Gail Gaymer Martin

Happy four days after the 4th of July from novelist Gail Gaymer Martin at

Newer authors struggle with writing technique, and long time writers still find elements in writing that are their nemesis. Being aware of problem areas in your writing can help you improve as a writer by focusing on them and finding ways to improve those techniques. Here are a few tips on become a better writer.

•     Write active. Passive voice has a place in writing, but passive writing is a negative element. The most telltale clue to passive writing is the “to be” verbs: was, were, is, are, be, been, and being. One of the main problems with these verbs are they tell rather than show. She was beautiful. Can you picture this? Not really. But can you picture this? Her long raven-colored hair hung down her back in thick waves, brushing against her slender arms and contrasting with her eyes, the color of a Caribbean sea. Now you can get a picture of this woman.

•    Avoid phrases that tell rather than show, such as felt and seem. I felt sick. Why not show the feeling through more vivid language. Nausea roiled in my stomach, burning its way to my throat with the stench of the decaying body. This sentence is far more dramatic and makes an impact on the reader. Avoid those words, such as: I felt, he believe, she seemed and in my opinion. You want your narration to come to life more fully with description and emotion.

•     Redundancy of phrases and description slows down a novel and makes readers wonder if the author thinks they’re stupid because the author keep telling them the same thing over and over. If a character has an experience or if a telephone call is heard by the reader, don’t retell what happened to another character. Use transitions, such as: After telling Joe what she’d seen, Allie held her breath and waited for his response. Or: forming the awful words in her mind, she related the horrible situation to Joe. Now the author can move along with new information—a discussion about what happened, possible solutions to the problem or if in the other character’s POV, you can show that character’s emotion over the situation.

•     Don’t overuse words. Authors tend to have favorite words. Run a “find and replace” check on those words that you seem to overuse and find a synonym that means the same or similar. Not only words but phrases can cause a problem. Romance writers tend to use phrases, such as: her heart fluttered or her pulse hammered. Find new and more interesting ways to express those feelings. This happens in all genre so all authors need to keep an eye on repeated phrases. Even something as simple as repetitive nouns: John invited her in and motioned toward a chair. She crossed the room and sank into the chair. Instead, use cushion or seat. This can also happen with verbs. He looked at her. He gazed at her. He eyed her. He studied her. He searched her face. Make sure you use a variety of verbs. In a long novel, you will find some of these words will be used over and over.

•     Avoid adverbs. Adverbs trigger weak writing to an editor and many readers. Instead of using adverbs, select the most dynamic verb possible. For example: He said loudly . . How do you say something loudly? He bellowed. He yelled. He screamed. He roared. He hollered. You have many choices so don’t show weak writing by adding adverbs to said and asked. And don’t use tag words other than said and asked. “How have you been?” she queried. That’s almost laughable. Obviously she’s asking or querying by the nature of the sentence. Words like: replied, noted, responded, queried, questioned, and all those other tags jump out at the reader. Said and asked are words readers gloss over.

•     Look for compound and complex sentences. Sentence that are two long and too complex can lose a reader. If he has to stop and reread a sentence, you have pulled the reader from your novel and broken the spell of your story. Keep sentence length fluid, but be careful of making them too long. Longer sentences work best with quiet moments in a novel during introspection or sometimes romantic descriptions. Short sentences work well for drama, suspense, thrillers and adventure.

•     Avoid $$$ words. If readers don’t know a word, they stop and look it up or ponder what it means. Although you might like using a “million dollar” word, you put the reader at a disadvantage. Keep the vocabulary in the POV character’s tone and verbal style. Vocabulary ties to your character’s education, experience and career. Make sure the vocabulary fits your character. Use language that most people can pronounce and understand.

•     Avoid predict nominatives and predict adjectives. It’s the same as she was beautiful (a predicate adjective). The word “was” or any other form of the “to be” verb tells rather than shows. She was a ballerina (predicate nominative). Instead, describe her entrance into the room. She glided across the floor, her slender arms as fluid as music, as if she had worn her tutu for the evening. Another example: He was a cowboy. Instead use description that shows he’s a cowboy. His Stetson sat cocked on his head like a rooster’s comb, reminding everyone he not only managed the ranch, he owned it. Much more vivid and showing.

Although this list could go on and on, tackle one these problem areas that affects your writing, and once you’ve strengthened that element, move on to a new one. Trying to change too many weak areas causes frustration. Improving one element at a time works best, and you’ll make good progress polishing your writing and developing a quality style. 


Heather Marsten

July 9, 2011 - 10 : 18 : 36

What an informative post! I am saving this to use as a guide when I get ready to edit my rough draft. You gave so many points so concisely. One of my pet words is “that”. When I can’t focus to write new text, I search for this word and many times can remove it without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Thanks again.


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