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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

Filtering by Category: Why Good Writing Matters

Why Good Writing Matters: Internal Consistency

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

This is the final blog post in my "Why Good Writing Matters" series. My husband gets credit for the idea on this one. His profession is pretty much the complete opposite of writing, but he always holds great insight in the field nonetheless. One of the many reasons I love him! Now, onto the good stuff...

Have you ever read a book that had a great plot, intriguing characters, and a distinct voice but lacked consistency throughout? If so, did it irritate you and ruin the book for you, or did you view it as no big deal?

This may not be the case for everyone, but stories that lack internal consistency—that is, they have plot holes or material that contradicts some other part of the book—really grate on my nerves. In my brief research mentioned in the introductory post for this series, I found this topic held the most disagreements. Some readers weren't overly bothered by inconsistencies, and others equated them to blasphemy, ruining an otherwise perfectly good book. There was also a spectrum of opinions in between. Where people stood within that spectrum depended on the type of inconsistency and the frequency of it for any given book.

That just goes to show, there’s a lot of gray area with this one. I'm not certain only a few minor inconsistencies are enough to deem an otherwise well-written book garbage. However, there are a few things regarding internal consistency that really do matter. These are the things that your readers will pick up on and remember even after they've finished the book.

Rules of the Universe
Know the physical rules and laws of your universe. Record them. Memorize them. Following the rules of the universe is a tip for writers of any genre, but breaking said rules results in differing consequences depending on the genre. If you bend or break a given rule in a strictly standard fiction, your readers may notice but be a bit forgiving so long as it's infrequent. If you make this mistake in a fantasy novel, watch out. Not only will there be a dip in believability, but your readers will likely become irritated and more critical as they continue flipping pages, making the experience for them much less enjoyable. By sticking to the rules you set, you'll gain even more credibility for your awesome writing skills.

Writing Through the Ages
Historical fiction novels and even standard fiction pieces taking place a few decades ago lend themselves to a minefield of problems: clothing, language, and objects (particularly medicine and media devices) that are downright tedious to get right. In a full-blown fantasy novel, the author can make up materials, clothes, language, and whatever they wish. So long as they stick to the rules for those things, there is no problem. But when fiction is part of reality, consistency in these things isn't just a good idea; it's a necessity. Novels that take place in the early 1700s need to reflect the era being written. The same is true even with a more modern time period like the 1950s. If you try writing a novel that takes place (in the USA) in 1959 and mention someone getting a mumps vaccine, you're in for a bashing from your readers. The bottom line? Do your homework. Writing a novel that takes place in another era can be fascinating. It can also be frustrating as heck. But if you’re dedicated to doing the research required and you respond to critiques from your beta readers, editor(s), and sensitivity readers when needed, you’ll be greatly rewarded. Well-written pieces of these genres are easily some of the best books out there! Get them right, and you'll gain serious respect from your fans.

Character Facts
By far, the most common and widespread issues has to be with character facts. Think date of birth, relations to other characters, physical features, dialect and word choice, personality traits, etc. If you make a mistake in one of these areas, your readers will notice, and you’ll likely get flogged for it. Since this has nothing to do with research (unless you're dealing with a specific mental or physical illness) and everything to do with organization, make a point to catalog every character during the planning and drafting stages when you write a book. Find a method that works for you, whether it be index cards, a spreadsheet, a writing program, or something else. Then use it as a reference point any time you add a new fact, change an existing one, or are unsure what the existing ones are with any of your characters.

Cross-reference your facts constantly. Even when you've checked and rechecked everything ten times over, go back and check again. Have your editor (who should already be looking for them) check too. An inconsistency in this area can best be described as one of those nagging thoughts in the back of your head. When readers come across one of these errors, they make a mental note of it and never forget it. So do yourself and your readers a favor by making sure to keep even the smallest of facts about your characters straight.

This is an area that I personally struggle with the most; I tend to leap first, then go back and try to undo all the knots I've created. I can tell you from experience that this isn't the best approach. All it takes is just a few knots to produce a major unwanted kink in your plot. So set the facts and adhere your story to them, not the other way around.

Internal consistency soothes readers, increases credibility and believability, and is congruent with good writing. Inconsistencies stand out like a sore thumb. Avoid them, and you'll avoid having to endure a painful sore that will blemish your otherwise beautiful masterpiece.

Why Good Writing Matters: Environment and Mood

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One of the first things that usually comes to mind when writing a story is environment/setting. This is especially true for the fantasy genre, since most fantasy stories revolve around made up worlds. But for some reason, this also tends to be the one area where good writing is typically lacking.

My theory as to the source of this lack of description is the fact that many writers experience the rush of ideas, and since we can think (and picture) an environment much quicker than we can jot it down on paper or type it out in a word processor, the details end up being sparse when we finally do get it down. So how does this affect the reader's perception of a story? What other elements of a story does it affect? How can writers compensate for this rather common circumstance?

Without a decently written environment, both believability and mood of a story will suffer. If the physical environment/setting of a scene (or whole world) is hard for the reader to picture, they might get frustrated and become uninterested in the book. There are some that believe leaving the details up to the reader is a good way to connect with the reader, giving them some control. I say that idea is pure nonsense and an excuse for the author's laziness and/or lack of writing ability. As far as mood goes, it will be hard to pick up on if enough details of an environment aren't provided. The combination of conveying how a character feels along with a clear description of their surroundings and current situation can go quite a long way. It's what makes the difference between someone reading your book, and someone being engaged in it. A good book will always draw the reader in and provide a necessary escape.

In order to prevent environmental sparseness, first work to prevent the problem, then solve any traces of it that exist the best you can. Here a few handy tips:

  • Keep a notebook with you wherever you go. If an idea strikes you, jot it down immediately. Include as much detail and description as you can possibly can. No matter how much you think you will remember later, it will never be as clear as the moment the idea first plants itself inside your brain. 
  •  Make an outline of your story, including the physical environment. I know that I've reiterated this point in several blogs, but the clearer the structure of your world, the less likely you are to forget any of it or misconstrue it. Consistency = believability and credibility.
  • After writing a scene, go back and edit it. Examine it both in the context of the whole story and the surrounding scenes. Try to approach it as someone who has never seen the text before, then fill in the missing pieces. Add detail as necessary and take out any repetitive material. Replace weak verbs with strong ones, and steer clear of clichéd adjectives/colors.
  •  Use the added features to enhance the mood of the scene. Especially when combined with sensory details, well-written context of a setting can convey a strong mood and clear emotions of characters involved. When achieved, the reader will be completely immersed the text.
  • Have someone else whom you trust, who hasn't yet seen the scene/story, take a look at the piece. Ask them for specific feedback and if there are any places where the description is lacking.
  • If you have a whole story or several scenes that require editing, break it down into manageable chunks. Set deadlines for yourself to work on them, and have someone hold you accountable for those deadlines.

 

Expect to do a lot of rewrites. No writing is good writing the first time around. It takes many, many drafts and attempts at editing to get a piece exactly right, even if it's just one scene. Preventative measures for bad writing are the most effective of course, but edits will always be necessary eventually. As Dory from the movie Finding Nemo might say: Just keep writing, just keep writing.

Why Good Writing Matters: Plot Structure

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Details in a story are everything. They make a story unique and give it life. But without a proper plot, there is no story. The book becomes meaningless. Plot is one of the first things to consider when deciding to craft a work of fiction.

Everyone knows from early elementary school days the basic structure of a plot. You start with the opening, or exposition, have some rising action, a climax, falling action, then the ending, or denouement. But what they don't teach you in elementary school is that you can tweak that basic structure to your advantage. You can bend the lines and change its shape to capture a reader's attention and suck them in to the story, rather than showing it to them.

It's true the following that basic structure is a good rule of thumb as a guideline. But consider the following: You open a book, and the first few pages go on to describe the main character, his/her age, name, situation, etc. Essentially, a "Here's who I am and why my life story is worth telling," scenario. It may follow the structure of a plot, but it isn't a good opening. Agents don't like it, and neither do readers. Why? It's clichéd and doesn't hold most reader's interest. So what can you do to bend the rules a bit so that your opening is both intriguing but follows the basic guidelines?

1. Tweak the structure.
Use the exciting parts to your advantage. Jump right into the action, and explain the situation as you go. This doesn't mean forgoing the guideline altogether either. A common method to this approach is to start with a fight scene and then go back and explain how the main character arrived at that particular situation. But that isn't the only option you have. You can start the character just about anywhere and in any situation as long as there is some action taking place. This could be as simple as a party, a vacation, school, or what have you. Just make sure that no matter where you start, it has some unique element, something that will hold the reader's attention and make them say, "Hmm. I want to read more." For example, have something go horribly wrong at the location, have someone unexpected show up that causes a commotion, anything out of the ordinary. A unique opening is an interesting opening. You want to avoid the classic clichéd opening and a dramatic introduction completely. Those kinds of beginnings are incredibly overdone.

After you develop a beginning to your story that hooks your readers, continue to follow the standard plot structure. Subplots and extra action along the way are, of course, encouraged. The more you have, the more likely the story is to keep a reader's interest. However, if you develop a rather complex plot, you'll need a way to keep track of it. Consistency is one of the most important things in holding a good plot after all.

2. Use outlines to keep your story straight.
In a previous blog, "Maps are Key," I mentioned using maps and outlines to keep one's story straight. I highly recommend this method, particularly if you're going to have a complex plot. It's generally a good idea to start out with a loose outline of your story. Include the main points of the plot, get a list of main characters together, and perhaps briefly outline what you want to achieve by telling the story. Every good story has a point to it, whether it's a moral statement (usually found in children's books), a good vs. evil battle, or a simple story to convey change in a character (usually reserved for short stories, though not always). If you don't know the reason for telling the story, the reader won't either, and the effectiveness of your writing will suffer.

3. Use details to enhance the plot.
Details really do make a world of difference. You can have a fantastic idea for a book and a captivating plot, but if it isn't written well, the story will be worthless. Sure, you might pick up a few fans here and there that don't really care about how well-written a piece is, but the book will never be what I would consider a good book, a true piece of literature. I realize that may sound rather harsh, and there are certainly those who disagree with me. But if you're going to take the time to do something, like write a book, then why not take the time to do it right?

This poses the question: How does one create a well-written story? Apart from good grammar and a stellar plot, if you examine any good book, you'll see that details play a big part. Without details, there are no hints at what is to come, no twists, turns, or surprises, and certainly no colorful imagery. Use details in your writing to bring your story to life. Make every scene that you write count. Craft the words in such a way that they are appropriate for the scene and the voice of the story. Use variation to make them flow well and heighten the mood you are trying to establish.

Good writing is an art form. The words flow easily and have a wonderful, musical rhythm to them. The words will seem very naturally structured. However, a good author will strategically place, words, scenes, and all other content to form that piece of art. They know how to strike just the right balance using flow of the words and well-placed content.

Why Good Writing Matters: Dialogue

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Dialogue is one of those pesky details of crafting fiction that can make or a break a good story. Good dialogue can make characters really come to life. However, when written poorly, dialogue can make the story flat, unprofessional, and even annoying. It's a tricky thing to get right. I don't think the answer is as simple as "You're either good at dialogue, or you aren't," either. So how does one approach writing dialogue that will make it both real and interesting to the reader?

Keep It Simple
Dialogue holds a number of emotions for the characters that say them. It is a tool for interaction between characters and one for conveying characters' thoughts and emotions to readers. What they say and how they say it can tell the reader more about a character than the author may realize. Depending on the dialect, one might be able to tell a location from which the character originates and sometimes their educational background. So it's easy to get wrapped up in what a character should say, especially when you're trying to explain a complex situation. While you want to be clear with what the character is saying and feeling, you also want to leave out some information, allowing the reader to pick up on cues from the other context. Not doing so can be frustrating to the reader, making them feel as though you don't think they're smart enough to figure out the subtler meanings on their own. Keeping the dialogue as simple as possible can minimize these issues. Say what is necessary for the scene, moment, or what have you, and leave it at that. Make the dialogue unique to the individual, but avoid being overly wordy.

Why this method works: Simple dialogue is real dialogue. There aren't many individuals (that I know at least) that go around spouting off their every thought and desire. We have a way of involuntarily communicating with our bodies that let other people know how we feel about a situation without having to say anything at all. We're also good at saying as little as necessary to get our words across, assuming that the other person will know enough about us and the context of what we said to pick up on the full meaning of our words. We're emotional creatures, and we're often eager to express ourselves without much planning. Good dialogue will have this feel to it, but it will also include a subtle agenda.

If your dialogue is forced, it will be obvious. Bad dialogue is one of the easiest things to pick out, even for non-writers. So it's important to get it right. The best way to pull off this balancing act is to let your characters be who they are. Start out by having them say what you think they would say rather than what you want them to say. You can always go back and edit out unnecessary text later.

Avoid Talking Heads
While good dialogue adds a dimension of realism to a scene and can really be a good means of portraying the personality of a character, it's rendered ineffective when used alone. A large block of dialogue that isn't coupled with anything else, such as appropriate tags or body language, is a phenomenon referred to as talking heads. This type of dialogue will sometimes includes a small amount of body language in ending tags, such as "he said and smiled" or "she asked, raising her hand," but these small gestures don't really tell us much about the situation or the characters involved. They don't give a dimension of realism and layers to a character and/or situation that well-written dialogue would do.

Not every line of dialogue needs a tag, not every body movement needs to be captured. However, in an effort to avoid having to much dialogue and too little body language, it's a good idea to first consider how the character being spoken too might react physically, and attempt to portray his/her body language first, before adding in any dialogue. This will ensure that only necessary dialogue is used, and it will also enrich the dialogue, making it more believable. Again, keeping it simple is usually the best way to go.

Practice
I know that it gets tiresome to hear that old practice makes perfect advice, but that's the heart and soul of good writing. Every good writer starts out as an amateur, and every fantastic novel starts out as scribbles of uninteresting crap. It takes time--and yes, practice--to transform those scribbles into a work of art. And no matter how good your writing is, there is always room for improvement.

One way to practice dialogue is by observing before writing. Listen to conversations on the train or in a store as you pass by people. Watch how the intended recipient of those words responds. Note any body language used, even if it's pointing or a simple nod. Keep in mind why you think the responder uses those actions, and what they might indicate to the speaker.

Another good observation exercise is to go to the park and people watch. You don't need to get close to anyone or even hear any words being exchanged. Observing the body language of those around you can give you a good idea of people's emotions, and it makes for excellent notes for accompanying dialogue. If you've ever been around a group of toddlers or young kids, you'll notice that they are especially adept at using body language to communicate. That is because body language is their primary form of expressing their feelings. They are keen to interact with others and have no problem showing how they feel. If you ever get the chance to observe these wonderful creatures, do so. You can learn a lot from them.

Another way to practice dialogue is by doing writing exercises. They can help you with just about any type of writing, but I've found them to be exceptionally useful with practicing dialogue. The more you write dialogue, the easier it will become, and the more natural it will start to sound.

Below are some writing exercises I've come up that encourage use of body language to convey characters emotions. Each has an explanation beneath it as to the specific skills gained from the exercise.

Writing Exercises/Prompts
1. Image a bank robbery scene. There are between fifteen and twenty customers on the floor, all being held at gunpoint by one of the robbers. The other, also carrying a gun, is dealing with a cashier, getting her to hand over all the money upfront that she has access to. The other employees are in a storage closet, guarded by the same robber who is keeping an eye on the customers. Now, try writing this scene without using ANY dialogue. You can focus on either robber, the customers on the floor, or the employees in the storage closet.

Skills: By focusing on not having your characters saying anything, you'll be able to accomplish two things. First, you'll have a better understanding of how to incorporate natural body language into your dialogue. Second, you'll find the key moments where there is a clear need to have something said in order to avoid confusion. This will help eliminate unnecessary dialogue in scenes where you do use it. You will also get a feel in this exercise for how dialogue works when there is a big group of people involved, and it's a great way to explore and practice use of the five main senses.

2. Two colleagues who don't get along well are being forced to work together on a project. It's day 3 of day 5 on the project, and things are getting heated between them. They've managed to get most of the way through the project, but they've now reached a critical point and are getting hung up on the details. Write a scene dictating the outcome of their collaboration on that part. Does one character get his way over the other? Do they put their differences aside and speak as co-workers would, or do they let their anger get the best of them and use dialogue that typically would not be suitable for the workplace? Pay particular attention as to what the other co-workers around them do. Do they become involved, or do they remove themselves from the situation? How does that affect the two main characters in this scene?

Skills: Writing a critical scene where two characters are under a time crunch and dislike each other help to cut down on superfluous conversation. It will keep the dialogue to a minimum and again rely heavily on body language. This will also help you practice using real-life dialogue as a means of solving a problem between two characters.

3. Two teenagers are out on their second date together. It's Valentine's Day, and they've chosen a quiet restaurant to share their evening together. One character is reserved and shy but is genuinely enjoying her date. The other is more outgoing and somewhat talkative, but he is turned off by the lack of participation that his date is showing in the conversation. Write a scene that shows what happens between the two as the guy starts asking more about the girl. Does she open up, or does she get embarrassed by being put on the spot and clam up? Does the guy learn more patience in waiting for his date to speak, or does he get irritated by her seemingly rude behavior? Does the date end well, or do they decided not to see one another again?

Skills: Sharing an intimate meal with someone is a common, real-world situation that often comes up in storytelling. Sharing a meal with someone whom you have affections for raises the stakes a bit and forces characters to divulge information that they may have been keeping secret. It's a situation in which romance can blossom of course, but it can also be intimidating for some and cause them to clam up. Practicing an exercise like this is a good way to get to know your characters and explore how they are most likely to express their feelings for one another through dialogue.


If you use these methods when writing dialogue, you should see improvement over time. But don't get discouraged if it doesn't come naturally right away. Many writers struggle with this area of writing--I'm one of them--and writing dialogue is not as easy as it sounds. Using language and reading others' body language in real life are second nature to most of us. But if you break it down, communication is a rather complex subject. So it's no wonder good dialogue is so difficult to capture on paper. In fact, concise and realistic dialogue is probably one of the hardest things to get right in a story.

Why Good Writing Matters: Grammar and Spelling

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

One of the biggest issues I see with new or unpublished writers is poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It's one of those controversial items I mentioned in the introductory blog for this series. Some people think it matters, and some don't. What I'm about to say might ruffle a few feathers, but it's the truth, and I feel it's worth discussing. Good grammar absolutely matters, and here's why. If you're writing a book, more than likely, you're looking to eventually get published. Getting something published takes a lot of hard work, determination, and talent. It's part of the long process of turning your scribbles into a work of art, something professional. And it should be treated as such! If you don't make it as professional as possible, and that includes good grammar and spelling, it will reflect poorly not only on the company that publishes it (also making it much less likely that they will even accept it) but yourself. So why would you want to take all that time and effort to create something that is subpar? Those who care very little about the professionalism of their work will not get very far. They may get lucky and have a one-time hit, but I guarantee they will not wind up with a successful writing career that lands them multiple publications. Publishers know what will make them money, and it's not drivel that a get rich quick or get famous kind of attitude can provide.

However, not everyone is able to soak up all the grammar rules we learned in elementary, and that's perfectly okay. My husband, for example, is an extremely smart man, an engineer. But he's a terrible speller. He couldn't spell several everyday words if his life depended on it. But he doesn't let that deter or override his professionalism when communicating in his line of work. If he doesn't know how to spell a word, he looks it up or asks for help. If he isn't sure where a comma should go, he finds out. That's one thing I've always admired about him and his writing, even though it's not his forte. So what can people like him do to improve? What can those who are very good with grammar and spelling do to improve?

1. Build your vocabulary. Get in the habit of learning new words on a regular basis. Look up words you don't know or can't spell. Make notes. Take these new words, and use them. Do writing exercises with them and make them part of everyday conversations. Make yourself some flash cards if you're having trouble with any. The more you use new or unfamiliar words, the better you will get at incorporating them into your writing. That doesn't mean you have to choose big words either; simple, yet strong verbs can have a more profound effect than long, uninteresting ones.

2. Attend creative writing classes or workshops in your local area. Both will teach you writing and grammar skills. They will help you build connections with other writers (and sometimes those in the publishing industry), teach you ways to improve your writing skills and existing pieces, give you ideas for new stories, and they will give you the opportunity to help others overcome roadblocks. This is another stepping stone to becoming a successful writer. Your writing skills will be tried and tested, and you will be pushed to improve. You will be challenged to go outside of your comfort zone. But stick with it. Overcoming those challenges will leave you with a feeling that you know you've achieved something great. You will strengthen your abilities as a writer, as well as gain some new knowledge and skills. Most importantly, these classes will keep you writing. Practice is the key to success in this field.

3. Read well-written literature. Reading is always a recommended tip for improving writing. Reading well-written literature in specific can help with grammar and spelling. The more you see good writing styles, sentence structures, and proper punctuation, the more you will pick up on it. It's a lot like learning a new language. By observing skilled writing techniques and practicing them, you can gain new skills and retain them quite quickly.

Good writing isn't just about how much raw talent you have; it's about learning to take your pre-existing skills, fine-tuning them, gaining some new knowledge, then combining those abilities to create something unique and enjoyable. Good writers practice good writing and continually strive to improve. That's what separates successful writers from unsuccessful ones.