Hesitant writing plagues many would-be storytellers. Your sentences are supposed to lead your readers through a wonderful fictional experience – but who wants to follow a guide who is obviously insecure? This article won’t tell you what to write, but give you tips on how to write firm, confident sentences.
Do, do not just begin to do
Some writers weaken their verbs by combining them with began to or started to, such as Claude sat down and began to eat. This version is bolder: Claude sat down and ate – and that’s what you should choose, unless he’s about to be interrupted. Even then, instead of writing: Claude sat down and began to eat when the siren blared outside, you could write: Claude sat down and took his first bite of chicken when the siren blared outside. Notice how the last sentence also has more specificity, another sign of confidence.
Active instead of passive
Many people write: Fred was bitten by the beagle. Instead consider: The beagle bit Fred. Sometimes the passive approach makes more sense, for example if your story is more about Fred than the beagle then you may prefer to use the passive in this instance. Nevertheless, I recommend making your sentences active whenever you can.
Remove vague pronouns
Some writers insert it and there unnecessarily into their sentences. Example: There was nothing he could do about the bad grade. Instead consider: He could do nothing about the bad grade. Here’s an example using it: When in mourning, it was customary to cut off one’s hair. Instead you could write: When in mourning, cutting off one’s hair was customary. Of course, exceptions exist, such as Charles Dickens’s, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Use few modals
Modal verbs express necessity or possibility; they include words such as might, may, would, could, and must. When writers use these words too often, their writing is weakened. Instead of I suppose that would be impractical, write: I suppose that’s impractical.
Small doses of past perfect
Most stories are told in the simple past: Sandra ate the cookie. But if she ate the cookie two hours before the time that you’re showing in your story, you can use the past perfect, and write: Sandra had eaten the cookie, and didn’t want anyone to know. That can work well. What doesn’t work so well is a long portion of the story using the past perfect. Sandra had eaten the cookie, because she had been hungry, even though she had known that it meant that she had been cheating on her low-carb diet. Instead use the past perfect to get your readers into the prior time period, then switch to simple past: Sandra had eaten the cookie, because she was hungry, even though she knew she was cheating on her low-carb diet.
Better yet, try to keep your story from skipping around with respect to time periods. A little bit of clock hopping keeps the story interesting; too much keeps your readers from sinking firmly into your scene. In fact, one reason that writers sometimes do this is because they have trouble committing to a single time period: another example of hesitance.
Reduce strings of prepositions
Some writers insert unnecessary prepositions into their sentences. Patricia glanced up and over at the swan could be rewritten as Patricia glanced at the swan. The sentence makes just as much sense without the word over, and the string up and over at only serves to make the sentence longer.
Positive instead of negative
Some writers use negatives instead of the positives: George did not say anything. Instead consider: George was silent. Or, in keeping with this article: Mary was not hesitant in her writing could be revised. Mary was bold in her writing.
We’re writers, with large vocabularies, but that does not mean we should show off in our stories. I recently revised broad thoroughfare to wide street. Again, exceptions may be appropriate. If the phrase is being uttered by a pedantic character, or a city planner who would use the words broad thoroughfare with ease, broad thoroughfare may suit.
Delete insecure words and phrases
Very, a little bit, just, rather, quite – these qualifiers are often symptoms of hesitation, and you should take them out of your story. Let his eyes be blue, not rather blue.
Bringing it all together
These are guidelines, not hard rules, because we can all think of cases where the suggestions above should be ignored, even ignored to great effect. However, if your writing is cluttered with examples like those above, you are writing hesitantly.
Hesitation may occur when you’re working on your first draft, when you’re figuring out your story. That’s OK. You may not think of a word that means not happy while you’re deciding how your protagonist feels. You’re too busy with what happens next. But when you revise, delete not happy and insert sad.
Boldness in writing can be learned, or at least imitated with great success. Give your readers the sense that you know what you’re doing and they’ll be more likely to follow you into the amazing story you have imagined.