KatCorbett.com -- Author Tips

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Do you like to write, too? Here are some tips that will help you make your writing the best it can be!

Read with a Writer's Eye

If you want to write good stories, you need to read, read, read! Your brain will soak up writing styles without your even thinking about it -- a freebie writing course! However, I say "Go one step further, and read with a writer's eye." Get into the habit of noticing the interesting way an author has written something. Tell yourself "Oh, that's clever -- I must remember that." You might even want to jot these ideas down and collect them for later use.

BUT -- don't copy! Use the idea behind the way the author wrote something, but don't use that author's words. For example:

  • Author's words: "My left knee was complaining all the way."
  • Your words: "My unhappy feet kept asking if we were nearly there."

Here are three good reasons not to copy:

  1. It's against the law. Look at the copyright page (usually the back of the title page) of any book to see just how strict the law is. A copyright works much the same way as a patent: You invented it -- you own it.
  2. It's unfair. You wouldn't want to see a clever phrase of yours later in someone else's writing.
  3. You have good ideas, too! Don't miss the fun of coming up with something punchy of your own. Let other writers admire your brilliant mind!

Writing for Today

Ever read a book that seemed written a bit oddly? You might not have been able to put your finger on quite why, unless you thought to flip to the copyright page (on the back of the title page) to see when it was written. Maybe you found it was longer ago than you'd thought -- say 1977 or 1982. Over the years, writing styles change. Naturalness is in now, making some things that were once common practice sound dated.

Here are style changes in the writing of dialogue that you should know about:

  • People cannot laugh, smile, giggle (etc.) words. Use only speaking verbs, such as whispered and shouted. Add the details separately.
    WRONG: "What a crazy idea," Sue laughed [smiled, giggled].
    RIGHT: "What a crazy idea," Sue said, laughing.
    RIGHT: "What a crazy idea," Sue said with a smile.
    RIGHT: Sue giggled. "What a crazy idea!"
  • Most speech tags should use the "invisible" said or asked. Trying to add variety by using remarked, responded, inquired, and so on just draws readers' attention away from what your characters are saying.

  • Reversing natural order sounds unnatural! You wouldn't say ran Julie, so why say said Julie? Use Julie said. "I love that color," Julie said.

Your schoolbooks may still be using the old styles in sentence examples. Be in the know! Check out the writers' shelf in your bookstore or library. Notice the copyright years; books published recently will have more up-to-date information than older ones. However, here are a couple of older ones I really like:

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them), by Jack M. Bickham. Writer's Digest Books, 1992.

Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1991.

Power Writing

Your English teacher wants you to use lots of adjectives and adverbs to make your sentences more interesting. Yet the how-to-write books by successful authors call that a sign of weak writing. They urge you to cut out most adjectives and adverbs and rely instead on strong verbs. Who's right?

Your teacher wants to make sure you understand adjectives and adverbs. Those authors want their readers to know how to produce writing that sells. I agree about weak writing. It doesn't take much thought to string out a bunch of stale adjectives or adverbs: The hot, yellow sun shone brightly down from a clear, blue sky on the dry, sandy desert. Boring! It takes effort to come up with a single fresh adjective or adverb or a verb strong enough to do the job without the help of an adverb: The sun blazed from an empty sky, baking the desert below. See the difference? Go for quality over quantity, and your teacher may like your sentences better than your textbook's!

Inventive Writing

In your own writing, you can be as creative as you like. Try inventing words to surprise your readers -- I made up unfavorite and unconfuse. You can also combine regular words in surprising ways. In First-String Future I used seriously terrible and deep-blue gaze. In Future Perfect I used assorted cats and no-way wrappable. A surprising verb catches readers' attention, too. I used glooming to myself; slam-dunked her; slog along the shiny streets; brain has stalled out; face flames crimson; eyes glaze over; revs down a notch; whapping his muscular tail. Of course, you wouldn't use this kind of "fun" writing in a formal report. And too much of anything gets old, like eating too much candy. My last word of advice is always: Don't overdo it!

A Strong Voice

The Power Writing tip talked about using strong verbs, but there's another way to keep your writing strong. Stick mainly with the active voice. Passive voice weakens what you say.

Not sure what these two voices are? Here's the difference:

  • Active voice is direct. A subject does something. "Mary petted the cat often."
  • Passive voice is indirect. A subject has something done to it. "The cat was often petted."

Which sounds stronger? Passive voice has its uses -- for example, when you don't know or don't want to say who did something. In general, good writing uses mainly active voice.

In the Mood

Are you in the mood for writing? Writing has moods, too -- a declarative mood and a subjunctive mood. You already use the declarative mood quite naturally to declare, or state, almost everything. It's when to use the subjunctive mood that throws people. Should you say it was or it were? It were may sound odd, but in some cases it's exactly what you need. Here's the scoop:

The subjunctive is what you use when you talk about something that really isn't so, as in the old saying "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride." This often comes up in wishes or after if. The test is to see if the meaning is but [it's] not.

  • "I wish today were Saturday." [but it's not]
  • "If I were you..." [but I'm not]

When if just introduces the reason for something that always happened, use was:

  • "If I was late for school, I got detention."
  • "If she was angry, she would stamp her foot."

Very Possessive

Here's something everyone does sometimes -- including me! It's not correct, though, so I take care not to do it in writing. Do what? Fail to use the possessive pronoun with a gerund. A gerund is a verb part that's being used as a noun. In this example, the word calling is a gerund:

  • Common Error: "I don't like him calling me that."
  • Correct Form: "I don't like his calling me that."

You wouldn't use him with a regular noun, such as jacket: "I don't like him jacket." :) You'd use the possessive his. The same goes for other pronouns: "Don't you like my singing?" "Their barking is driving me crazy!" And above, in the tip Read with a Writer's Eye, "without your even thinking about it" needed your thinking, not you thinking.

Over and Overkill

Wordiness bores readers, so you'll want to avoid it. One kind of wordiness is redundancy. Okay, what's redundancy? It's adding extra words that only repeat the meaning. Examples:

  • true fact; invited guest; advance planning; past history; strangle to death; join together; classify into groups; might possibly; red color; pair of twins

Another form of wordiness is circumlocution -- literally, "talking around" an idea. Examples:

  • at an early date for soon; by the name of for named or called; at this point in time for now

Still another form of wordiness involves what I call "throwaway" words -- overused words that people throw in without thinking about whether they're needed. A good example is different; often you'll see it used over and over in just a few paragraphs!

  • all different kinds (kinds must be different); many different sports (many sports says it)

Remind yourself to watch out for wordiness traps to keep your writing snappy!

So Cliché!

Be the "cliché police" and patrol your writing for tired expressions. These old clunkers have been around so long that all they do is label us as lazy writers. You know the kind of thing:

  • days are numbered; calm before the storm; blanket of snow; as luck would have it; out of the blue; in this day and age; last but not least; fate worse than death; bitter end

Invent your own fresh expressions, and your readers will say, "Hey, yeah!"

Oops -- Danglers!

What could be worse than writing comedy when you didn't intend to be funny? That's what happens when you accidentally create a dangling modifier, also called misplaced modifier. What's that? It's a phrase that was meant to modify one part of a sentence but actually modifies another part because it's misplaced, or "dangling" far from the part it's supposed to go with. Examples:

  • "Swinging from the trees, Joe saw a band of monkeys." Okay, who's swinging from the trees here? Not the monkeys! Swinging from the trees is placed next to Joe, soooo... :) Fix-up: "Joe saw a band of monkeys swinging from the trees."
  • "Miriam saw a lighthouse on the boat." A lighthouse on a boat?! Fix-up: "From the boat, Miriam saw a lighthouse."

Be warned, it's easy to make these bloopers, so reread to find them before your readers do!


Danglers aren't the only cause of unexpected comedy. There's also the ambiguous pronoun. You know what a pronoun is; ambiguous means "unclear as to meaning." It could refer to either of two nouns. Connecting it with the unintended one could create a mystery -- or a howler! Example:

  • "The boy told his father that he had done something stupid." Whoa! Whodunnit -- the boy or his father? The he could go either way.
  • "When the baby has finished its bottle, wash it well and boil it to kill any germs." Are we boiling the baby here or the bottle? The it could refer to either. :)

Try spotting these in magazines and newspapers -- bet you'll find some good ones!

Copyright © Kat Corbett