Get Started Writing - Write, Get Inspired and Do It Again

Technical approaches to improving your writing with many examples to reinforce the techniques including:  flow analysis, misuse of pronouns, passive vs active voice, using rhythm for interest, sentence types and the ultimate rule:  show, don't tell.

Toward the Sun I love talking. Give me four hours of time, and I will give you four hours of talk. No one else will get a word in edgewise.

Using Dragon Naturally Speaking and a microphone, I can extend that to make my talking become my writing. So the expression “if you can talk, you can write” is a bit misleading. Scribbles on a page do not great art make. Talking on and on, even if it is well stated, sounding like an extemporaneous speech, rarely constitutes good writing. But it is a beginning.
The challenge is how to convert a page of scribbles to what a reader will find is colorful, attractive, intriguing and beautiful.

Examine the Flow

With your first section complete, perform an “autopsy.” Take your writing apart and have fun. Maybe cut the paper into paragraphs or assign labels – whatever works for you to see the “markers” along the way of the story / article. You will find writing you are proud of. You might also find:

 Use your favorite color pen or pencil to mark up the writing but make sure you can read what you wrote. Save your first draft as version 1. Make the changes and save the new draft as version 2.

I probably edit my work at least a half dozen times though I never expect it to take more than once. Each time I reread, my excitement grows. I am happy to make the changes because I love writing, and I want to please myself. 

Check for Grammar, Punctuation and Style

Reading aloud can help identify writing that may be confusing to the reader. Read slowly and stop to consider when meeting a pronoun or at the end of a phrase. And if you see the preposition “by,” could this be a case of passive voice?

If you are using a word editor that identifies grammar and sentence issues, you are miles ahead. Some will remain. Examples include:

Dangling Modifier

A dangling modifier is one that applies to an object not associated with the current sentence. If the reader tries to associate it, confusion will result.

Example 1:   Running for the subway, my book fell on the platform.

Who / what was running for the subway? It sure sounds like the book was (the object that follows the opening phrase) but it can't be. My book does not know how to run.

Dangling Modifier
Undangling Modifier
Running for the subway, my book fell on the platform. Running for the subway, I dropped my book on the platform.

Nonspecific Pronouns

Nonspecific pronoun usage arises out of sheer “laziness” - a tendency to assume that everyone else already knows what you are talking about. The pronoun “it” ranks as the object placeholder that gives you permission to continue talking and not have to take responsibility for “full disclosure.”

As reporter, I listen carefully to what people are saying because I cannot take anything for granted. I ask for clarification quickly as the speaker will have no idea what I'm talking about even two minutes forward in the presentation.

Example 2: It started to Rain

“It started to rain” is such a common way for everyone to talk about a change in weather. However, so much more interesting is the more detailed and accurate description of what actually happened. Alternatively, the original may be more appropriate as it may signal a long sequence of problematic events and rain was just another – icing on the cake, so to speak.

Nonspecific Pronoun
It started to rain.
The first drops fell so slowly. Was it really raining? By the time Jenny and I took note of the brewing storm, we were soaking wet.

Example 3: Seeing the road was clear, they decided to cross it quickly.

Who are they? Was it all the people or just a few? Were they on horseback? What was on the other side of the road? Why did they want to cross?

Nonspecific Pronoun Usage 
Seeing the road was clear, they decided to cross it quickly.
Clara and her husband looked both ways twice. Not two minutes before, cars had come racing down the highway at breakneck speed.

Suicide if you do and suicide if you don't. That thought crossed both of their minds as they watched the flames at the top of the hill close in on them. It was now or never.

Seeing the road was clear, Clara and Edwin decided to cross it quickly, their loving dog, Tyler, tight to the leash.

Example 4: They were the first to leave and then she spoke up.

Who left and from where? Was it important to her that they left so that she could say something? Who is she?

Nonspecific Pronoun Usage
They were the first to leave and then she spoke up. The wealthy and politically well-placed neighbors had been adamantly opposed to an increase in school taxes. They were the first to leave the hearing and that gave Charlotte some breathing room.

An activist and promoter for the best education for all, she was concerned about contesting her neighbors' position so directly in public. But when Phil and Chris walked out, apparently to attend another meeting, Charlotte donned her favorite activist cloak and stood up.

Passive Voice vs Active Voice

In a passive voice construction, the subject receives the action of the verb.

Example 5: The telephone pole was struck by lightning. (use passive specifically)

The sentence has very little content. All we know is that lightning struck the telephone pole. However, in passive mode, the focal point is the telephone pole while the lightning is less important. Is that what the writer intended?

The passive voice can be useful if your goal to minimize the event in the context of other events.

Passive Voice Specific choice of Passive Voice
The telephone pole was struck by lightning. The winds bent the trees until they almost snapped; the leaves swirled into the air like giant clouds of stinging insects; the telephone poll was struck by lightning and then it was struck again.

Example 6: The telephone pole was struck by lightning. (passive to active)

On the other hand, if you want to emphasize how dramatic the lightning strike was, you will want to use the active voice.

Passive Voice Convert to Active Voice
The telephone pole was struck by lightning. How much more strain on the young saplings could the wind create before their trunks would snap? And with the leaves and dirt forming clouds foreign to the heavens, what was going to happen next?

Suddenly, accompanied by an enormous clap of thunder, a lightning bolt so large it left ghost images in my eyes, struck the telephone pole and turned it black.

Use Words Appropriate to the Tone

We each have a limited vocabulary and could benefit from expanding it. However, studying vocabulary words is not going to make you a better writer. Words create the color and excitement but fancy words may cloud your writing.

If your word processing software can generate a report listing the words you used and their frequency, that can be helpful. If you find a specific word used too often, substitute another common alternative word. If one doesn't fall easily out of your brain like rain, turn to the thesaurus.

Roget's Thesaurus is such a helpful tool that “just keeps teaching.” Like the EverReady Bunny, you cannot grow tired of enjoying, pondering and dreaming about words in a Thesaurus.  Tired of the words you're using? The Thesaurus will list related words which you can then look them up in the dictionary for clarity. You may discover words similar to the ones you are overusing but brand new to your artist's brush. If they suit you, change your story. Such an adventure!

Rhythm is the Dance of Life

The art of word usage is not dictated by the presence of unusual and challenging words that may overwhelm the reader. The art of word usage is how you use a combination of simple, medium and slightly more esoteric words to paint a beautiful picture.

Take time to listen to the rhythm of normal conversational speech.

Sentence length: Try counting the number of words you hear in each sentence. Or rank each sentence as short, medium or long. What is the frequency of sentence length?

Most of our writing is expository. We explain, describe or inform. Be careful you, too, do not become as boring as your favorite college professor. Even if your material is intrinsically interesting, unless the presentation has variety, it is a sure formula for inducing sleep.

Sentence type: Listen for the sentence types the speakers are using. Which ones interest you the most and why?

During the editing phase

One way to identify possible improvements is to examine your writing as if it were a conversation with a friend. You are adamant about explaining what happened or why the issue is important. Under such circumstances, people quite naturally speak in declarative sentences but also make use of the other three types.

Example 7: When the doctor came in, John didn't want him touching his leg anywhere near the wound.

This is a simple factual statement that tells us the patient name, the type of room he is in and that he definitely needs to be there. Beyond that, we know little. Apparently, the wound is painful or the thought of someone touching his leg wouldn't be so overwhelming. You might be curious about John or not. The sentence is not particularly inviting.

Adding exclamatory, imperative and interrogatory sentences creates more interest for the reader.


When the doctor came in, John didn't want him touching his leg anywhere near the wound.


“Don't touch me!” John kept seeing the doctor walk into the room, coming over to look at the gash in his leg. It hurt like hell, throbbing like a bomb that was about to explode. He knew it was beginning to fester.

Dora had washed his leg with an antiseptic liquid she found in the first-aid kit, then wrapped it with a large bandage. When they got to the emergency room, a nurse carefully removed the bandage and called for assistance. “Get me some saline and a dressing bowl.”

Surprised at how comforting the cool liquid felt on his leg, he relaxed. A hole, he thought, a really deep hole. I'll bet you I can see all the way to the femur bone. It made him laugh. “Hey,” he asked the nurse, “What's it look like in there?” She didn't answer. He turned away.

Waiting in the examining room, Big John began reliving the accident – blood pouring from his leg and the surge of intense pain. “Don't touch me!“ he kept repeating, the same words he had cried out when they found him in the fields.

Then he heard the door creak open. “How are you?” The patient gave the usual “OK” or was it “Fine” or did he say anything at all? He couldn't remember. All John knew was if he'd had a blow dart, he would have used it.

Interrogatory He wondered what it looked like. What's it look like in there?
Exclamatory He didn't want anyone touching him. Don't touch me!
Imperative She asked the aide to get her some saline ... Get me some saline and..

Notice how little difference exists between the declarative sentence and its alternative form, yet the impact on the reader's experience is significant.

Emotion and Empathy

A writer must be able to establish a reason why two parties care about the contents of the book – the writer and the reader. We become partners “in crime” so-to-speak. We share a story, a passion, a secret. We share friends and their experiences. Both of our lives are richer through the experience.

Facts create the matrix against which emotion and character development take place. Facts are what we can agree on or assume are correct until we are informed otherwise.

Example 8: The same story, one factually and one with empathy and emotion.

Can I relate to the scene where someone is watching me out of the corner of his eye, asking me, as if teasing, “What are you doing?” He loves the color of her hair and he loves her.  She knows this (implicitly) and wears her hair to please him. If I, the reader, can see myself in this story, then a bond is beginning to build.

Factual Empathetic and Emotional

She liked to wear her hair back. Her hair color was red from Henna.  He knew because he had seen her applying it. He loved her and planned to buy her a new hair clip. She wore it pulled back in an uptwist. Honey red with golden tones, her hair was streaked with sunbeams. “It really looks natural,” he thought, “not like it was polished with Henna.”

Musing a while, he remembered watching her apply the bottle to her hair over the sink and thinking how much she cared about her appearance. “I love you,” he whispered to himself and planned to buy a new clip for her hair.

Writing with Rhythm

“Fascinatin' Rhythm,” a popular song by George Gershwin (1924) brings out a singer's joy, love, energy and sense of emotional drive.

Got a little rhythm, a rhythm, a rhythm
That pit-a-pats through my brain;
So darn persistent,
The day isn't distant
When it'll drive me insane.

The rhythm of life changes from the slowness of sleep to the intensity of a wild and crazy love affair. Even the simplest exchanges in normal life are full of the intro, the middle and the close, all characterized by different rhythms.

Example 9:  From prior example.

Variable sentence lengths help create a rhythm.

  1. Surprised at how the cool liquid comforted the inflamed area, he relaxed.
  2. A hole, he thought, a really deep hole.
  3. I'll bet you I can see all the way to the femur bone.
  4. It made him laugh.
  5. “Hey,” he asked the nurse, “What's it look like in there?”
  6. She didn't answer.
  7. He turned away.

Use Literary Devices

Imagery, metaphors, figurative language, evocative descriptions that show rather than tell, these are the magic wands of writing that lift the reader out of their chair, transporting them inside the pages of a book.

Above all else, DO NOT TELL!!

Example 10:  Describe two people going for a walk

Following is an example of describing two people going for a walk.

Factual Descriptive and Rhythmic

We went to Michael's house. Toby understood and wanted to get walking. Sarah wanted to be petted. The long walk covered the following streets: xxxx
We talked about many things including: xxxxx
My dogs' names are Sarah and Toby.
On hearing the door open, Toby turned to begin his walk. “Not yet,” I said. “Michael, pet Sarah first. She heard your voice and just look at that tail.” He smiled, and they were friends again.

Down the hill, across the street, over to Hancock, up the hill, down St. Mary's, almost to Pleasant and then back home again.

Telling stories and streets walking by, cantankerous mutterings and technical talk, phrases, quotations and sentences that sing, stopping for bones and tinkle time.

Sarah with Michael and Toby with me.

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Posted: April 28, 2014    Nancy J Conrad