Crystal's StorySite

Crystal's StorySite


Writing Tips

There are an amazing number of sites on the web that teach writing techniques. My goal here is to help beginning authors avoid many of the simple mistakes that I and many other authors made when starting out. 

1) A good word processor can be worth it's weight in gold. (How much does a CD weigh anyway?) I wrote my first story in 1999 using Microsoft's Word 95. It was a good program in that it caught my spelling errors, but the grammar checker was IMHO (In My Humble Opinion) atrocious and difficult to use so I turned it off. I realized later that part of the perceived problem with the grammar checker was due to my poor grammar. Coming from a technical background (computers) I didn't realize how poor my grammar and punctuation were until I started getting reviews of my stories. The helpful criticism that I received prompted me to purchase Office 97 Professional. The grammar checker was a major improvement in the package and it really helped me to improve my writing skills to a point where new stories receive very few flags as I write. 
2) No matter how good a word processor is, it can never find all of the errors. A good editor or proofreader has a fresh perspective when reading your stories. You know what you wanted to write and tend to miss simple errors when reviewing your own work. Sending it to a friend for reviewing, or one of our volunteers, can make a big difference in the final story that is posted.
3) One of the most common mistakes that new authors make is to use the carriage return, or 'Enter' key at the end of each line. It looks okay on your computer, but when formatted for posting, each line looks like a new paragraph. It makes it difficult to read and looks foolish. Use Carriage returns ONLY at the end of the paragraph.
4) Use a separate paragraph for each speaker. Do not combine spoken text from different characters in the same paragraph. It confuses the reader. The reader should be allowed to concentrate on the plot without trying to figure out who is talking. It can be also annoying to read "he said/she said" in every paragraph where dialogue is limited and only two speakers are present. A good general rule is to identify the speaker every third time they speak in two person conversations, but in every single paragraph when there are more than two speakers participating in the conversation. There is no rule that prohibits paragraphs as small as one word.
5) If you wish to become a good writer then you must write, write and write. This does not include re-writing. Do not make the mistake that some aspiring authors make by holding onto a story, and re-writing it forever. It's understandable that you want to make each story as perfect as possible, but after you have edited it and had it proofread, it is time to release it. You will learn more from constructive reviews than you ever will from leaving the story residing in your computer while you re-write it endlessly.
6) Your relationship with your editor is important. They must know what you expect of them. Make sure that they understand if you only want them to proofread the story, if you want them to offer suggestions about re-writing sentences or paragraphs, or if you want them to suggest plot changes that will enhance the story. And make sure that you understand what they will do for you. You are not obligated to implement their suggestions, but you must always accept their suggestions with gratitude. They have performed a free service for you and deserve your appreciation. If their writing style and opinions differ substantially from your own then choose a different editor next time, but never be rude to any of them when they have tried to help you.   
7) BEFORE you send your story to an editor, SLOWLY re-read every word you have written. All stories must be proofread by the author before sending them to an editor. If possible, read them aloud as if you were reading to an audience. DO NOT make up words unless you clearly define their special meaning in the story! If you create a new phrase or word, save in in your dictionary!

My last step is to LISTEN to the story using a program called ReadPlease. They offer a FREE download at: The first time I listened to one of my stories I was astounded at the number of errors that I discovered. This was after I had reread the story a dozen times looking for such errors. Hearing the story read back makes grammatical errors jump out at you. I strongly recommend trying this free alternative. The company offers an expanded version for $40.00 that allows larger files to be read. If you have the means, I highly recommend getting it with the 16k AT&T Natural Voices option. Naturally, I chose Crystal for the voice, but I have no association with the company and make nothing from this endorsement. I'm just convinced that it's the best way to proof your stories, not to mention the enjoyment from hearing it read aloud while you sit back and relax.

8) Your selected editor will advise you on how to send your story to them. Word 6 format  is recognized by almost all Internet sites and is a common format that can be read by most word processors. Some editors will prefer rtf (Rich Text Format) for stories being sent to them. When you contact them, they will advise you of the best format. HTML (HyperText Markup Language) is generally not desired.
9) When you offer your stories for free, you cannot expect anything in return. A published author is compensated for every book sold. Our only compensation may be the counts which show how many times our stories have been read. We hope that our stories will be embraced by every reader and that they will shower their affection upon us in the form of tons of fan mail. The truth is that relatively few readers will take the time to write to you, but as you continue to write, you will improve and so will the number of your fans. DON'T be discouraged and DO continue to write. Pay attention to the constructive comments that people offer and work on improving your skills. Perhaps one day you'll have a book on the best-seller list but it's unlikely that it will be one of your early stories. We all have to learn by doing. What we receive for our stories is mainly the self-satisfaction of expression. Along the road we travel as we write, we make friends in the writing community and have the opportunity to learn our craft from experts. If you continue working at it, one of these days you will be one of them.
Tips # 10 - 19      offered by author RJMcD            
10) Your and You're. It's very common to make errors with these two words. Avoiding errors is simple. A spelling checker will not catch this error. "You're" is a contraction of "you are." Whenever you can substitute the words "you are" and the sentence reads correctly, then use "you're" rather than "your". For example: "You're much too smart for that." "You are much too smart for that", makes sense and therefore "you're" is correct. "Your" refers to possessing something. Whenever the sentence refers to a possession (a possession does not have to be a physical thing), then use "your". For example: "Your ego is much too big." To double-check that "your" is correct, try substituting "you are". "You are ego is much too big" is obviously wrong, so "you're" can not be used and "your" must be correct.
11) There and Their. Again, avoiding errors in picking the right word is easy. And again, a spelling checker will not catch this error. "There" refers to a place or direction. "Their" refers to a possession (a possession does not have to be a physical thing). "There she goes again", is correct because it's a place/direction she's going. "Their egos are too big", is correct because they possess their egos. *note from Crystal - Another similar word is they're. It's a contraction for 'they are' and mustn't be confused with the words referred to above.             
12) Make your dialog (and narrative--that is, non-dialog story telling) read smoothly and naturally by using contractions. For example, "I am going now and I am sure you will miss me", sounds wooden. People don't speak like that. They say, "I'm going now, and I'm sure you'll miss me." In the narrative, contractions read more natural, too. In the narrative sentence above I wrote "people don't speak like that," instead of "people do not speak like that." Infrequently, you'll want to avoid contractions to indicate someone is speaking very carefully, or with anger. "I will not put up with this!" works better in that situation than "I won't put up with this!"
13) After you finish your story, forget it. The best way to find awkward sentences, unclear narrative, plot contradictions, and careless phrasing is simply to finish the story, put it aside for as long as needed, and then read it from beginning to end. Some people need to forget the story for a week, some for three weeks. You'll find what works for you. When you pick it up again it will almost be as if you were reading something that someone else wrote. The errors will jump out at you. Correct them, then either let it sit again or send it in, depending on how much rewriting you had to do.
14) Its and it's. This is an easy one, too, and it's similar to the problem with "your" and "you're". Substitute "it is" and if the sentence reads correctly then use "it's", the contraction of "it is". "Its", on the other hand, is possessive. For example, "I insulted the alien and its face turned red." It owns its own face. We also know that's correct because substituting "it is" makes the sentence read "I insulted the alien and it is face turned red", which is obviously wrong, so the contraction "it's" would be wrong. That leaves "its", the possessive, as the correct choice.

P.S. By the way, a thing can possess something. That's why it's correct to write "at next week's meeting" rather then "at next weeks meeting". In the second case you've made "week" plural, which wouldn't make sense. However, if you do use a plural than the apostrophe goes AFTER the word. When talking about many computers and their hard drives, for example, you would write "the computers' hard drives."

15) Show, rather than Tell. This is an old and basic tip. The shock hurt him badly. VS. "Aaagh!" he screamed, and doubled up in pain.
Jim was not a nice person.
  Jim gave him a choice of eating a bowl of worms or being shot.

Telling that it hurt him is weak. Showing it is better. There are many times when narrative should be used to tell something because it would make the story too long if every statement was illustrated by an incident. Generally, however, it's best to show rather than tell.            

16) Read your story out loud. If, while reading out loud, you come across a sentence where you stumble, or otherwise have to stop and start reading the sentence again, or where you have to emphasize a word or phrase with your voice, it is very likely a sentence that has to be rewritten. It's more effective to read your story out loud after you've let the story sit for a week or more.
17) Create believable behavior. Many stories have scenes where characters behave in a way that is unlikely. This may be done to hurry the story along, or because that's the way the author would like to have the character behave. It detracts from the story, however, and makes it unbelievable and less enjoyable. This pops up in all kinds of stories, but especially in those involving forced behavior. The subject suddenly obeys some outlandish command that the author may enjoy, but is far too abrupt a jump. If the character is going to do something extreme the only way to make it believable is to at least hint, very early on, that he or she is especially weak willed, already inclined in that direction, etc.

The rule on character behavior is that anything that deviates from "average" or "typical" behavior must be established as reasonable for this character far before the event takes place. To give an exaggerated example....

If a person chooses to die rather than drink a glass of orange juice it must be established well before that scene that he has a very unusual and very strong fear of orange juice, and perhaps even why he has this fear. Only then will his behavior make sense. If you wait until the scene to tell about his unusual fear it will sound contrived and phony.

18) Find your crutch. Some people write paragraphs that go on forever, presenting the reader with a huge block of type that readers are tempted to skip. Others write nothing but short, one or two sentence paragraphs, presenting a story that looks like an outline. People do the same with sentences. Or they get hooked on a certain word or a phrase, and use it over and over. There are hundreds of crutches. Fine yours and eliminate it.

There are reasons for using long sentences, for example. They slow down the narrative and work well when a character is considering something in his or her head, or when a serious bit of narrative is being used. Short sentences speed things up, whether it's comedy or drama. They are also easier to read and clearer, but get boring after a time. The easiest advice is sometimes the best....mix it up, and avoid your writing crutch.

19) Almost all word processing programs have built in spelling checkers. After you have made all your corrections, and only then, run your story through the spell checker. It's the last step before sending it to your proofreader. ( Crystal's note - I disagree with RJMcD on this last point. See # 7 above.)
I will add more tips as they occur to me and I will be happy to consider additional suggestions from any authors who wish to offer them.


Please report any problems to Crystal