When I worked on news desks, we had a rule to live by: if you’re struggling hard to make the headline and top of the story sound exciting, give it up, go out and get a better story. The most compelling narratives don’t require fancy editorial footwork. The clearest language will simply take your readers along, sometimes involuntarily, if they had been planning to do something other than read your story.
Another thing I learned from being a journalist was that many people who say they ‘can’t write’, articulate themselves perfectly well in interview. I became accomplished at shorthand and often, while transcribing, I would encounter passages of clear English that one could call ‘good writing’, that came across perfectly well on the page. Yet when the same people would sit down to write in a formal way, they would feel compelled to don a writery hat and become more formal and opaque in style. For such individuals, the best advice is: ‘Write it how you would say it.’
One can often hear or read about how penning the long-planned opus is a matter of ‘finding your voice’. My experience is that people who have a story worth telling already have a voice. It’s just a question of giving yourself permission to use it, and finding the time and space.
If your first draft isn’t a compelling read, focus on the quality of the story, more than the style of writing. This doesn’t mean going out and living a more dangerous life, but rather trying to identify whether the tale contains some timeless elements of storytelling that trigger engagement with a reader. Typically this involves a main character we’re rooting for, a worthwhile goal they are aiming for, the obstacles that lie in the way, and the things they have to do to get past them. If they succeed, it’s a romance, or a detective story with a resolution. If they don’t, it’s a tragedy. If they eventually do, despite stumbling at every stage, it’s a comedy.
As an exercise, change the name of the protagonist. If you had never heard of the person before, would the story draw you in?
- Philip Whiteley is a full-time author, ghostwriter and journalist. His critically acclaimed fiction is written under the byline PJ Whiteley. www.pjwhiteley.com