There are thousands of articles on improving your writing on the Web. It’s a great resource, and I’ve found some of them very useful, especially since English is my second language. But what I mostly found were purely technical suggestions, like kill all adverbs, or delete the following words: barely, so, much, more, really.
I agree with a lot of these suggestions. For instance, ditching “really”—a word I’ve almost entirely banned from my writing. But today I want to share something less technical with you—something softer, as we say in Poland. Soft, because this isn’t as automatic as looking for instances of “really,” being overtaken by a surge of bloodlust, and deleting, deleting, deleting.
The advice I want to give you requires a bit more thought, because it’s all about removing crap from your writing, and identifying crap—unlike locating spelling errors—can’t be automated using Word. You have to do the job yourself, by hand. I’m sure each of you, dear writers and writers-to-be—whether you’re a creative writer, a copywriter, the person responsible for your company’s documentation, or something else entirely—has at some point written something you later regretted once it made it out into the light of day. It hurts, I know, which is why I’ve collected seven signs that a given piece of text is crap and should be deleted or revised immediately!
At the Shrink
Every once in a while you send one of your characters for a lengthy session with a shrink—usually metaphorically. You can’t fool me—I know exactly what happened. You were stuck for what would happen next in a particular section, so—not knowing what else to do—you took your character on an introspective journey. Then later on, once it was written, you decided it wasn’t bad and should stay in the book, especially since it’s secretly all about you. I know, I know—we writers get lonely, so we talk to ourselves as we write. We try to cheer ourselves up, we analyze ourselves, and we figure ourselves out, all without outside help—especially since everyone else thinks we writers understand this stuff! So we fall into a trap and go through our little exercise literary in autopsychoanalysis. If this happens to you, delete it. Nobody needs it and you’ll foolish when the book is published. Really.
Most of us stick more or less to our genres of choice. I tend to stay with stories with the general area of the thriller, horror story, and mystery, for example, while some of you might write romance, historical fiction, and so on. But this isn’t an excuse to clone your own books. If the draft you’re working on starts to resemble your previous book, please throw it away. I know, you’ve changed the characters and the setting, but if it still seems recognizably similar, have no mercy. Delete 80% of it. Or all of it, and start from scratch. Cloning happens when you’re not completely over the previous book—it’s a strong bond, the love between a writer and their work—and it takes some time for us to heal and be ready for a new project, so don’t be upset with yourself. It happens to all of us.
Like anyone else, you have your favorite places and activities, and your characters may have a strong tendency to follow your personal preferences. I always seem to be sending my characters to restaurants, because I love food. If you find two scenes that bear a striking resemblance to each other in your draft, I’m sorry, you have to delete one. I’d even consider a general ban on a given scene once you’ve used it, applicable to all your books. And the good thing is, you might be surprised at the creative new ideas you come up with to replace the ones you chose by default.
The Radio Broadcast
If an exchange of dialogue exceeds a page, cut it back. Dialogue enriches the narrative and enhances the pace of the story, but only when it comes in moderate servings. If the characters go on too long, the story starts to sag. And the problem only gets worse if, as sometimes happens in a long, unbroken section of dialogue, the reader starts to lose track of who’s saying what.
Killing Spree / Erotic Interlude
When writers want to shake up the reader, we often resort either to a killing spree or an erotic interlude, or both. Since we’re masters of our craft, we can vividly describe the most violent murder, for example. Will it hit the reader like a baseball bat? Sure it will. Does it make sense? Possibly not. If you find a passage that’s unnecessarily cruel, or full of sex that has no real reason to be there—see P(l)otholes, below—delete it. Don’t get distracted, showing off your ability to make the reader lose their lunch. And don’t make them read details of sex that are more appropriate to a gynecology textbook. Delete! Then sit down to think of something more productive to do than sticking crap into your story.
These are the places in your book where the reader suddenly hears a loud bang, crash, bam—something has obviously gone wrong—and they issue a juicy WTF. Why? Very often it’s because they have no idea why a character is doing something—they don’t understand the character’s motivation. For example, a character takes an axe is about to murder someone, but there’s no clear reason why they’re committing the murder. Or—even worse—the impending bloodbath doesn’t fit with what the reader knows of the character’s personality. What do you do when this happens? Delete the section and rewrite it, making sure that the missing motivation is clear this time.
Head hopping may be the ultimate torture for a reader—well, apart from switching the narrative from the first person to the third person for no good reason, but I’m going to assume that you’re not doing that. If you find a passage where it feels as if twelve people are all trying to tell your story, like a bunch of people all talking at once at a loud party, you’ve found some head hopping. It can crop up just about anywhere, too, because we often write without planning, adding things to the story as they pop into our heads, and that can sometimes turn into a head hopping mess. Fortunately, fixing it is fairly straightforward: make some of your people shut the hell up, so that the rest can come through clearly and coherently.
Sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of how much another writer has influenced us. If you’re reading your text and feel like you’ve read some part of it before, watch out! It’s entirely possible that you’re unintentionally reproducing part of a book by a writer you love, or even one of your own books (see also Cloning Books).