Top Tip 3

Be your own critic

A good critical reader can make all the difference between a piece of writing that is just ‘okay’, and a piece that really engages the reader. It is often a matter of small changes, but small changes can make a big difference.

Not everyone has a good critical reader to help them. Remember, critical reading is not ‘I Love it,’ or ‘I hate it.’ A good critical reader makes comments and asks questions like, ‘I don’t think this bit quite works. What are you trying to do here?’; ‘Why have you written it this way?’ ‘Do you need this bit?’ ‘I don’t understand this bit.’

Responding to this feedback can give you a real insight into how you work as a writer, into understanding your own voice. Remember! Most good writing comes from painstaking work with a text. Inspiration may come first, but close and careful critical reading is the secret behind success.

You can be your own critical reader.

Think about the following example to see how small changes can have big effects:

You are trying to write a thriller, but the exciting bits seem rather flat. You are happy with the characters, you think the story is a good one, but the excitement isn’t coming across. Look at how a few simple changes can ‘wake up’ a bit of rather dull prose.

The scene: your main character has come home late at night. The house is locked up and silent, but your character gets the feeling something is wrong. You write the scene where the character searches the house. You want to make it exciting so you write,

A door slammed suddenly.

How can you make this really effective?

Look at the difference between
The door slammed suddenly, and Suddenly, the door slammed!

One is narrative description, the other is engaging and immediate, but why?

The first sentence tells the reader what has happened. OK, we know a door slammed, and we know it happened quickly because the writer gives us the way it happened – suddenly.

But there are issues here. Can a door slam in any other way? How does ‘The door slammed gradually,’ work? It doesn’t. The effect is one of repetition. The verb ‘slammed’ contains the information ‘suddenly.’

But move the adverb to the front of the sentence, and the effect changes. ‘Suddenly’ at the start of the sentence arouses the reader’s curiosity. The reader wants to know exactly what happened ‘suddenly.’ Then the writer gives us the simple information: ‘the door slammed.’ This time, because the adverb ‘suddenly’ is separated from the verb ‘slammed,’ it applies to the whole sentence. The meaning now is that something happened quickly and unexpectedly.

Experiment with a few other adverbs. Suppose your main character is stuck down a deep drain, and his or her foot has got stuck in the rung of a ladder. You write: ‘Minute by minute, the water rose gradually.’  You have the same problem, repetition and a lack of excitement. Compare this with, ‘Gradually, minute by minute, the water rose.’

There are other small changes to your writing that make a massive difference to the effect you can create. Try changing verb tense. ‘Suddenly, the door slams!’ ‘Gradually, minute by minute, the water rises.’

Play around with adding or removing adjectives: Suddenly, the heavy wooden door slammed shut!’ ‘Gradually, minute by long minute, the water rose.’ Better or worse? It depends what effect you are trying to create.

You can play around with other aspects of the grammar and structure of your writing. Try patterning long and short sentences. Try turning narrative into dialogue, dialogue into narrative. Any time you read your work with a critical eye, ask yourself: what am I trying to do here? Have I succeeded? If the answer is, ‘No,’ don’t discard your text. Play around with the language, refine it and tone it up, and you will often find that you can transform your work from a fairly pedestrian piece to a focused and effective piece of writing.

A good writer continually engages the reader in the writing, whether it’s a piece of narrative, a report or a poem. The reader should remain interested.

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