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Neopia's Fill in the Blank News Source | 22nd day of Storing, Yr 19
The Neopian Times Week 44 > Articles > So You Want to Become a Good Writer: Part Two

So You Want to Become a Good Writer: Part Two

by scriptfox

DEEP CATACOMBS - You created the story and you finally got it all written out. Now you go back to reread it. Released from the spell of creativity and the inner vision that you were concentrating on, you look at it and see all sorts of flaws. Don't despair, and don't throw it away because you're a "bad writer". Every writer worth the name will review and edit what they've done. They have to--and so do you. Here are things to check for:

Spelling

The first thing to do is correct all misspelled words. If you're using a program with a spell checker, that is taken care of almost automatically. If you're not, you need a dictionary and lots of practice. If you don't have a dictionary, well, there's a few online versions that you can check out for free.

After you use spell check, you need to correct the rest of your spelling errors. Yes, I said the rest of them! Spell check will not catch a misspelled word if that's another valid word. For example, "Eye thinks their fore Eye am" is going to go right past your spell check. There are several techniques to help you catch these sorts of spelling errors.

1. Meaning - think about the meaning of your words. If you know there are two similar words that have totally different meanings, make sure you know which meaning goes with which word. A good example is "bear" and "bare". "Bear" could be the animal, or it also means to carry or to tolerate something. "Bare" means to remove outer coverings. Make sure you remember those meanings or else you might get some strange reactions when you write that you are going to "bare with someone" !!

2. Word Substitution - substitute a synonym for the given word and see if that changes the meaning. The best example of this is "to" and "too". "To" is a preposition, and "too" means "as well as" or "also." If you're unsure as to which word you use, try using the word "also" in that spot. If it make sense, then you want "too".

3. Contractions - a lot of mistakes can occur with contractions. The best way to catch these is to deliberately get rid of the contraction in question and see how the result sounds. For example, "they're" and "their". Try using "they are" and see if that makes sense. Remember that the apostrophe is used for a contraction? It can also mean a possessive (something belongs to someone or something). These two meanings clash with the words "its" and "it's". Which is possessive, and which is a contraction? Answer: the apostrophe means a contraction, the one without an apostrophe is the possessive form.

4. Catch phrases - sometimes if you're having trouble with one particular combination of words, you can memorise a catch phrase to help you remember the difference. For example, a dessert is a course of food, but a desert is lots and lots of sand! Thus, you can say, "No, I do not want a desert for dessert." And remember that's one s, and then two s's.

Grammar

Remember, every sentence must have a subject and a predicate (or what the subject is doing). When you write in a "stream of consciousness" style, you will find that your sentences are often incomplete, too long, or garbled. Now to correct that. First, if your sentences are getting too long, with one prepositional phrase after another, don't hesitate to break them into two or three sentences. Sometimes you can create compound sentences by using "and" or "but", but never do that more than once in a single sentence. Give your readers a mental chance to breathe by putting in a few more periods!

Changing tenses is also a mistake to watch out for. See how this sentence changes tenses in the middle: "Fuzzy thought long and hard about the matter, but the more he thought about it, the more he doesn't like it." Doesn't is the wrong tense here. You either change "doesn't" to "didn't" or else change "thought" to "thinks". Remember to keep the tense the same between sentences as well. Be sure you know which tense (past, present, or possibly future) you are using, and why. If you're not sure how to do this correctly, try using only past tense. That's what almost all stories are written in anyway.

Another problem to watch out for is repeatedly using a word within the space of a few sentences. When you are first writing your story, you will find that once you use a word, it's available in your mind to be used again and again and again. This is fine when you are trying to get the original description (story) written, but it makes for poor writing in the end. Go back through and change words and phrases to get rid of repeated words. Don't worry if you can't get rid of all repeated words. Once or twice probably won't hurt, but only leave them in if you honestly can't come up with a graceful way out.

Your personal style will also lead you to use some words and phrases more often than others. This happens on a continual basis, throughout all of your writing. In my case, I have a fondness for the words another, though, although, unfortunately, also, and however, among others. I try to remove excessive occurrences of those words when I go back to reread and edit. It is interesting to note that counting word frequency is sometimes used as a "fingerprint" to determine who wrote which story, and sometimes even when they wrote it.

Slang

Why should you not use slang in your writing? Read this excerpt that uses slang (or dialect):

"Thats right hit was... see there, I jist caint recollect nuthin... don't reckon I robbed that post office and fergot about it do you."

"No.. and dont go round sayin you mighta done it neither.. Facts is I think hit'll be better if you dont talk to nobody bout this trial... jist let me handle it... and you better go over to Uncle Henry's this afternoon and poligise fer what all you said to him yistidy.."

"I aint goin to poligise to him... I meant jist what I said... if he don't tell that jedge that I was at the party I'm goin to whip him ever time I see him."

"I've told you ten thousand times-- wait a minit.. come here a minit..."

Now, what do you know about these characters? What would you expect them to think of different things? What sort of reactions would they have in various situations? By using dialect, the author has stereotyped these characters, leading you to certain conclusions about them. Your prejudices towards that type of person have been triggered. This can be good or bad, but it must always be taken into consideration.

If you want an 'objective' narrator of your story, never use slang for them. You want them to be 'transparent' and not a character in their own right. If your characters use slang, be sure you know what sort of prejudices you are calling into your reader's mind. If you don't know, then play it safe- drop the slang!

Conversation

An awkward point for many authors is how to write a conversation. The first thing you assume is that no line of conversation is complete without a "he said" or "she said" equivalent. Then you try to be descriptive by avoiding the word "said" all the time. The results can be painful to read:

"I have no idea what you're talking about," he huffed.

"Oh, yes you do. You've been doing it for years!" she retorted.

"I have no such thing," he sniffed.

"Oh no? Then why are you doing it now?" she responded.

"Doing what?" he inquired.

"Sniffing! What do you think you are, a bloodhound?" she screeched.

Note that the one halfway redeeming feature of that whole "conversation" is that the "point" is hidden inside one of those descriptive words. Even with that, you're probably begging for relief. Once you set a scene and start the conversation, feel free to leave off all "he said, she said" addendums.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen to him."

"How so?"

"Well think about it. First he wanted to run for office, but he never was able to get enough money."

"That could apply to anyone, though. Why would it be so crushing for him?"

"Because he's a very driven person. Losing out on a goal is a personal disaster in his life."

"So maybe a few failures will teach him how to cope."

"Maybe. Or maybe they'll totally ruin him instead."

Not one word about the people actually talking here, but you still "hear" the different voices in your mind, and can assume fairly accurately the tones which they are using. There is one potential trap to watch out for. When you do this, make sure that you know which person is talking! I have read a lot of books in which I'll stop in the middle of a conversation, back up, and try to figure out who is talking. Quite often, I have to conclude someone left out a line somewhere, because the characters apparently switch places in midstream and neither way seems to make sense!

Another way to make your conversations "live" is to include descriptive action of what the characters are doing or what is happening as they talk. For example:

"We need to head for the emergency capsules!" he called over the screaming alarms.

Lilith flattened herself against a bulkhead to let a crowd of panic-stricken sightseers by. "I don't see the point, Reggie. They're almost certain to be full."

Reggie looked at the now thinning crowd and grimaced. "You're probably right Lilith, but I'm not sure how long these bulkheads are going to hold."

Lilith ran a hand thoughtfully along one of the seals. "They might do better than you're assuming. This is the central part of the station after all."

Reggie's eyes lit up. "It is, isn't it. Break open that panel there- the manual overrides underneath will let you close this one."

Lilith grinned as she slammed the panel open with her fist. "You got it!"

A Second Opinion

Don't hesitate to ask someone else for their opinion of your work. And don't assume that you're "too good" to worry about what someone else says. Constructive criticism can improve anyone and is necessary to your own improvement as a writer. It's hard to change and learn new things without any outside input. Having someone else point out to you something you've done can be a good way to break you out of a bad habit, or to show you an assumption that you'd made but never realised before. It's also a good way to have your spelling errors, grammar problems, or other similar "small" mistakes cleaned up. A second person does not have any idea what you've written, and is depending only on what is actually written down. Unlike you, they don't see what they know should be there rather than what is.

When you ask for another opinion, make sure of a few things. First, that you respect that person's opinion. Second, that they will be interested enough in you and what you've written to make an honest effort to read it and to help improve it. Third, that they are diplomatic enough, or that you have a strong enough ego, to let you take what they say in a positive way without being offended or discouraged. And fourth, that they have enough experience and skill to give you exact details rather than just an overall "it doesn't sound right".

Another option before submitting it to a friend to review is to put your story up for a few weeks. Let it be forgotten for a while, so that you can come back to read it again. The fresh eyes will then be your own.

In the end, the best advice is to keep trying. Don't stop writing just because it doesn't turn out right the first time. Don't get discouraged when your first attempts keep going wrong. One author has proclaimed that you never get beyond "practice" until after you've written a million words. No matter what you do or how much acclaim you get, he says, you are still practising.

And for those of you who aren't sure what a million words would look like, it would be almost five hundred articles as long as this one.

See you in another five hundred articles!

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