How To Write Well - A Quick Guide

So you've got your characters and plot ideas together (or at least mostly together, hopefully), but now you're left with a question: how do you write it? What do you describe, and when? What do you need to tell your audience about? If you're having trouble in this vein, here are some tips for you.

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So what makes for good writing?

Simply put, good writing is writing that achieves its purpose well, and there are two main purposes to writing for an audience. One of them is to share an idea - whether that idea is a simple recipe or a complex saga. The second purpose is to evoke emotion, whether it's a greeting card meant to brighten someone's day or a poem meant to evoke deep sorrow. Therefore, good writing is any writing that achieves this effectively, regardless of whether it uses "proper" English or not. Bad writing is any writing that fails to do this - whether it's because the vocabulary is incomprehensible, the core idea got lost along the way, or it's just too boring to hold your audience's attention the entire way through.

Do yourself a favor. Forget everything you heard about flowery prose and big or obscure words making for "good" writing. (Good writing can include them, but they aren't necessary.) Forget the idea that there are words that you should "never" use. (Yes, there are some you should probably cut down on, but there are no absolutes here.) Forget the idea that more words is better writing. (There's a time and place for them, but they aren't always needed.)

Instead, ask yourself two questions: What am I trying to accomplish with my writing, and how can I best accomplish it? For example, are you trying to tell a love story? Are you writing to write horror? Are you trying to make people laugh, cry, or a little of both? Write it out in a bullet list. Now think about how you might actually do this. How have you seen it done well in other stories? Where did other stories fail to do it well, and what would you have done differently to make it work? What else do you feel could work here? Once you've got this all figured out, you're on the right path to writing something good.

Remember to use correct spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing.

Unless you have stylistic reasons, aims, aim to use correct spelling, punctuation, and paragraphing. This makes it easier for people to read what you write. You can brush up your knowledge on the following pages:

Commonly Misspelled Words & Mangled Phrases
A Proper Punctuation Primer
How To Use Paragraph Breaks Properly

And don't forget to use your spellcheck! Turn it on and pay attention to those squiggly red underlines. Again, incomprehensible writing is bad writing, and misspellings and typos make things hard to read.

Figure out what you need to detail and describe.

Identify and write out a list of the key details you need to communicate and the key events that need to happen. What does the audience need to see or know about here? What needs to be described so they know what kind of place this is? What needs to be revealed or explained so that they understand what's happening and understand its significance in the greater scheme of things? What needs to happen to take this story or scene from its beginning to its middle to its end?

For one example, if you plan to write a romance that people can believe in, you need to show it build up and show that these characters have chemistry with each other. You can't just have them go from zero to furiously macking on each other and have your audience buy it, no matter how much sense the relationship makes in your head.

Here's an example of writing that skips over something important: Misty stood in front of the bathroom mirror and brushed her hair, then got into the car and drove to work. The way it's written implies that Misty's car is in the bathroom! Absent is any implication that Misty actually left to go out to the garage or something. (In situations like these, it can be helpful to stop and visualize what your character does, and how your character gets from Point A to B to C and so on. You don't necessarily need to describe everything in full detail, but there does need to be something that lets the audience know what's going on.)

And finally, if you feel like your writing is coming out too short or you're at a loss as to what you ought to describe in a scene, you might take a look at How To Increase Your Word Count (Without Resorting To Purple Prose And Gratuitous Introspection!) and On Showing vs. Telling.

Use an audience-friendly vocabulary.

Ask yourself: What kind of people are going to be reading your story? What words are they going to be familiar with? How can you describe things so that they'll easily be able to understand what you mean?

Terms like "rubicund tiers" and "kyanite hues" might sound poetic to some, but a lot of people will have no idea that you mean "red lips" and "blue eyes." (Plus you'll probably make yourself look extremely pretentious.) Likewise, jargon from a job or hobby might be nigh incomprehensible to those outside of it. Look at the words you're considering from an outsider's perspective, or from the perspective of the average reader: are they going to understand these? If not, and if you really want or need to use them, can you make their meaning clear from context? And if that's not possible, can you add quick explanation or definition the first time the term is used?

And before you go grabbing the thesaurus to find a substitute for a word that seems a little ordinary or plain, ask yourself: is it really necessary to find a different word for this? While it's often good to variate your words, your audience might not understand a word that's too obscure, and a particularly unusual word might stick out from the rest of your prose like a sore thumb. So make sure you take this into consideration.

Describe and explain things in an audience-friendly time and order.

The time and order in which you describe and explain things can make a huge difference in how comprehensible and engaging your story is. Here's what you can do to make it as audience-friendly as possible:

Describe events in chronological order. Here's a sentence to consider: "I think it's a good idea," Misty said, after sitting down. Because the events are written out of order, you had no way to correctly visualize what happened the first time you read it. You probably had to stop and revise your mental image of that scene. Now consider this: Misty sat down. "I think it's a good idea," she said. With everything in chronological order, you don't have to stop and reimagine what happened - you get the correct picture from the start. This makes for a smoother, less frustrating reading experience. So as you're writing, aim to describe events in the order they happen in.

Describe visuals in order of what the observer (be it audience or main character) would most likely notice first. Far too many writers end up focusing on all the wrong details at the wrong times. They might introduce a new setting, then describe its teeny-tiny intricacies while leaving the broader picture nearly untouched, creating a situation where the audience is left with the textual equivalent of a series of macro photographs that do nothing to help them understand or visualize the bigger context in which these details exist.

There are two things that people tend to notice at first glance: The things that are big and obvious, and the things that are glaringly different. As long as they're processing these details, they aren't going to notice the finer and more intricate details. So let's say, for example, that your pasty-white gothpire walks into the scene. Someone who has never seen someone like like before probably isn't going to pick up on the exact shape and proportions of the vampire's facial features or notice exactly what shade of hair the vampire has. This person is mostly going to notice things like this vampire having a complexion like cottage cheese and dressing like a weirdo. This person might notice that the vampire has red eyes, but probably won't pick up on subtle differences in hues and tones, let alone the tiny gold flecks in them.

The same goes for scenery. Someone seeing an old castle for the first time might notice that it's big, gray, and made of decaying rocks. However, this person would easily overlook finer details like the exact shapes of the individual rocks used to build it, the exact differences in architectural styles between parts that were built in different time periods, or an unusually-shaped window or statue off to the side.

Try this exercise: find a photo of some people, or a room, or a city scene. Look at the photo for a few minutes, taking notes of what you observe. Now go and do something else for a few minutes. Then go back to the photo and look at it again. Notice what else you observe this time. Then put the picture away for awhile, and then come back again. Once again, take note of what you see now. Compare what you noticed each time you viewed the picture. This will help you develop a sense for what kinds of things you should focus on describing first.

Explain things on a need-to-know basis. Audiences need to know what something is the minute it becomes important for them to visualize or contextualize it.

Consider the following sample: Misty picked up the mellanta and tucked it under her arm. To think that so many wars had been fought for it, to think that so many darantis had fallen! Sean would be so happy to have the mellanta back. He'd put it back where it belonged, among the other zareiths in the companda.

If you just went cross-eyed trying to read that, you hardly be blamed. You had no way to visualize or contextualize any of it! What is a mellanta? What does it look like? What are darantis and what do they do, and how do they fit into the world at large? What characteristics define a zareith? And what is the companda, where is it, and what does it look like? It's important to make sure questions like these are not left unanswered.

On the other hand, describing things too early can create problems of their own. People often forget details that aren't relevant to them in the moment, so by the time it actually does become relevant in your story they may have forgotten all about it. Likewise, people tend to find large amounts of information with no apparent relevance to anything right now tedious to read, so they may just end up glossing over it, if only unintentionally. (This also means that making your readers rely solely on a glossary or profile at the beginning of the book might not be such a great idea - they probably won't remember what was on it a hundred pages down the road!)

Avoid being redundant or excessive.

Redundancy and excess, whether in description or individual words, can make a work tedious to read. So it's often a good idea to minimize this where possible.

Some people describe their characters' physical attributes far more than necessary. They might mention their characters' "baby blue eyes" every other paragraph, or something similar. This isn't necessary; people will be able to remember what your characters look like without being constantly reminded. Just once every few chapters can be more than enough.

Likewise, you typically don't need to offer a detailed description of something more than once per book. Once you've done that, you can usually get by on brief descriptors per what your characters would observe or sense - IE, she tapped her fingers on the book's tattered cover.

Many individual words can be removed without losing anything of value. Somehow and managed to are two good examples. For example, she somehow made it to school can become she made it to school, and they managed to survive the night can become they survived the night.

Something like "very angry" can often be replaced with a single (and more powerful) word, such as outraged or livid. If you find yourself modifying some word or other with an adverb, ask yourself: is there a single word you could replace the pair with?

(Of course, this is not to say that every "unnecessary" word is strictly "bad," and that "good" writing is sparse and Spartan. A few "unnecessary" words can help set rhythm or mood, or make your writing sound more like natural speech.)

Watch out for ambiguity and unclarity.

If people can interpret something the wrong way, they absolutely will. As you go, you might imagine you're writing for an audience of evil genies or those obnoxious people who jump to the most extreme interpretation of what you say. (You know, the ones who say things like "You say you don't like me bringing you chocolate cake? I guess I'll just have to stop bringing you desserts!" or assume that because you find some character obnoxious means you want this character to be the polar opposite instead of just having the obnoxious traits dialed back 20-80%.)

If you're trying to define a term for people, ask yourself if there's any way your definition might be too vague or broad. For example, let's say you've defined a cherry as a "small, smooth, round fruit with a pit." With a definition like this, some varieties of plums could be mistaken for cherries. Likewise, if you define "rude" as "unpleasant behavior," you get people thinking that rudeness entails any behavior they personally find distasteful - which could reach to doing anything they don't personally approve of. ("Oh, you're eating carrot cake? I hate carrot cake! You're rude!")

If you're trying to define what something is to people, it might also be helpful to define what it is not. You might point out a few examples of things that might be mistaken as part of your concept, but actually aren't. Maybe your story is about a magical agency that "helps unhappy children." You might be using this to mean children who have been deeply unhappy for some time, but someone could easily misinterpret this to mean children who suffer mild disappointments. So at some point you may wish to explain that this agency helps children who have been deeply unhappy for a certain period of time, not simply children who experience mild disappointment or temporary sadness.

Another potential problem is ambiguity and unclarity in your wording itself. For example, consider the following: Misty left the party with a magic wand. This can be taken two ways - either Misty exited the party carrying a magic wand, or she used a magic wand to exit the party. So when you're writing, try and keep an eye out for issues like this.

Read your writing over and check it for problems.

You might also be interested in:

On Plot Structure & Plotting
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
On Buildup, Payoff, & Contrast
Basic Tips To Write Intimate Scenes
Stuff You Should Cut From Your Story

"How Can/Should I Do This Thing With My Story/Setting/Character?"
"Is This A Good Idea For My Story/Setting/Character?" - How To Answer This For Yourself!
"Help! I'm Worried That My Idea Is Too Cliche!" - What To Do When This Happens

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