Happy writing! x
Creating and refining your own unique style of writing is important, particularly in the modern Internet age, where a high content turnover means readers are constantly in pursuit of something original and clever. However, it’s often difficult – especially when you’re just starting out – to fine-tune the way you write and embody the qualities that make your voice distinct and innovative.
So how exactly do you tease out those qualities? How do you then apply them to the actual process of writing? Here are ten hot tips to get you started today.
Start with what you know. If you begin your writing process in a world that you’re familiar with, it’ll generally be much easier for you to slip on your characters’ shoes and immerse yourself into the setting of your story. In fact, J. K. Rowling herself based one of her best-known and most complex characters, Professor Snape, on her chemistry teacher.
Be inspired by real people, real emotions and real events. Reflect on your own journey as a human being. Reflect on small moments that seem to have permanently burned themselves into your memory, and let those reflections guide the philosophy that underpins your writing. As author Kashmira Sheth points out:
The emotional growth of your characters is one place where you can use your own experiences much more deeply. If you are writing about the summer between sophomore and junior year, then you can go back to your emotional state of that summer. Was it the summer of heartbreak, angst, rebellion, disappointment, or sorrow? How did you survive and persist? How did your emotions manifest themselves in your interactions with others? What did you learn? How did that one pivotal summer make you grow and change?”
If the content of your writing leaves you with deep and nostalgic feeling of been there, done that, then it’ll more likely exude a profound sense of realism and empathy – one that will resonate and connect with readers more powerfully.
Everyone sees the world through their own unconventional lens, but not everyone is aware of the existence of those lenses. That’s when it becomes important to take a step back and become aware.
For instance, if you’re observing the way people engage in conversation, take note not only of the dialogue, but also of the silences, of the interruptions and of the speakers’ unconscious habits like pushing up their glasses, adjusting the collar of their T-shirt or tapping their foot against the carpet. Ask yourself why those habits are emerging in the first place. Are they nervous? Are they scared of the other person’s reaction to a particular piece of news? What does this say about their relationship with one another?
As writer Annie Evett argues in her article on observational writing,
Good observational writing utilises all of the senses in describing the event, character or item; transporting your reader easily into the world you are creating or describing.”
That being said, one question you may ask is: how exactly do you utilise these senses?
When the reader takes a dip into the waters of your writing, they want to feel something. They want to immerse themselves in imagery that extends beyond a mere description of what can be seen. So it’s your job as the writer to ignite as many of their senses as possible.
Let’s say that you’re writing about a bushfire approaching from the distance. You may initially choose to illustrate the way the fire rapidly gains speed, leaping from tree to tree, an angry flame that cannot be tamed. But wouldn’t your setting be much more evocative if you gave the reader the capacity to hear by assaulting their ears with the strange silence that falls upon the forest, with the sudden roaring of fire as it tears through this silence, with the protagonist’s faint coughs as her lungs choke up with smoke?
And wouldn’t your scene be even more vivid if you also engaged the reader with descriptions of the scent of smoke blowing into her cheeks, of the vile taste of charcoal in her mouth, and of the soft fabric of her blouse battering against her skin as it fights a battle it knows it cannot win?
Writer of the Udemy Blog Margo Jurgens provides some further tips and advice on how to best approach writing sensory imagery.
One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is ‘Show, don’t tell’ – but it’s also important that you enact the ‘show’ part with a twist. Avoid using the same old words to paint a picture. Try adopting a different approach or perspective.
Let’s take the bushfire example from above. Rather than using phrases like ‘The fire roared’ or ‘Smoke billowed up into the sky’, you might perhaps juxtapose the constant ticking of the clock inside the house with the comparatively erratic rhythms of the fire leaping from treetop to treetop.
You might also use a memory or an anecdote as the transition into your description of the fire’s sudden approach: perhaps the protagonist recalls a time she watched a juggler accidentally drop his flaming torches, and contrasts how quickly the torches were extinguished with how impossible it would be to put out this monstrous bushfire.
It’s sometimes very easy to fall into the trap of clichés – especially in times of doubt and uncertainty, when you find yourself borrowing the storyline of your favourite novel or imitating the writing style of your favourite author or poet. This can ultimately hinder your potential for originality.
How do you rid your writing of clichés? Writer’s Digest‘s Peter Selgin suggests that the best way to avoid cliché…
… is to practice sincerity. If we’ve come by sensational material honestly, through our own personal experience or imagination, we may rightly claim it as our own. Otherwise, we’d best steer clear. Our stories should be stories that only we can tell, as only we can tell them.”
Brian A. Klems gives 12 examples of clichés that ‘need to be permanently retired’, while Writer’s Web provides some tips on how you can identify and avoid clichés.
Intimate details are the key to enhancing the vivid quality of your writing. Be specific in your characterisation and descriptions of setting. The subtlest of movements – your protagonist tugging at the hem of his shirt, your villain tapping two fingers against the table – can help build up the mood of your story or poem, accentuating the emotions experienced by your characters.
Being specific in your details means combing through your writing and paring it down, so that it includes only those words that (in some way or form) contribute to the meaning you’re trying to convey to the reader. Word choice becomes crucial here.
Author Kristen Lamb highlights the importance of diction: ‘She bolted from her chair’ is much better than ‘She stood quickly out of the chair’, because the word ‘bolted’ holds a powerful sense of action and urgency that the phrase ‘stood quickly’ simply does not have.
If you’re looking for inspiration, an effective exercise to get your creative mind pumping is to turn random objects into quirky metaphors. Select any item in your line of vision – a pencil, a typewriter, a mug – and write about it in the greater context of life. This exercise gives you the opportunity to turn something mundane into something totally and utterly original.
For instance, you may decide to write about the blinds by your desk. Perhaps they represent the idea that we have control over the degrees of light and dark within us; when the world inside is cold and grey, all we have to do to warm ourselves up is pull open the blinds and let bars of light in.
Feeling creative enough yet?
A classic example of writing with a strong, authentic voice is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye – when you read that novel, you cannot help but hear Holden Caulfield’s voice in your head. With the effective use of voice, the reader becomes so deeply submerged in the story, the characters and the underlying meanings that they forget a writer has fabricated this world.
Author Junot Díaz draws from his own characters as examples on how to strengthen the various aspects of voice. Blogger Lorrie Porter focuses more on how you can incorporate strong voice into dialogue.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and to test the limits of what you think you are capable of writing. Take Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to write a good short story, for instance. Once you understand his rules, you can start bending them and eventually start breaking them. As Vonnegut himself writes,
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”
As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect! The more you write, the more you will grow conscious of your own writing style and thus be able to improve upon it. Blogger Leo Babauta presents a range of tips on how you can write daily.
You might end up writing a few sentences, a few paragraphs, even a few pages. Quantity doesn’t matter; frequency does. So set aside some time everyday and get writing! A world of words await you. Time to turn on your mind and let your creative juices run free.
Writing concisely is a great skill to have. It means you can connect with your readers in an instant rather than half a page, and that really packs a punch. But making the most meaning possible in the least amount of words can be very difficult. So, here’s a writing prompt to help you work on the weight of your words. Beware, this one is not for the faint-hearted!
Write a short story starting with the sentence “We watched the sun rise”. It can be set anywhere, at any time, and be about whatever you want. Make it at least a page with as many details as you dare to think up.
Here’s where it gets tricky. Condense your story to a single paragraph. It may seem impossible to cut anything out, but you can do it. Think about what’s really important to your story and trim back the fat. We all have to ‘kill our darlings’!
Turn your trimmed paragraph into (around) 25 words. Think about how can you merge multiple meanings into single words. This is where your vocabulary can come in handy. As long as you keep to ‘the point’ of your story you can whittle down your words and still get to the crux of what you want to say.
When you’re finished you should have three versions of the same story. This writing prompt is tough but totally worth it, because when you have your final sentences you’ll have some truly concentrated words and images. It also helps to see that your creative intentions don’t disappear with the words you cull, which makes it easier to write and edit your longer works. You can then apply this process to any novel or article you are writing and make your works concise.
Characterisation is, without doubt, one of the most important elements to master when writing a novel or short story.
You may have dreamed up a plot of unparalleled genius or a storyline so amazing you have your readers drooling. However, if you don’t have authentic and compelling characters driving the story, no one will ever reach the final page.
If a story is a sailboat, characters are the rudder that steers the whole ship.
Clever’s not enough to hold me – I want characters who are more than devices to be moved about for Effect” – Laura Anne Gilman
Characterisation is defined by what the characters think, say and do. It’s about the writer developing the personality of the people in the story to make the work interesting, compelling, and affecting.
One could go so far to say characterisation is even more important than plot. If your character is fascinating, whatever they do will take on gravitas.
The best characters are the ones that seem to take on a life on their own. For example, when the reader is always drawn back to the book because they can’t help wondering what the character is up to. It’s not as hard as you think to create a character as memorable as Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes.
To allow the readers to engage with your characters, they need to become multi-faceted, living, breathing individuals. You have to know them as personally as you know yourself.
The best way to achieve this is by creating a complete character profile that you can always refer to. This way you can trace how a character might react to every situation and how they might feel about the things that happen to them.
Consider these major factors when formulating a character profile:
For your character to function successfully as a reliable entity, they must possess a past that has shaped who they are when the reader meets them. You don’t have to reveal it all at once, or even reveal it at all. However, it’s important for putting the character’s actions into context. It’s also a very useful way of teasing out information throughout a story by allowing the reader to slowly learn more about the character.
The key influences on a backstory often include:
The backstory will be a major influence on how the character moves through the story.
For example, if your character has a traumatic past, it will often result in an unresolved personal conflict when they are older. As outlined in his biography, Harry Potter’s experiences as a child directly affected him as an adult.
When he was a baby, Harry and his parents were attacked by Lord Voldemort. His parents were killed but Harry miraculously survived. When he was older, he continually came face to face with his nemesis. Over many years he began to learn more about why this happened and why other strange things were happening to him. This resulted in a growing motivation to pursue this knowledge, leading him into greater conflict, not only with Voldemort but other characters, include Professor Snape, the Malfoy’s and Slytherins.
For this reason, he reached out for allies. Since many of his allies didn’t survive, including Harry’s Godfather Sirius Black, Harry became angrier and more emotionally damaged. However, he was able to use the love his parents showed in protecting him as strength to overcome his obstacles.
To some degree, the backstory shapes a character’s personality. However, the personality is also less concrete. Having a good grasp of your character’s personality will allow you to remain consistent throughout the novel and understand how events will have different impacts.
You might ask yourself whether your character is an introvert or an extrovert? Will they be funny, intelligent, kind, charismatic or cowardly? What part of their personality will you seek to emphasise in order to build a connection between them and the reader? Do they have hobbies that reveal more about their outlook?
You may also consider what kind of attitudes and opinions your characters have about life that make them intriguing. For example Mark Renton in Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh, is a black-humoured heroin addict. His taste in anti-establishment music such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, and his accompanying political views, set him apart as a dynamic, off-beat anti-hero.
If you yourself don’t have a clear sense of what your characters look like, then it’ll be near impossible for the reader to imagine them. You don’t have to list every specific detail. Allow the reader to use their own creativity.
However, it’s also vital to the overall impression of the character to know how they dress. Do they dress mostly according to their job? How do they display themselves in public, casual or fashionable. Is there something they wear that is of significant symbolic importance?
This will link into the character’s personality and provide the reader with greater insight into their mindset. The reader must be able to logically connect the various aspects of the character.
An example of clothing being a major signifier is the appearance of Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s novels. Reacher commonly wears very plain, practical clothes, often bought cheap so as to attract very little attention to himself. He uses clothes to downplay his size and strength. He wants to seem as ordinary as possible, so that when he gets into trouble he can completely surprise his opponents with his fighting ability.
Giving your character a unique or crazy name is a bit of a cheat to making them memorable. However, it’s still worth the thought. No one really gets excited by a character named John Smith. A name can also go some way towards shaping the general impression your character gives to the audience. For example, Inigo Montoya sounds flamboyant and heroic straight off the bat.
Consider this list of the fifty greatest literary character names as inspiration for your own characters. Furthermore, this in-depth character profile template will help you craft your characters more easily.
So now you know your characters, it’s time to integrate them into your story. As stated earlier, you can reveal your characters to the readers in three key ways:
Or more simply, thoughts. Literature has an advantage over film, in most cases, because it allows a writer to delve as deep as they like into the character’s head and directly relay their thoughts. Making use of internal dialogue is a quick way of giving the reader more information and understanding about a character.
Only the character and the audience knows what is going on in the character’s head. While you don’t want to over do it (show don’t tell!), it’s useful in circumstances where you want to show the opinions characters have of each other or the events that happen around them.
Inner dialogue is useful to contrast between what the character says out loud and what they are actually thinking.
Sherlock Holmes is famous for keeping a lot more within than he reveals to others. He holds his deductive reasoning in his head, leaving others puzzled as to how he’s joining the dots of the mystery at hand, until he is sure he has solved the problem. This is why he seems like such a genius when he reveals everything at the end of each story.
Dialogue is the most obvious way of displaying your character’s personality. Their delivery and vocabulary will reveal ample information to the reader, even through a simple conversation. How they converse with other characters is vital to their development and how the audience views them. Tone and inflection are everything.
In the dialogue of Arya Stark, it’s easy to identify her passion, petulance, and vulnerability, depending on where she is and who she is speaking to. In this excerpt she displays youthful innocence despite her otherwise feisty nature:
“I bet this is a brothel,” she whispered to Gendry.
“You don’t even know what a brothel is.”
“I do so,” she insisted. “It’s like an inn, with girls.”
– George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
Talking to guards at a gate she displays her volatile temper:
“I’m not a boy,” she spat at them. “I’m Arya Stark of Winterfell, and if you lay a hand on me my lord father will have both your heads on spikes. If you don’t believe me, fetch Jory Cassel or Vayon Poole from the Tower of the Hand.” She put her hands on her hips. “Now are you going to open the gate, or do you need a clout on the ear to help your hearing?”
– George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
Action is a simple and effective way of coercing your character to give away aspects of themselves. Someone slams a door, they’re angry. They runaway, they’re scared or embarrassed. They sigh, they’re disappointed or sad. All of these actions require no speech, yet they still demonstrate to the reader what the character is feeling and thinking.
Action is a great technique to use because it lets the reader play detective. Let them figure out why the character did what they did. This will give the reader satisfaction, when they find out they were right, or surprise, if they were wrong.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, we learn that Sethe tried to murder all her children in the past. At first we we struggle to think why she would do this when she seems to love Denver so much. The other events and circumstances allow us to guess at her motivations before they are fully revealed to us. The conclusion provokes the realisation that she was actually trying to spare them a life of misery as slaves.
Just because your characters seem life-like, it doesn’t mean they’re interesting. Unfortunately, real people can be boring sometimes.
“I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgebaaarr.” – John Green
You need to give your character a compelling desire or need, a goal that will reel the reader into their story. It might be a story of revenge or mystery, personal redemption or emotional catharsis.
It’s also a good idea to shroud them in some mystery, such that the other characters and the reader can’t quite decipher them. This will keep readers intrigued. For instance, Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne is surrounded by question marks. We know very little of his past or where he got the money to build the Nautilus.
A good character also has to be surprising and unpredictable at times. An effective way to achieve this is to give them some contrasting personality traits. For example, they might be funny but cruel, kind but violent. This just keeps the reader guessing and elevates the tension in the novel.
Danny Kelly in Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas patiently cares for the handicapped but possesses a violent streak that lands him in jail. Not an evil or dangerous character by any means, yet his violent trait develops from his personal demons regarding his sexuality, and the confusion and stigma that came with it.
Vulnerability is another perfect way to get the reader to interact with your characters and story. If a character is in pain or danger, it’s a human reflex to be drawn to them.
Morn Hyland in Stephen Donaldon’s The Gap Cycle is a character that suffers horribly at the start of the first novel. From that point on we are behind her all the way as she fights through the rest of the harrowing series, finding incredible strength to keep from breaking down completely while trying to care for a son that was born of rape.
It’s important to remember your character doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable, even if they are your main character, as long as the reader becomes attached to their narrative. Alex, the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess commits vile acts, including rape and manslaughter, but we still want to follow him to see if he can be redeemed.
When you think of all the different and interesting people in your life, it doesn’t seem so hard to dream up memorable characters. Family members, friends, acquaintances, enemies. All shapes, sizes, ages. You can take parts of all of them to help create authentic characters, while also drawing on your own thoughts and emotions.
In summary, the most important thing to consider can be summed up by Ernest Hemingway’s famous words:
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
The best way to do this is to make your character profile as detailed as possible, before you start your work. Happy writing!
Today, we have a guess post by the lovely Daisy Hartwell, who contacted me and asked to feature on the blog. She has done a handy guide for using punctuation marks, and this one features the semicolon. I hope you find it useful, and if you want to check out the rest of her guide you can do so via the link at the end of the page. Enjoy!
If we list punctuation signs in English, we should mention the semicolon.
When to use a semicolon?
Of course, there are several reasons to place it in your text. But in modern language, it’s more typical to separate a sentence into two parts instead of using a semicolon.
Firstly, there’s a question which bothers many students:
Colon vs semicolon—how do you distinguish between the two?
They have different functions.
We use a colon in sentences to introduce a list or to emphasize one part of a sentence.
A semicolon is responsible for other functions. We need it to separate independent clauses or long parts of a list.
Do you need a semicolon or a colon in the sentence? It depends on the particular case.
If you think that a colon is more appropriate for your sentence—you can read some rules about it as well (just click “Colon” in the right part of the screen).
If not, here are some semicolon standards and examples.
When we use independent clauses in a sentence, they’re typically connected with each other. In this case, we use a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or) and a comma.
But proper use of English grammar and punctuation changes under different conditions. If you delete the conjunction from the sentence, you should add a semicolon.
Here’s an example of a compound sentence with a semicolon:
All patients must sign up by telephone or in the hospital; patients who use the Internet to make an appointment are not assisted.
The correct use of a semicolon isn’t difficult to understand in sentences with transitions. Transitions can be specific words and phrases. Authors use them to show the readers they moved from one thought to another idea.
Examples of transition expressions: nevertheless, afterward, of course, in other words, and so on.
A semicolon is used before the transition:
These days, exotic animals are more often turned into pets; for example, Clara from NC keeps a raccoon in her house.
Here’s another example with a semicolon before however:
All her friends tried to stop her from leaving the country until she got over her illness; however, she couldn’t miss her daughter’s wedding.
A paragraph without punctuation would be too difficult to read. Even when you use commas, a sentence can still be hard to understand.
That’s why sometimes we need the assistance of other punctuation marks.
In this section, we’ll tell you when to use a semicolon in a list.
According to punctuation rules, the semicolon may be used instead of definite commas. In this case, a semicolon before conjunctions isn’t a punctuation mistake as long as it performs the role of the comma. In the following example, you can see a semicolon before and:
She felt great in the village: making birdhouses, reading old stories, and learning tree names with grandpa; swimming in warm lakes and collecting strange bugs with Ann and Susie; and going to the fair with Aunt Marie.
When to use a comma or period? It is a popular question from writers who try elliptical constructions. The truth is–you can use not only the comma or the period but the semicolon as well!
Separate those parts of the sentence which express a complete idea with the beginning of the sentence:
On the red team 5 players were left; on the blue team, 3; the green team tried to catch up with just 2—it was obvious who was going to win.
When we use a colon, sometimes capitalization is necessary. But what about when using a semicolon?
You shouldn’t capitalize after a semicolon unless it’s placed before a proper noun.
Now you can tell when to use a semicolon.
If you want to find out about other punctuation marks, you can check out other sections in this punctuation guide via https://custom-writing.org/blog/punctuation/semicolon