Peggy Bechko: Five Tips To Better Your Writing

We love Peggy cuz, like our mom, she’s always right:


by Peggy Bechko

Good writing is simple writing. I don’t mean dumbed down, I mean basic and clear. I think most experienced writers and readers will agree. Readers from the viewpoint of story flow and involvement and writers from virtually the same viewpoint.

Here’s the thing, when writing it’s easy to fall into old (and new) traps. Easy to get flowery, unnatural and fall back on clichés (I won’t elaborate on it below, but catch the cliches and kill them).

So here are a few tips to do some quick fixes to that writing of yours and get past the tank traps.

1. First, let’s keep things natural, shall we? When we talk with friends, business associates, family or simply think in our heads things are pretty straight forward. You don’t want to use a ton of words to describe what a handful will do. You don’t want to get so lyrical your reader says, “huh?” For example, from a book I read (well tried to read) in which there’s a thunderstorm and the lights suddenly go out. Could be a scary scene if done right, or humorous, or any number of other things. Not, however, when the writer says “an ebony abyss claimed the den.”


Okay, it can be tempting to create sentences like that. Might even feel good in the moment, but that’s something that the writer needs to reconsider at edit time. Don’t make your reader translate your more flowery writing into the simple, such as, “the room went dark”. It just throws them out of their reader’s trance and probably tempts them to throw your book. The experienced and very good writer doesn’t call attention to the actual writing, rather he or she keeps it focused on the story. If you read your writing aloud it’ll be easier for you to pick out sentences that are contrived and unnatural with flowery elements you wouldn’t consider saying to a friend.

2. Second, don’t throw information at the reader in huge doses. Am I right readers? It’s hard to swallow large amounts of information. Sometimes we can be unaware of how much information we throw out there in one sentence. So go through at edit time and look for sentences that contain more than two or three pieces of information about a setting or a character. Break it up into smaller sentences, maybe even spread them out a bit more over the page. Do background in small doses, not a flood.

3. And speaking of sentences, keep them short, or at least shorter. Plainly I’m not talking about a staccato delivery, and sentence length must vary, but you don’t want to pack many ideas into a single sentence. A simple guideline is to keep sentences below twenty or thirty words. So while you write wild and free for the first draft and keep moving to finish that story, remember at edit time to get rid of the extra, unnecessary words. Check where you’ve put a comma and think about whether it should be the end of a sentence. Reword a sentence that’s taken off without you. Tighten things up.

4. And here’s one I’ve come across lately that has struck me sideways. Color. Yes, color. It’s a trap many new writers fall into. Lots of color, meaning their descriptions are loaded with it. You know, “The sunshine yellow school bus climbed the sage green hills on a dusty rust colored road lined with the white rivulets of downpours past.” (I didn’t get that sentence from a book though I’ve seen some lately that are close.) Color is good. It sets a stage, but make it really count, use it sparingly and appropriately.

Oh, and one more thing. Yes, this is number 5. Don’t forget that old writer’s trick of letting your work sit for a day or two or maybe a week (whatever feels right to you) before you dive into your editing. Sort of like dough rising, it takes a bit of time for some of those over-dones to come to the top.

Hope these little short-cuts are a help; new info for the new writer or reminder for the more experienced.