I love fiction. I read one short story a day and at least two books a month. I say this not to boast, but so that you believe me when I say I can recognise good fiction when I see it. Polish is one of the key elements separating good, mediocre and foul.
Polish comes from rewriting, which is the core skill of the (professional) author. Any idiot can have an idea and it only takes primary level English to commit thoughts to text, but this is not writing.
If you want to be a writer you are going to have to master the art of revising your text. The ten points below represent the least you can do to make your work presentable.
1. Use the spellchecker in your word processor. It’s the simplest tool in your arsenal and only takes a few clicks. Not perfect, but a good start.
2. Hunt down and remove clichés. Be original in words, phrases and situations. Strong prose has roots in originality. Any phrase you’ve heard or read before is a cliché. At the end of the day it might have been considered cool in 1975, but not anymore. By the way, ‘at the end of the day’ is a cliché which should not have survived rewriting this article.
3. Use the active rather than passive voice. Novices seem to get confused about this point. The active voice means the subject should do the verb to the object. ‘Wale hit Nnena on the head’, not ‘Nnena was hit on the head.’ As a side note you might want to read George Orwell’s 1946 article “Politics and the English Language”.
4. Use ‘said’ in dialogue attribution for the most part. If you need to use anything else it means either your description or your dialogue is not as good as it should be. The context and content should be such that adding ‘he shouted’ or ‘she opined’ is redundant.
5. Learn basic punctuation, grammar and syntax. Seriously, this is not rocket science. Look it up. You don’t need to know everything, just commas, apostrophes, periods; enough to ensure the meaning of your narrative is retained. The idea of writing is to get thoughts from your head into the reader’s. Proper punctuation is necessary for accuracy.
6. Describe with clarity using verbs and nouns. Weak description can never be remedied by the use of adverbs, adjectives or flowery, fragrant prose. Clarity first, then poetry. Be lyrical by all means, but not at the expense of being understood.
7. Avoid repetition of words, phrases etc. Use a thesaurus. It exists for writers. The human mind is designed to attend to novelty. Repetition switches off attention. This is not to say you can’t have a deliberate stylish repetition, but it’s easy to recognise and requires skill to carry off.
8. Only submit your best work. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many writers send in stories with errors that no primary school child would make. Read over the thing several times. Don’t embarrass yourself.
9. Cut, cut, cut. Think about what you’ve written. Close your eyes and imagine the scene. Does it make sense within the reality of the story or have you written it to demonstrate your literary skill? Does it advance the plot, increase understanding of the characters, or improve clarity? Rewriting is pruning. When in doubt, slice. Many of the words in your first draft are unnecessary; trust the reader to understand.
10. Go back to 1. and do it all again. Only you can decide when it’s right, but several drafts is the norm.
a. There are a number of punctuation guides available free on the net. I would recommend going to the ones on university sites. Here’s one:
b. The Orwell Article is here:
c. Every writer should read ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk and E.B. White from cover to cover many times over.
d. Among thesauri you can’t beat ‘The Synonym Finder’ by J.I. Rodale. You can go old school and use ‘Roget’s Thesarus’ but language is dynamic and the best link is:
Go forth and rewrite.
By Tade Thompson