I’ve been reading short fiction assignments by my students at the Open University, where I teach Creative Writing part time [NB not the day job referred to previously!!]
Here are a few notes I made after doing that, that I wish I’d seen when I started to write fiction. Because most of the stuff I did see aimed at new writers was kind of grand and eloquent, and just not practical enough for me to get my little head round. So here goes:
- Whatever other qualities your writing style has, make it clear to the reader who is doing what. Be careful not to over or under use character names. You may have invented a brilliant name for a character, but use it too often and your story will seem too much like a story. Not often enough, and the reader won’t get who is doing what.
- Punctuate carefully. Don’t fuss about this while getting a draft on paper. But when you read over your work, think about whether something you wrote as a single sentence joined by commas is in fact two sentences (or even three).
- Avoid over-capitalising nouns as it looks amateurish. Job titles are often capitalised in company newsletters, but rarely in quality journalism or in fiction.
There could be many many more little bits of advice like this. To get a sense of the level of attention to detail that goes into professional writing, have a flick through The Guardian Style Guide. Back when I worked at the Guardian as a freelance sub, I had to apply this guide rigorously — and it is always easier to apply a style guide to someone else’s writing than your own — but that’s another story.
And if you want both sides of the argument, yet another.
Anyway, in my opinion, the guide makes surprisingly entertaining reading (if not quite as entertaining as those two asides above, then probably more useful). The following are typical entries:
use sparingly, unless writing about overweight moggies
noun; go slow verb
is OK; okay is not
one should find an alternative, preferably you (unless one is making fun of one’s
The Times also has a good style guide but it is gathering pennies or dust behind their pay wall. You might find the Telegraph Style Book – but it was loading slowly when I last looked… You can buy The Guardian Style Guide as a book, or access it online here.