As writers, we know it’s vital to keep the reader interested. This is true whether we’re constructing a thriller, a poem or a technical document.
Without the reader, there is no transaction. There are only words on a page.
Given the subjectivity of our art, how can we ensure our work is compelling to our target audience? It isn’t important to reach every potential reader, but we do want to connect with those who have a natural interest in our genre or subject.
Each author must find his or her own voice. There is no certain road to stellar writing. However, there are a few key tips that can help keep the reader “on-line” with your story. Keep in mind, each time a reader is “stopped” by something that clunks, there is one more opportunity for him to put your book down…for good.
The following is a checklist of things to watch for. The occasional occurrence of these “sticky” factors is not usually a deal-breaker. However, if these problems arise in your work with any frequency, you may need to drag your manuscript back to the old drawing board:
1- Poor spelling or grammar. Most independently published work, and even a good deal of the traditionally published work these days, will contain the occasional ‘typo’. These rare slips are easily forgiven by modern readers.
However, repeated errors in grammar and spelling will indicate to a reader that the writer is not skilled. If this problem occurs with any regularity, a course in basic writing is recommended.
If a writer believes his story is strong but is aware of a problem in this area, a copy editor can help. In that case, it is recommended that the author get professional assistance.
2- Pet words or phrases. We writers are human. Naturally, we’ll be tempted to slip colloquialisms into our work.
It’s ok to repeat a phrase when it lends voice to a specific character. However, it’s not ok when the writer shows an obvious attachment to a word or phrase. The reader will be turned off by repetition of this kind.
I keep a checklist of words that I have a particular fondness for. As soon as my first draft is complete, I “go hunting” for those words using the “find” function in my word processor.
3- Lengthy descriptions that interrupt the story. I call this the “explainy” stuff. We all do it, to some degree. As writers, we’re often describing the environment (either internal or external) to ourselves, as much as to the reader.
Most readers will lose interest if they are confronted with huge blocks of description or lengthy narrative. Of course, there will be some exceptions. For the most part, though, it’s best to give the reader sufficient foreground and enough artistry that he can fill in the background using his own imagination.
4- Cardboard characters. We hear this all the time. But how will we know if our characters are one-dimensional? And what does that really mean?
A fully developed character will seem real to the reader. He/she won’t preach, won’t be 100% good or evil (unless that character is a saint or a sociopath!), and won’t be entirely predictable.
A strong character has room for growth. There may be flaws, but there is also the potential for redemption.
5- Take care with dialogue tags. Use “he said/she said” sparingly, but make sure the reader always knows who is speaking. Avoid replacements for the word “said”. They are intrusive to the dialogue. Also, avoid adverbs for “said”, like “he said breathlessly”.
6- Get comfortable with dialogue. Strong dialogue is a clear indicator of writer confidence. Listen to people speaking. Practice injecting your character’s voice into the dialogue. Read it out loud to yourself. Better yet, record yourself reading it.
7- Cut anything that is not related to your story/purpose. You may come up with a brilliant idea, but unless you can work it seamlessly into your current project, put it aside. If it’s really great, you’ll be able to use it down the road.
A red pen can be your best friend.
8- Know your characters like you know the real people in your world. You don’t have to offer this intimate insight constantly to the reader, but you should have it in the back of your mind when you bring your characters onto the page. Each time a character steps into your story, he/she should arrive as a complete person, with likes/dislikes/views/habits/dress intact.
Author infusion of self into characters is a common problem. Remember that your characters are not you. They should be free to act and think in ways that may be completely alien to you as a person.
9- Respect your readers. They don’t want to be talked down to. Each reader will have his or her own views on life. It isn’t necessary (or even desirable) for a writer to suppress his own natural ideas. However, it’s important to present those ideas within a foundation of respect, knowing that not everyone will agree.
10- Finally, the most important tip I can offer to writers of all skill levels is simply: READ, READ, AND READ SOME MORE. The more we read, the better we write. There is no substitute for exposing ourselves to literature of every genre.
An open mind facilitates excellence in writing.