Toby’s Tips

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“The most important characteristic of good writing is clarity. Look at any first-draft sentence. Could it be clearer by moving words around–or by cutting out words that hide your point? I am a good writer. I am convinced that my first draft may contain a solid gold idea or even phrase, but only my eighth or ninth draft will be as clear as possible, allowing my thought to shine through. Try it.”   Toby Stein

A fierce advocate of direct, unfussy language, Toby Stein is an editor, author, and poetry lover. She’s also a cherished KWD reader and when she left this comment recently, I wanted to share it. More Toby tips:

  • Hone your words with precision and patience — it’s easy to be trite and hackneyed.
  • Adverbs are weak cousins to nouns and verbs. Start out with strong nouns and verbs — and use adverbs sparingly.
  • Choose verbs that are “specific, accurate, and strong” — verbs like “walk, laugh, and cry” are too unspecific to really engage or affect your readers.
  • Fiction’s main goal is to create a protagonist that readers can identify with. The more specific your language, the more real your character becomes.
  • Write your first draft fast enough to get your whole story out, then shift into revision mode. Revision = focused writing + making choices.
  • A novel isn’t a photograph, it’s impressionistic. Each revision gives you the chance to paint a better picture by picking better nouns and verbs. If you’re just adding words without enriching the meaning or the effect, you’re not improving your story, you’re “disimproving” it.
  • It’s very important “not to squander specifics:” Numbers, dates, times, and colors all add emotional and descriptive impact. Azure, royal blue, teal — each shade of blue colors your story a little differently, for example.
  • 1+1=1/2. If you have two words or phrases, you diminish the impact of both, so choose one. The one that’s simplest is often the best choice.
  • Beware of larding your language: “So much that we write is extraneous — it doesn’t add meaning or feeling or purpose.”
  • “Make friends with two delete buttons: the one on your computer and the one in your head.” Make it a point to delete a phrase or word that pops into your head if isn’t a satisfying choice. Push yourself to find a better one: Don’t settle for second-rate.

“Use the right word everywhere — not its second cousin” – this is one of Mark Twain’s rules of writing and Toby Stein heartily agrees with it! Bravo, Toby, write on!

About karinwritesdangerously

I am a writer and this is a motivational blog designed to help both writers and aspiring writers to push to the next level. Key themes are peak performance, passion, overcoming writing roadblocks, juicing up your creativity, and the joys of writing.
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2 Responses to Toby’s Tips

  1. Patricia A Carrigan says:

    Hi Karin, As with all your posts, Toby’s tips are golden. I’ve printed them out and pinned them on the wall next to my computer. A million thanks to Toby and to you. Keep well….both of you.
    Pat Carrigan

  2. Hi Pat,

    Thanks so much for your kind words! Yes, Toby’s tips are great —
    I have printed them out as well, so I can refer to them to remind me
    that clarity leads to strong, muscular, vivid prose and poetry.

    Write on,

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