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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

5 tips for better writing

I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of young people about the writing process. Before my visit, I had given them an assignment: they had to describe a scene based on a random photograph. There were no rules or guidelines, which allowed them maximum creative expression.

They surprised me with their storytelling abilities and with their hunger to learn more. So I shared a few rules with them to help them develop the craft. Most writers use some variation of these. (Of course, when you become good enough, you can also effectively break the rules, but that's a post for another day.)

1. Evoke emotion. Never use a cliché: People are immune to these phrases because they’ve heard them so often; therefore they don’t respond to them on a deep emotional level. Instead, use the power of description and sensory experience to create memorable worlds and powerful relationships among characters. Emotion is equivalent to agitation. When you "agitate" the reader enough to shake him out of the mundane, you've succeeded.

2. Show, don’t tell. Telling: “James was tired.” Showing: “James slumped on the chair, his red-rimmed eyes staring at nothing in particular. He leaned his head back and felt the weight on his eyelids as Diana Krall crooned through the speakers.” Telling gives you facts; showing helps you understand them.

3. Let yourself go. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Write it as it is, not as you are.

4. Limit the use of adjectives. Be specific! What does it look like, feel like, smell like? This is what the reader will remember.

5. Write tight. Never use three words when only one will do.

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