3 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine

3 Ways to Make Your Writing Shine

I’ve avoided writing about grammar, style, and anything related to actual prose on my blog up until now because it’s hard to give prose-related advice that’s generally applicable. Aside from things like standard grammar, which even then can be sometimes disregarded, so much advice about advanced writing comes down to genre and preference. Yet, here I am, writing about how to polish your (general your) writing style, because this type of writing advice does have a purpose. Just because you’ve grown up reading, speaking, and writing a language does not automatically mean you’ll know how to move your writing beyond the “pretty good, I can understand everything clearly” category, and the only way you’ll begin to figure out how to move your writing style into the “great, wow, this is beautiful” category is by testing out different advice and seeing what sticks. Plus, even though there will always be exceptional cases, some advice is true for most people—for example, most people can’t pull off prose that blatantly ignores standard grammar, and most beginning writers do overuse or wrongly use adverbs. Those types of skills don’t develop without special attention and practice. So, without further ado, here are 4 of my tips for making your writing shine (and if you don’t agree with them or can think of an exception, well, that’s a-okay—that’s part of the deal when discussing writing!):


1. Avoid Close Repetition

This is one of the easiest issues to have in your writing but also one of the easiest to fix. Close repetition of the same words—not including articles, pronouns, or “invisible” words like “said”—can make writing sound more childish than it really is because it makes it appear that the writer has a limited vocabulary to choose from or didn’t thoroughly edit their piece. Even if a reader doesn’t view it that way, word repetition interrupts the flow of writing and can draw a reader out of the story. Suddenly, you aren’t thinking about the beauty of the landscape but are thinking about how many times the word “green” has shown up in the past few sentences. That’s something most writers want to avoid.

Compare these two descriptions:

“The surface of the water reflected the bright sunlight, and she squinted and held her hand over her eyes as the light shone in her eyes.”
“The surface of the water reflected the rays of the sun, and she squinted and held her hand to her forehead to block the light as it shone in her eyes.”

Neither are particularly stellar work, but the second sentence has a much better flow of ideas and creates a more vivid image because it only uses “eyes” and “light” once in the sentence. Avoiding this kind of repetition is especially pertinent within a sentence, but can also become a problem if it persists in a paragraph, especially when the paragraph is describing one scene or one object. There are instances where repeating a word a) is necessary for clarity and/or b) is done purposefully, for emphasis or comedic effect, but those ought to be the only instances so that it’s clear that the repetition was intentional, rather than accidental. As much as possible, train your mind to pick up on when you use the same word multiple times in a sentence or section, and try to either avoid doing so altogether or be aware of it once you come back to edit the writing.

This principle also applies more broadly to a) introductory phrases, b) sentence patterns, and c) turns of phrase/character quirks. For example, you wouldn’t want to keep using “for example” every single time you wanted to elaborate on a point. You also wouldn’t want to constantly use short or long sentences. Variety not just in vocabulary but in sentence style creates what we register as “beautiful prose” (which often doesn’t consciously register with us because it’s so seamless). Additionally, just like with purposeful repetition, characters who use specific words, phrases, or actions repeatedly need to be shown doing so on purpose, rather than as a subconscious author’s crutch. Every writer has words, phrases, or structures that they rely upon and are prone to repeating, so if you can identify yours, it makes it much easier to learn to use them sparingly, and thus, more meaningfully—which is the entire point of avoiding close repetition.


2. Be Specific

This advice isn’t uncommon, but it bears repeating because it’s not easy: use the most specific, accurate, and vivid words that you can. When experienced writers tell novice writers “don’t use any adverbs,” they generally mean that you should learn how to use strong nouns and verbs instead of relying upon adverbs to convey what you want. However, you can end up using weak, vague, or limited vocabulary even if you never use an adverb, and part of your job as a writer is to strengthen your vocabulary muscle to where it becomes (nearly) natural when you sit down to write. Some of that skill includes my above point about avoiding close repetition, but much of it comes down to a rather gray area of writing: descriptions and word choice. But, I think the principle is clear even when its application isn’t. Consider these two sentences:

“By then the sunset was bright red, oranges, pinks, and yellows, with the top of the sky just starting to turn black, and the trees looked like dark silhouettes against it.”
“By that point in the evening, darkness had begun to creep down upon the crimson, orange, rose, and golden stripes of the sunset, whose dying light illuminated the bare limbs of the trees and the outlines of the hills.”

Disclaimer: I fully realize that some of you may prefer the first sentence because it’s grammatically more straight-forward (and you may not like my liberal use of commas), but for this instance I want you to pay attention to the words, not the sentence structure. The first sentence is clear and does paint a clear picture of the scene: it’s late evening, the sunset is vivid and makes the trees stand out against it. There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence, either, and if you were to read it in a novel, I doubt you’d give pause. However, the second sentence paints a more vivid description while still being clear and easy to understand—crimson and rose not only are more specific shades of red and pink, but they set a different mood than simply saying “red and pink.” “The top of the sky just starting to turn black” feels much different than “darkness had begun to creep down.” And, “the trees looked like dark silhouettes against it” is a lot different than “dying light illuminated the bare limbs…” Not only are the words themselves more specific, but the mood is more specific—I can convey a gloomy, foreboding, maybe even melancholy sensation regarding the sunset without having to directly say that’s the mood, whereas the first sentence has a much more subdued, simple tone. I packed more meaning into one sentence by making the words more specific.

You may say, “well, I wanted the tone of the sentence to be more subdued,” but in that case, you can still make your simple sentence carry more narrative weight without all the fanciness of the second. You could, for instance, write: ““By then the sunset was crimson and rosy gold, with the top of the sky just turning black, and the trees stood like silhouettes against its backdrop.” See how a few specific word choices make the sentence shine a little bit more? The vividness of your word choices is more important than the complexity or simplicity of your writing style. You do not, nor should you, pull out a thesaurus and find the most complex synonym for every word in your sentence. Complexity isn’t the same as vividness. But you should aim to pick at least a few words or details that really pack a punch in each sentence, whether that’s the verb choice, the noun choice, or the specific sense (color, scent, shape, lighting, taste, touch, etc.).  Potent words make your prose more meaningful, no matter what you want to convey.


3. Be Purposeful

Every element of your prose needs to, eventually, be there for a reason. The individual words should be the most accurate and vivid choices, the sentence structure should be as clear as possible, the punctuation should convey precisely the mood and pauses you imagine, and the paragraphs and chapters should contain all needed information, nothing more, nothing less. It’s impossible to make every single word and sentence into the most beautiful and poignant line, and that’s excessive even if it were possible, but when words, phrases, and sentences aren’t chosen mindfully, it becomes apparent to readers. An author who knows what they mean and says what they mean on the page instills confidence in their readers, which goes a long way in helping them immerse into the story.

This level of purposefulness isn’t something that’s possible the first time around—multiple drafts and edits bring out these elements in a story, even though it’s often tiring or discouraging to realize it’s such a long process. That’s the nature of writing. As I’ve said before, writing is an endurance activity, and that’s especially apparent once the editing stage is reached. But, just because it takes time doesn’t mean that shortcuts should be made. Part of learning how to write—no matter what you’re writing—is learning how to hone the ideas in your head and make them come out the same way on the page. That takes practice, as well as exposure to skilled writers via reading books, novels, and stories. That practice does pay off, and the more you are mindful about what you write, the more beautiful your writing becomes regardless of your individual style.

However, this does not mean that you need to become minimalistic in your style in order to be efficient. Clarity is not the same thing as brevity. Mimicry is not the same thing as inspiration. The focus needs to be on how to make your writing the best, the most precise, the most vivid, the most clear that it can be, not making your writing into your favorite author, the latest best-sellers, or your best friend’s opinion of what they like or don’t like. Be mindful and precise about what you want out of your writing—that’s the only way to achieve a style that not only shines, but feels natural when you open a new document or put your pen to the page.

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