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October 24, 2017
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she offers writing advice for first-time authors.

Dear Editor:

I’m just getting started with my writing career. Any suggestions?

Most writers are made, not born. If you are just starting out as an author, or even if you’ve been at it for a while, there are lots of things you can do to make your prose better. Here are a few tips.

Write the way you talk—especially with nonfiction. Clear, easy to understand, unforced is always the way to go. Don’t use the same word (verb, noun, adverb, or adjective) more than once in a sentence or paragraph. True, Hemingway once used the word sad four or five times in the same paragraph, but he was Hemingway. Use the active voice, not the passive: instead of “Staying up late is often difficult for me,” try “I have a hard time staying up late.” Be specific rather than general: replace “Sally likes luxury” with “Sally likes Hermès bags, Porthault sheets, and Brunello wine.” When you quote someone, use said, rather than cried, exclaimed, yelled, shouted, snorted, sniffled, smiled, or frowned. As Helen Gurley Brown wrote in The Writer’s Rules, “nobody ever smiles or frowns a sentence.” Avoid clichés entirely unless you are using them in dialogue because that’s the way your character would talk.

Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but until you have really found your voice and feel completely comfortable with your own style, these are pretty good guidelines to follow.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.