic portrayal of accents; use habitual vocabulary instead.
38. Never rationalize sloppiness.
39. If a construction feels awkward but you don’t know what to do, strip it to its keywords, and they’ll show the way. Example:
It was high time I got around to considering the question of what elevates a man from a life of mediocrity to a life of greatness.
Better: It was time to consider what makes a man great.
Best: What makes a man great?
40. Develop an allergy to stereotypes. You know, when a group or class is assumed to be monolithic: businessmen are greedy, country folk are stupid, politicians are crooked. Stereotypical characters quickly become predictable and thus boring.
41. Don’t dumb it down. Readers like to have to look up a new word once in a while. It’s OK to use inchoate and riven in proper context.
42. Don’t dumb it down for children, either.
43. Check for extraneous thought-attribution. To whom do you think but yourself?
No: If I let that soufflé fall, I’m a dead man, he thought to himself.
Yes: If I let that soufflé fall, I’m a dead man, he thought.
Better yet: If I let that soufflé fall, I’m a dead man.
44. Don’t give your beta readers too much power. They have their perspectives, but it’s your book.
45. Check your facts again, especially anything technical.
46. Let a character develop expertise in something. This can help build their arc, whichever moral way you need it to go.
47. Almost always, specific is better.
OK: She heard someone coming.
Better: She heard purposeful footsteps.
48. It’s OK to change your mind.
49. If your bad guy seems drab, remember bad guys/gals always probe for others’ weaknesses. Why? Because they’re so in tune with their own.
50. To heighten drama, tighten the time frame.
51. Challenge all transitions. Readers are better at sticking with you over jumps of time and place than you might think.
52. There is such a thing, however, as too little connective tissue. At minimum, let your reader know where your characters are, and roughly what time of day it is.
53. If your middle loses steam, introduce a random, wacky character who causes trouble.
A gossip-monger eats all the boss’s birthday cake.
Rookie lumberjack causes a tree to fall across the road.
A crow makes off with Sylvia’s engagement ring.
54. Simplify this common construction like so:
I didn’t know whether or not to stay.
55. Consider your characters’ spiritual lives. Religious feeling can be a motivating force, and religious pacts are usually powerful.
56. A good rule for taking breaks is every 50 minutes, more or less. Get back to work after about 10.
57. If you learn the difference between:
a revolver and a semiautomatic handgun;
a rifle and a shotgun;
a bullet and a cartridge or shell;
you’ll be ahead of other writers who are too lazy to do so.
58. Read it aloud.
59. Need foreshadowing? Add a boast: “This plan is foolproof, I tell you!”
60. If you make an acknowledgments page, either thank everyone you can possibly think of, or just the top one, like your spouse.
61. Action is better than dialogue is better than narrative.
62. Get rid of the passive voice.
Ugh: Many mistakes were made by Shelly that day.
Better: Shelly made many mistakes that day.
Livelier: Shelly made a hot mess of everything that day.
63. While it’s OK to tell about an emotion, it’s better to show it:
OK: I felt sick with fear.
Better: Oh, no. I bent over in case I had to vomit.
64. Cut most dialogue tags, especially ones that aren’t “said:”
Sort of horrible: “Ready for that colonoscopy?” he quipped.
Fine: “Ready for that colonoscopy?”
65. If you’re able, do some manual labor during your breaks from writing. It doubles the effectiveness.
66. Need comic relief? Any character can goof up, then make it worse trying to hide or fix it. Then, perhaps: Unlikely hero to the rescue!
67. Omit most adverbs. Show it.
Weaker: He said dejectedly, “I never knew her.”
Stronger: He hung his head. “I never knew her.”
68. Continue to be curious as to why something works or doesn’t.
69. If it’s not obvious how to pronounce a fictional proper name, change it. Your beta readers can help here by flagging such occurrences.
70. Heed this peeve: “Everybody dies” is not an adequate ending.
71. Need an expert? Go to the front lines. Don’t call the world headquarters of an auto company with questions about cars; call a dealership or mechanic’s shop.
72. As much as you can, crop out backstory, or move it into the front story.
73. Use curly or slanted quotation marks, not straight. They subtly help guide the reader.
74. If two similar characters can reasonably be combined, do it.
75. If your indie-publishing plan includes a printed book, spend the time you need to make your formatting good and readable. Attend to page breaks, line breaks, hyphenation.
76. In e-books, whether traditional or indie, be sure to include links to your:
Amazon author page;
newsletter or blog signup.
77. Triple-check the above links to make sure they work.
78. Take out anything personally vindictive.
79. If you find a bad hole in your plot, endure whatever pain necessary to fix it properly. The pain of editorial scolding and/or bad reviews is worse.
80. Minimize characters’ inward musing. Don’t get rid of all of it; just see how much you can streamline into dialogue or action.
81. Challenge your characters’ decisions. If you spot one without clear, strong motivation, look 20 pages earlier and see where you can add or change bits of story to make that motivation airtight.
82. Hold your book to the same standards you see in the books you admire.
83. If you’ll publish on your own, make sure your front and back matter are as perfect as possible. Get good advice and take proper care.
84. Regularly ask: Would this element work in a short story? If yes, great; if too cumbersome, rethink it.
85. The only way to avoid all mistakes is shut down your project. You will not do that.
86. If a character seems flat, try turning them into your alter ego. Endow them with traits and foibles you deeply own, and have fun. That character will immediately gain believability.
87. Heed this peeve:
No: There was a myriad of lessons in that disaster.
Yes: There were myriad lessons in that disaster.
88. If you feel frustrated by a problem, talk to another writer about it. This can work wonders in deciding on a fix, or calming you down entirely if you were making a problem where none existed.
89. Let your characters have strong opinions.
90. Make mention of birdsong. Or a tree or two. Or the moon, for gosh sakes. Integrate the natural world, even if your book is set in a big city.
91. If you’re getting stressed out about hitting a deadline you’ve agreed to, take a deep breath, relax, then get back to it knowing you’ll produce the best book you can in a reasonable amount of time.
92. Read a classic to bolster your courage and deepen your resolve. You are more like that author than someone who won’t write their book.
93. In life, there are winners and losers. Let your plot reflect that.
94. When tinkering with character arc, think contrast. Arc has to do with relative change. If a character’s arc isn’t big enough, often it’s easier and more satisfying to lower the beginning point than raise the end point. Put in a flaw or flaws early. Flaws make us human, therefore we’re interested in how characters face and overcome their flaws. There you have arc.
95. Be strict when assessing shifts in point of view. Too many, too fast, can needlessly fatigue the reader.
96. If your ending is dramatic and makes sense, yet feels unsatisfying, consider recursion. Take something striking from chapter 1 and revisit it at the end. Rip off this: In Scene One, an old man on a park bench utters something cryptic and dies; in Scene Last, the hero visits the same park bench and meets a cheerful stranger who’s working on a crossword puzzle—and who might ask for help with a clue!
97. Format your digital file pristinely before submitting to agents or editors. Proper margins, header, double-space, no fancy fonts. Simple. This is one case where you should sweat the small stuff.
98. Run a final spelling and grammar check. Attend to every instance, though you don’t have to agree with every auto-correct suggestion.
99. After you’ve done your best, get a professional edit. Do not ignore this advice.
100. Regret nothing.
No one can buff out a book’s every imperfection, because any work of art is inherently imperfect. But devote yourself to quality. With care and intelligence, you can make your book strong and smooth and thrilling. And that’s a beautiful thing!
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