Wednesday, September 5, 2018


Congratulations! You’ve written an amazing book. The story is exciting, the characters are memorable. It’s the best work you’ve ever produced. But for some reason, readers just aren’t getting into it. It falls flat. Sales are low. Reviews are disappointing.

The problem might not be with the story but with your writing. Like any talent or craft, writing well takes a lot of practice. Successful novels are not just good stories, they are good writing. Readers get sucked into the words and can’t stop turning pages. So, how can an author transform mediocre writing into a tale that shines?

Here are three techniques that can help:

1: Kick Your Vocab Up a Notch – It doesn’t matter whether you write for fourth graders or adults, romance or horror—words matter. Some literary works relish using elaborate language, while other authors prefer the infrequent use of such words. The key is to locate mundane vocabulary in your text that could be replaced with something more effective. Consider this excerpt from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain:

“That same heaviness, the same torpor and melancholy, a kind of sickly-sweet emo funk that’s almost pleasurable, in the sense that it hints at something real. As if sorrow is the true reality? Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory.”

Throughout his book, Fountain chooses to balance the straightforward speech patterns of a Marine with language that reveals Billy’s intelligence and deep emotions. He uses torpor, for example, instead of its more commonplace synonym, apathy.

2: Repeat, Repeat, Repeat – Repeating a term or phrase is a powerful poetic device that draws the reader into a narrative and allows him to connect emotionally with the story. Don’t overuse it because then a text can become tedious, but occasionally repeating a word can emphasize its value. Think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful “I Have A Dream” speech, or examples from other works such as Snow by Orhan Pamuk:

“Every person had a star, every star had a friend, and for every person carrying a star there was someone else who reflected it, and everyone carried this reflection like a secret confidante in the heart.”

Here, the repetition of the words star and reflect communicates the significance of this particular metaphor and signals to the reader that this is something he should pay attention to.

3: Vary Sentence Patterns – While it’s tempting to make every sentence a work of art, to plug in impressive words at every opportunity and make your entire book sound like a long poem, the truth is varying the styles and lengths of sentences is much more effective. In Everything I Never Told You, the author, Celeste Ng, masterfully utilizes variation:

“Hannah’s body knows all the secrets of silence. In the dark, her fingers slide back the bolt, then grasp the safety chain and unfasten it without rattling. This last is a new trick. Before the funeral, there was no chain.”

Notice that there are no fancy words here. Ng relies on stark, simple language to take us inside five-year-old Hannah’s head. The author pairs longer, complex sentences with short, concise ones resulting in a compelling rhythm for the reader to follow.

If you want your writing to catch and hold readers’ attention, try upping the quality of your writing with vocabulary, repetition, and variation. For more on these and other literary devices that can improve your writing, check out University of Toronto Press’s A Dictionary of Literary Devices.

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