10 Great Writing Tips for Fiction Writers

Fiction writers, when in the throes of creativity and busily working away on their story, don’t want to interrupt “the flow” by stopping and searching for grammar help online or thumbing through a stack of books. If they need an answer to a puzzling problem, they’d like the answer quickly—so they can get back to writing. And they’d like the answer to be simple to understand.

There are few things more intimidating to a fiction writer than a litany of the names of the parts of speech and the usages thereof. Who has the time (or interest) to memorize all those terms—such as “nominal clause” and “past perfect indicative”—and exactly what they mean?

Yet, writers do need to have a good grasp of the English language (if they write in English) and understand the basics of proper grammar, punctuation, and usage. There’s just no getting around it.

For years I’d kept a notebook by my desk, and every time I researched a grammar question and found the answer I needed, I jotted it in my notebook. Although I tried to enter these in some kind of order, it was inevitable that my notes would end up in a haphazard mess. I thought that one day I would type them all into a document so I could organize them, but that seemed tedious and a waste of time. So I kept scribbling, and when I needed to find that grammar rule again, I would thumb through my notebook, which was growing more and more disorganized the longer it got.

I thought: Why couldn’t someone put out a handy guide to grammar that I could keep at my desk, and that would organize the mess for me? I wondered. Hence, the idea for my blog column Say What? and the compilation of the first three years’ posts into that handy guide.

When I started my blog twelve years ago, I planned to focus primarily on grammar and editing tips. After all, I made my living as a copyeditor and writing coach, and I felt that fiction writers were in great need of grammar help and great writing tips.

Of course writers always need help with editing, but times have truly changed. With the advent of AI and software programs that promise to do all your editing and grammar corrections for you, writers are relying on tech to make them better writers.

Tech is great, and I am grateful for it, but we writers need to use these tools to give us knowledge and insight and not become reliant on them to make our writing better. The more we can apply and integrate what we learn about writing mechanics and rules, the less dependent we will be on others—whether artificial or human—to point out our mistakes.

All this to say: spend time learning grammar and punctuation and syntax rules. Words are a writer’s tools to build stories and poems and portray life in all its nuances. I’m always urging writers to strive for mastery in all facets of writing. Grammar is just one facet.

Over four years, weekly, I posted grammar tips on my blog, then compiled them into my first writing craft book: Say What? It’s a handy book you can still buy as a compact paperback (to carry it around with you) and in ebook format.

I wanted to put a book out on grammar and syntax that was entertaining, full of short, concise (and humorous) explanations of word usage and all things grammarly, specifically for fiction writers. So, in addition to the entries, I added a bunch of fiction tips that I had gleaned from other writers, literary agents, and writing instructors over the years.

Here are 10 great writing tips I’d like to share with you. May these nuggets of wisdom and instruction help you improve your writing.

  1. The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” so said Mark Twain. The task of a good writer is to make sure every word is the right word. Make every word count, and use a dictionary if you’re not absolutely sure of a word’s meaning.
  2. A good way to help you catch mistakes, repetition, or awkward writing in your manuscript is by changing the font of your document. Pick a completely different font style and even a larger point size. Sometimes the different look of your words will help you see mistakes you overlooked when editing.
  3. Poet Andrew Motion gives these tips on writers’ work ethics: “Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve. Think big and stay particular. Write for tomorrow, not for today. Work hard.” Writing is work. To become good at your craft, you have to put in time and effort. You can’t become a heart surgeon just by watching TV shows about doctors, and you can’t become a great writer just by reading books.
  4. When the same articles (a/an and the) could be repeated in the same noun phrase, delete all instances of this article except for the first one. Otherwise, readers may become annoyed by your repetition: “Sally is writing a novel about her cat, her dog, and her mouse.” This reads cleaner: “Sally is writing a novel about her cat, dog, and mouse.”
  5. When writing fast-action scenes, you want the reader to read fast and feel the story is speeding up. To help do this, trim down sentences to make them as short as possible, leaving only the most essential words. Keep paragraphs short—two to three lines at most, wherever you can. You can pare down even more by replacing long words with shorter ones. Think about using incomplete sentences, or even single-word sentences.
  6. Be sure to set off direct address with a comma, whether it’s a proper name or a generic term. Look at the difference in meaning between “Let’s eat Grandpa” and “Let’s eat, Grandpa.” That comma placement is crucial. Also, use a pair of commas where needed. Example: “Hey, everyone, let’s go.”
  7. Cutting lines, paragraphs, and even whole scenes is a vital and powerful skill for writers to develop. A writer needs to look at each section and ask, “Do I need this?” Overly wordy sentences, extended paragraphs, and repetition should all be removed. Any section that fails to move the plot forward should be cut. Cutting back the work is painful, but if done correctly will improve your book tenfold.
  8. To keep your scenes from being tedious to read, break up long paragraphs. Every time there is a shift in focus, such as the character’s attention moving from one person or thing to another, use a paragraph break. A variety of paragraph lengths will help with pacing.
  9. Repetition of words and phrases within close proximity occurs a lot. Our brain sometimes defaults to a word we just used when we’re writing without careful examination of our word choice. When editing, check paragraphs for these repetitions, then rewrite to eliminate them. Your prose will be fresher, stronger, and more creative.
  10. And, finally, William Faulkner said, “There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.” Learn from your errors and push to become a better writer.

My aim in compiling this guide was and is to help you write the beautiful stories you yearn to tell—and to tell them in your own unique style while skillfully wielding language so that you will say what you mean and don’t say what you don’t mean. Learning the craft of writing includes learning correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage, but it shouldn’t painful or boring.

If you realize you need help with your grammar and word usage, and you want a solid way to improve without continually asking AI to fix everything (and often with bad or weak suggestions), then get Say What and start learning. You may even do what one writer did, to my surprise—read the book from cover to cover!

Featured Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

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