Writing Quick Tips


by Allen R. Kates, MFAW

Book Editor, Writing Coach, Ghostwriter, Publisher

  Writing Quick Tips Copyright © 2008-2015 by Allen R. Kates
You may reprint Allen's Writing Quick Tips only in their entirety as long as you give credit.


To contact Allen, please click here.


               “Allen helped me with my book and has earned my utmost respect
                 for his professionalism, mastery of his craft and creativity.”

                 —Vui Le, author of The Forgotten Generation

 #1.  Description—Who Cares What They Look Like?

   Many of us are uncertain about how to describe a character’s physical attributes. Too often we describe a character the first time we meet him by burying the reader in facts—blue eyes, brown hair, broken teeth, tweed jacket, shiny shoes, beady eyes, long nose. As a result, the sheer volume of description tends to overwhelm the reader.

   Instead of describing a character all at once, describe him during action. Refer to Doug’s sparkling blue eyes when Mary is falling into his arms. Describe Sam’s broken teeth when he tries to beat Harry to death. Tell us about the cop’s shiny shoes when he throws the purse snatcher to the ground and his face lands on the cop’s shoes.

   A great tip: Give your characters one physical attribute that makes them stand out from the others, whether it is an injury, a way they walk, a facial tick, a brush of the hair, a wink, a certain smile, whatever. That will make them memorable and not drive your reader crazy trying to figure out who is who.

#2.  Melodrama—Cue the Violins

   During intense love scenes or violent episodes, it is easy to slip into melodrama. Melodrama occurs when a scene is overwritten, exaggerated, or theatrical. Unfortunately, melodramatic scenes become comical although that may not be your intent. When you write intense scenes, less is more. Cut down on the hot prose and let the scene carry itself. Often the material is so hot that all you need to do is write it matter-of-factly, almost as if you don’t care.

   A great tip: When the material is hot, write cool; when the material is cool, write hot. For instance, I wrote a story about the brutal death of a six-year-old boy. The material was so intense that if I had tried to punch up the narrative, the reader might have laughed. It would have become exploitative and melodramatic. Instead, I wrote cool. I wrote the story with little intensity, just stating the facts, because the material carried itself. As a result, I avoided melodrama and the story became more shocking and heartfelt for the reader.


#3.  Dialogue—Say What?

   Our dialogue is often too long and too complete. Real people don’t talk like that. Give variety to your sentences. Make some long and some short. And sometimes end a sentence before finishing it.

   A great tip: Write an exchange between two people, and then ask yourself what their individual goals are in this piece of dialogue. After each character reaches his or her goal, delete the words that follow, as they are often meaningless. In other words, look for the key word, circle it, and then consider cutting the rest.

#4.  Clichés—Really? Amazing. Life is full of surprises.

   Too often we riddle our manuscript with clichés. You can get away with a cliché during dialogue because you can rationalize that that’s how the character talks, but avoid it in the narrative. At the same time, good writing is not about getting away with things.

   What’s a cliché? “Cat and mouse,” “swept off her feet,” “at the drop of a hat,” “played hard to get,” and so on. Clichés are vague and boring. They’ve been used so often that they now have little or no meaning, and if you use too many of them, before long your reader will become disinterested in your story because the clichés prevent them from becoming emotionally attached to your characters. If you use a cliché, then rethink it. Invent. Ask yourself what you are really trying to say and then expand the meaning.

   A great tip: After the Nazi Adolf Eichmann was captured, investigators interviewed him for hundreds of hours. But because he spoke in clichés, (“I was only following orders”), investigators got no closer to knowing who the man truly was. You could devise a character like him who only speaks in clichés in order to hide his motives. However, if overdone, it could make for some very dreary dialogue.

#5.  On the Nose—I Love You, I Love You Not

   On the nose is more a movie or television term, but it applies to writing. When a piece of dialogue or description is “on the nose,” it means you are saying something that should be left unsaid because saying it ruins the mystery. For example, if your main character says “I love you” on the first page, and the person she loves says it back, you might as well end the story. What else is there to say after that?

   But if you hide feelings, and make it difficult for somebody to say “I love you,” then you have created character and conflict. In the movie, Ghost, Molly says to her husband, Sam, “I love you.” He replies, “Ditto.” She complains that he never says “I love you.” He says “Ditto” means the same thing. He obviously has trouble saying “I love you.” But at the end of the movie, he finally says “I love you.” Then the movie’s over—there’s nowhere else to go.

   A great tip: In books and movies, characters rarely say what they mean. This helps create mystery and suspense. Whenever you are tempted to write “on the nose,” try to say the opposite. Instead of having your character say “I love you,” have him say “I hate you,” even if the reader knows he’s lying, and see where your writing goes from there. In the Spiderman movie, our hero’s girlfriend asks him if he loves her. He says, No, although we know he does. What happened as a result? Another Spiderman movie.

   What is the official definition of “on the nose?” The meaning is as plain as the nose on your face. Which means it’s boring, a cliché, it’s not entertaining. It may also mean that your dialogue stinks.

#6.  Dialogue—To Speechify or Not To Speechify

   Sometimes we give our characters far too much to say at any one time. Cut their speeches down to their essence. Ask yourself if the dialogue advances character or story. When the dialogue seems to do nothing, cut, cut, cut…

   When I was a kid, I went to see the movie Cleopatra. Marc Anthony, played by Richard Burton, was dying and his death speech went on for 20 minutes or more. My uncle got so bored, he yelled out in the theater, “So die already!”

   A great tip: If you don’t want your dialogue to die like Anthony, shorten it, interrupt it, and even use poor grammar—because that’s how we really talk.

#7.  MemoirsToo Much Info Spoils The Story

   {As originally written for Lynn Wiese Sneyd's blog and posted 9/5/13} 

   Memoirs run on details, but too much information can ruin the story for the reader.

   When I read a client’s book manuscript, the first thing I notice is whether there is too much information in a sentence. Do I feel overwhelmed by facts?

   Writing a book is not like writing a newspaper or magazine article. In journalism, we apply the 5 Ws: who, why, when, where, what... and how. Often reporters try to sneak all of the 5 Ws into the first paragraph. But memoir writing is not journalism. It’s creative writing, and in creative writing we do not want to give our reader too much information.

   Instead, we want to withhold it.

   Bombarding readers with too much information can bore, confuse, and really annoy them. A sentence loses focus when too many ideas are presented. Take this sentence, for example:

   “Crippled all his life, the 10-year-old disabled boy named Jacob slipped out of his wheelchair, tiptoed out the front door of the red-brick house without his mother and father noticing and ran to the big box grocery store six blocks away, just like a regular boy might do, to buy a bottle of soda and a comic book, along with Junior Mints, a Snickers bar and a package of Red Vines, using money his grandpa gave him.”

   The above sentence is overloaded with ideas. If we move some of the information into other sentences, the first sentence becomes more compelling to read:

   “The 10-year-old boy slipped from his wheelchair and tiptoed out the front door without his parents noticing. He ran to the grocery store six blocks away and bought a comic book. With money left over, he bought candy and a soda, just like a regular boy might do.”

   By moving some of the ideas to other sentences and saving others for further development later, I have created more questions than answers, as well as mystery and suspense. Consequently, I’ve aroused the reader’s curiosity. The most important ideas (a boy confined to a wheelchair has tiptoed and run, unbeknownst to his parents), are not buried in a mess of words, but are now prominent.

   In the first sentence, it’s enough to say that he “slipped from his wheelchair” without overstating that the boy has been crippled all his life and disabled. You can save those ideas for later where they can be developed and have more impact.

   Most interesting, the first sentence’s subtext suggests an intriguing question. Do the parents know that he can walk (tiptoe) and run?

   I have established that the parents do not know he has snuck out, but have also vaguely implied that they may not know he can walk and run. The vagueness keeps the reader in suspense, again causing more questions than answers. Do they know or do they not know? If they don’t, then the deception can lead to a great story full of mystery, suspense, contrast and conflict.

   By removing description like “crippled all his life,” “mother and father,” “red-brick house,” “big-box store,” “Junior Mints,” “Snickers bar,” “Red Vines,” and “money his grandpa gave him,” I’ve slimmed down the sentence and made it more powerful, more focused, and easier to read. I don’t even include the boy’s name, as the reader doesn’t need to know it yet.

   When writing sentences and paragraphs, I ask myself what the reader needs to know at this point in the story. What information can I move to another sentence, what can I delay until the next paragraph or much later? What information can I withhold forever and never tell the reader?

   In other words, by putting your sentences on a diet, you can encourage readers to turn the page and enjoy the read.



To contact Allen, please click here.


Copyright © 2008-2015 by Allen R. Kates

To Top of Page