So You Think You Can Write?
~Nine easy steps to improve your writing from a prolific beta reader~
(Photo credit to Pixabay)
I remember growing up and wishing someone would pay me to read books. But if you mentioned “beta reader” to me as a child, I probably would have thought you were referring to a new type of VCR. For all the writers scratching their head at the reference, please just nod and smile. I still think the 90s were ten years ago. Let me live in this fantasy.
And what a fantasy it is…as an aging millennial, I read and write books for a living. During my time as a commissioned beta reader, I’ve noted patterns within unpublished manuscripts, universal traps that nearly all writers fall into. Almost every beta read concludes with me sharing the easy writing tips listed below. And when I say easy, I mean TOTALLY SIMPLE to execute. Pulling back the curtain on the fundamentals of storytelling has helped me tighten up my writing craft, and now I’d like to pay it forward.
So you think you can write? Read on to find out.
Minimize your filter words: felt, wondered, saw, watched, thought, decided, etc. Filter words keep your reader at arms’ length, which prevents them from fully investing in your plot or characters. When I read, I want the raw, immersive experience of living a different life. Eliminate as many filter words as you can and your writing will be stronger for it.
Study up on deep POV. This is the single most important writing craft tip I’ve got. Deep POV changed my entire writer/reader mindset, and it can be applied to ANY story. I highly recommend securing a copy of Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson for a crash course on seamlessly incorporating deep POV into your manuscript. Here’s a good online resource also: https://www.writingmastery.com/blog/what-is-deep-pov
Double check for cadence and variety in sentence structure. As writers, it’s hard to distance ourselves from our work. My best advice for checking your writing “flow” would be to read your work aloud (or use a program to read it aloud to you). It’s important your writing stays diversified to keep readers engaged. I love when people compare writing to composing music. The same note over and over and over and over again would be boring. Your sentences should vary in length, format, pacing, and voice (depending upon what characters are involved at any given moment). Be intentional with your composition.
Limit descriptor words. This tip stings for me. I adore lush prose, I’m in a love affair with language. Someone recently read one of my manuscripts and drove this point home, explaining that while words are beautiful, they can detract from the pacing of the plot. If you’ve got to describe a room, you don’t need more than one adjective. The cramped, dim, stifling room pulls the reader’s focus away from the actual action within the room. Eliminate excess description (as painful as it may be) to keep everything streamlined for the reader. Minimalist description also allows the reader to fill in the gaps, which is a big part of the joy in reading.
Monitor over and under-explaining. This is a prime example of why edits and revisions are so necessary to a well-executed manuscript. When writing a first draft, you’re telling yourself the story. As such, you will likely reiterate unnecessary details more than once, or perhaps you will leave holes scattered through the plot that trip a reader up. One of the biggest challenges when writing is to hit the sweet spot between over and under-explaining. Using alpha/beta readers to gather feedback provides the perfect solution.
Incorporate 80% showing, 20% telling. Okay, I just made up the stats. I’m not going to demonize telling. There’s a time and a place for everything. However, I can promise you the reader will be more invested if you SHOW them the pale hand floundering in foaming waves, or the flush of a child’s cheeks as they catch a snowflake on their tongue. The best way to SHOW in writing is to use PHYSICAL ACTIONS/REACTIONS to convey emotion. For example… Tell: Lucy loved kindergarten. Show: Lucy woke before sunrise, stuffed her backpack full with her favorite books, and shook her mother awake. “Time for school, Mom!” She exclaimed. “Hurry, I don't want to miss the bus.”
Check for active versus passive voice. Character agency is paramount to building a satisfying arc. Active voice keeps your character involved in their own story. Here’s an excellent resource to clarify the difference between active and passive voice: https://writingcenter.uagc.edu/active-vs-passive-voice
Every scene in your novel should be purposeful and have a modicum of conflict. This tip transformed my approach to writing. As a committed pantser, I used to gawk at the idea of writing intentionally. However, writing with intention doesn’t mean you’ve got to have all the details planned out. Use your first draft to let those creative juices flow, and then edit with a fine-toothed comb to be sure that every scene leaves the reader wanting more. Conflict can be huge or teeny-weeny, but it helps the reader keep turning pages. So check that each chapter conveys some measure of emotional suspense or turmoil. Emotion is the best way to maintain conflict, in my humble opinion.
Lastly, GET LOTS OF EYES ON YOUR WORK. You start writing your story for yourself, but as it grows and changes, your story transforms into a gift for your readers. Readers will gauge whether your story conveys everything you intended, whether the characters are relatable, the stakes are high enough, or the setting is immersive. Keep a tight hold on your goals for a particular story. You have the final say after all. But use readers to measure how effectively your manuscript gets the message across. Books are a team effort. It takes a partnership between an author and readers to really bring a story to life.
I hope these craft suggestions help you clear the path to publication and grant you confidence in the readiness of your manuscript for public consumption. Millions of little steps define your writing journey and you are fully capable of making that story a success. I’ve seen it time and time again as a beta reader. Just put in the work, add some polish to that manuscript, and watch it shine!
So you think you can write?
Yes, you most definitely can.