Craft,  Discipline

What Good Writers Do

Kindergartners learn what “good writers do,” but all writers can apply these universal lessons.

Kindergarteners practice tracing letters and numbers as the first steps to becoming literate.  Even at this early stage, they are taught the basics for a lifetime of writing. The sign on my daughter’s classroom wall reads simply “What Good Writers Do.” Only a handful of the recent preschoolers can read the sign at the beginning of the year. As they come to understand the words, the sign becomes a useful reference. It provides guidance on how to communicate clearly to readers.  From editing to formatting to effective storytelling, all writers benefit from mastering the basics.  They must to entice readers and agents.

The rules for good writers found on a Kindergarten wall apply universally.

Good writers think about their topic

This is true on every level and at every stage of a writer’s career.  What do you want to write about? All fiction, boiled down to its simplest element, contains a character and a conflict. A kindergartener writes a sentence about their cat. For flash fiction, you might need a character, two points of conflict and a twist, but longer works require thinking in the form of outlines, scene cards or the Snowflake Method. Even a pantser percolates their story in their head before the words flow.

Good writers ask if it makes sense  

Every day. Every word. Are descriptions clear and vivid enough for the reader to see the story? Have you given your character a twenty-eight-hour day? Does your magic system work one way in chapter one and differently in chapter two?  Check the continuity of the elements in your story from one scene to the next.

Good writers write neatly

For the kiddos, this specifically refers to handwriting. Many advanced writers still write by hand before entering on a keyboard, but this idea of ‘neat’ writing can be expanded further. Are your thoughts organized on the page? Are you following the scene and sequel method where something happens, your character reacts and then makes a decision? Do you have a purple prose problem where all your sentences are flowery, wordy and full of excessive adverbs and adjectives? All of this tidying doesn’t have to happen in a first draft, but self-editing gives everyone a chance to neaten the work. 

Good writers read it over and over  

Kindergartners check if their letters were formed correctly, but we experienced writers all know this step is about editing and finding the more insidious flaws in our work. Start with the overall plot and structure. Does this sequence of events tell the story you want? Are the character arcs complete?  Once it’s in order, tweak the sections for flow and readability. With each additional pass, the work is polished until only the grammar remains to be wrestled with.

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Good Writers use punctuation at the end

The kindergartners have a tough job here. They have to learn when to use a period, a question mark or an exclamation point. Formatting work incorrectly for submission earns red marks from the teacher. Grown-up writers can get confused by the exclamation point, too. People use them to show excitement, but overuse of the exclamation point is a sign of weak writing to the gate-keepers of publishing. Use them, but know why.

Good writers use Capital Letter at the beginning

 For professional markets, an improper format can mean the difference between instant rejection or an agent or editor actually reading your work. No one wants to slog through pages of poorly formatted paragraphs.  Stick to standard formatting guidelines—Times New Roman, 12pt, double-spaced. Check with each individual recipient what their standard is, where they want your name and word count information or if they want it at all. To be respected as a professional, give the agents and editors what they want. Follow the rules.

Good writers use finger spaces 

Kindergartners are taught to use a finger width space between their words. Except for ensuring you type only one space after a period, this isn’t useful advice for the experienced writer. However, it acts as a reminder to keep up with changing standards. Two spaces after a period morphed into one due to changes in printing capabilities. Most agents, publishers, and editors prefer electronic submissions to printing and mailing from the pre-email era. Changing standards go beyond typography issues, though. Follow your genre and know what they are looking for (or not) in terms of story elements, types of characters and pacing.

Mastery of writing starts small.

We all began by learning letters. Then added grammar and punctuation. Advice for what makes good writing evolves as we grow as writers, but everyone started at the beginning. What basics do you still have trouble with?

Sara Marschand has been writing Urban Fantasy and Science fiction since she ended her full-time career in engineering. When not writing, she enjoys everything produced by Marvel Studios. Sara lives with her spouse, 2 noisy kids, a frog and a goldfish that spits rocks. Visit her blog here.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.