Writing tip of the week: keep your focus

A few more days of headaches and general sickness means I’m a day late on this week’s writing tip.

My first student papers come in this week, and though I haven’t started the grading yet, it seems like a good time to talk about one of the top issues I see with student papers.

First, let me say that I get where this comes from. Students want so much to impress, and they want to be seen as smart and intelligent. They are smart and intelligent. I haven’t yet had a student in my classroom that I don’t think that about, even though they have smarts and intelligences in different areas. It breaks my heart when so many of them tell me that they’re bad writers, that they hate writing. It’s clear that they don’t think they have it in them to be good writers. If there’s one thing I want to change in them, I want to disabuse them of this notion. They might not be superstar writers in every situation, but each student has situations in which they are capable of being superstar writers and communicators.

But back to focus. So many writers—not just student writers—think more is better, but in writing, it’s usually less that’s better. Staying focused on one thing, or a few things, allows you to go deeper into your subject, to explore it in ways that are interesting, that are new, or at least new angles. When writers stay off focus, when they reject depth, they have to go for breadth instead.

The trouble is, when we, as writers, go for breadth, we spread ourselves thin. We don’t go past the surface, which means we don’t move into originality. We don’t move past summary.

Now, on the one hand, that surface information is often essential. We have to start from somewhere, and what good is it to know, to pick a random example from my science days, how electrons affect bonding if we don’t first know what an electron is, or an atom, or a molecule. However, if all of the papers—or talks or whatever—on electron bonding first explained what a molecule was, then an atom, then an electron, readers would get bored pretty fast. Every time a reader picked up a piece on electron bonding, they’d get the same information, over and over, rather than learning about something new. Maybe the end of each of those pieces would do something different, but it’s a lot of breadth—a lot of surface, a lot of repetitive stuff—to get through before getting to the meat of the matter.

Now, we can think about this from a creative writing angle, too. Readers want to get into the complexity of a plot, they want to see the depth of characters. Think about Harry Potter, for instance, with just the surface plot. Where Harry, Ron, and Hermione just go after Voldemort. Where they don’t have deeper interactions with each other, or with any of the other characters. There’s no complexity of character. Harry doesn’t feel mixed feelings about his father, Dumbledore doesn’t end up being more complex, and Neville doesn’t shift from feeling scared and unimportant to brave and full of self-worth. It would be a different kind of series, then, and way shorter. It probably also would be an obscure series, not one beloved by millions. Depth is what makes those stories stand out, what makes them catch our attention, and it’s the same for most types of writing. There are of course some exceptions, but then again, there always are.

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 2)

Wow it’s been a crazy week! My lesson planning is in full swing (looking forward to sharing some of it here, actually), and the first day of classes grows ever closer. Wasn’t it June only yesterday or so?

This week’s writing tip is the second and final part in a discussion on dialogue tags. Last week I talked about not using repetitive tags (tags that do the work the dialogue already did) and trying to avoid writing dialogue that needs to be rescued by tags. This week, though, is about exceptions. Because of course there are exceptions. And I’ve put together a few examples of times I think dialogue tags work well.

For Pacing

I’m starting with this tip for admittedly selfish reasons: I love to use dialogue tags for pacing. I like to pay attention to the rhythm in my prose, and I think dialogue tags can be a good tool for the way it sounds when read aloud. They can also add suspense at times.

Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel are two writers who I think do this extremely well. Check out that first link to hear Richard Ford read three stories by Raymond Carver (so you can hear the pacing) and then look at “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” by Amy Hempel to see what it looks like on the page, though I think her work sounds awesome read aloud, too.

For Irony or the Unexpected

Sometimes tags are necessary because the dialogue is not being said in the way a reader would expect. Maybe your character is feeling snippish rather than romantic when he says, “I love you,” to his wife, or maybe a character deadpans a joke or fakes indignation. These are instances where a little bit extra in a dialogue tag can expand rather than interfere with meaning.


This one is always a sticking point for me. While I know that genres like romance often use the convention of…shall we say explanatory dialogue tags, I still feel the writing would be stronger without it. Still, who I am to decide the conventions of an entire genre?

Another genre where we see more detailed dialogue tags, specifically ones with adverbs, is children’s writing. Part of a book’s job at that age is to expose children to language, and with a child’s growing understanding of how people say things, adding descriptive adverbs makes a fair bit of sense in terms of helping children expand their vocabluaries. I wrote reading passages for children in grades three through eight for a year, and breaking myself of the habit of simple dialogue tags was very difficult.

So there you have it! My expanded thoughts on dialogue tags with some guidelines on when they can help and when they just interfere. Happy writing!

writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 1)

The first spring after I finished grad school I signed up for a creative writing class through MSU’s continuing education program. There was a beginner class and an advanced class, so naturally I enrolled in the advanced one. I didn’t have any delusions that it would be like grad school, but I still had some expectations. But then came the second class period, the one where my professor stopped the workshop to give us a lecture on dialogue tags. I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, but it was something like this:

HIM: Don’t say “Tom yelled loudly.” That’s weak writing.

ME: *nods along in agreement*

HIM: Instead, find a verb that conveys both the weak verb and the adverb. Try something like “screeched” or “hollered” instead.

I didn’t say anything, having already (politely) offered a counter opinion to a few of my professor’s statements earlier in the class, and I didn’t want to be that girl, but if I had known in advance that this was coming, I would have saved one of my objections for this advice.

Screeched and hollered, you see, are still weak writing in most instances. I’m not even sure they’re an improvement over the verb-adverb combination. The problem, though, isn’t inherently the adverb, or even those words themselves: it’s in the dialogue itself.

Let’s take a look at an example:

“Good idea,” whispered Hermione, clearly pleased that Harry was calming down. “Ron, what are you staring at?”


“Nothing,” said Ron, hastily looking away from the bar, but Harry knew he was trying to catch the eye of the curvy and attractive barmaid, Madam Rosmerta, for whom he had long nursed a soft spot.


“I expect ‘nothing’s’ in the back getting more firewhiskey,” said Hermione waspishly.

-Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This example takes us back to the adverb problem—and if you’ve been writing seriously and engaging with other writers for even a minimal amount of time, chances are you’ve heard some form of “adverbs are bad.” I don’t agree with this as a rule (though I do thing a suggestion to be wary of adverbs is a good one), but this quote shows why adverbs aren’t always our friends. Read the above excerpt through once, then read it again, this time leaving off the last word so that the final dialogue tag just reads “said Hermione.” Is there any way you’re going to misinterpret her? Is there anyway you’re going to think she says it kindly, or angrily, or lovingly? We know exactly how Hermione sounds when she says that line, because JKR has written us some fantastic dialogue. The adverb, in this instance, becomes repetitive, and unneeded repetition is, to me, writing that can be stronger.

Now, I used an example with an adverb here, but the same type of repetitive mistake can be used with my professor’s “stronger” verbs. Take the line “‘I love you,’ she said sweetly.” It does the same type of thing. Unneeded repetition, unneeded details.

Unfortunately, the opposite of repetition can also occur when writing. Sometimes the dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey any real emotion and so writers use dialogue tags as a crutch.

My advice thus far has been to keep dialogue tags simple and to not have them either tell or interfere with the story, but the truth is, I do think there’s a use for these types of dialogue tags. I even think there’s a use for tags with adverbs at times, but I’m going to save that for next week’s post.

*Please note that I label these tips and not rules, and even if I had called them rules, I’m a firm believer that sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing for your writing. Writing isn’t about memorizing a set of rules and following them, but I do believe there are certain guidelines that, more often than not, will help writers improve—either by following them or by breaking them intentionally.

writing tip of the week: writing from real life

My last few posts have been (obliquely) on teaching, but I identify first as a writer, and I wanted my new blog post to reflect that aspect of my identity. And so the weekly writing tip was born—though I have to wonder if I can, in good faith, call it weekly before I’ve shown a commitment to that schedule. We’ll see!

This week’s tip was inspired by something I hear frequently—from friends, family, acquaintances, people I met randomly five minutes earlier, etc. It may be a throw away comment from some people, and to others I see how they are trying to establish a connection with me, but it almost always makes me wince inside a little bit.

What happens is this: I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll tell me a story. Usually it’s a story about something weird that happened, or a story about something sad, or bad. And I’m listening, and I’m interested, and then the person will say this: “I should write a book about that.”

And maybe the person should write a book about it. Goodness knows that a lot of successful nonfiction (and even fiction) has come about in response to events that happened in a person’s life. But what many amateur or aspiring writers fail to realize is that there’s a difference between a good anecdote and a good story. Continue reading “writing tip of the week: writing from real life” »