Writing Tips

Writing well comes naturally to some people - lucky buggers! The rest of us have to work at it. I've been on several writing courses in my time and learned quite a lot of things I hadn't even considered until then. So I thought it would be nice to share a few tips about writing style which I've found interesting and useful.

The agent of a famous writer (P.D.James, if memory serves me) told her that he could tell whether a book was worth publishing from the first sentence. I thought at first that this was a rather extravagant claim, but now I'm not so sure.

The first few paragraphs of a fic. are often enough for you to decide whether or not to read on. Setting aside bad spelling and punctuation, which make reading hard work, what make a reader give up and what makes her continue?


There is often a strong temptation to write a long and graceful passage to set the scene. Resist it. What the reader sees is an off-putting solid wall of text. The writer's elegant sentences, overflowing with beautiful, decorative and possibly obscure adjectives of Latin derivation, may be delightful to her, but her purple prose is more likely to make her readers yawn and move on. [ 35 words there.]

Grab your reader with speech or action. Make her ask questions: Where is Daniel? Who are these aliens he's talking to? What are their intentions? Is Daniel in danger? Where is the rest of the team? Aren't they backing him up? If not, why not? The scenery is secondary here. The reader focusses on the people.

Resist the temptation to tell the reader what the opening situation is. Have confidence in both your reader and yourself to let her work it out for herself from the dialogue. Maintain the mystery a little while. If your opening is too enigmatic, your beta will comment on this.

Action Sequences

1. Use short sentences. Or just phrases - fast paced - sharp and punchy.

2. Leave out unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. You'll find that almost all of them are redundant and distracting.

3. Omit similes, metaphors and any other figurative language. They may be pretty and creative but they're also totally unnecessary.

4. Use words of Old English or northern European origin in preference to their Latin or Greek equivalents. They tend to be shorter - one or two syllables instead of three or four - or more. e.g. place or site for location, plot for conspiracy, or sad for melancholy.

How to kill the pace of an action sequence in 724 words.
(453 redundant words have been dimmed.)

With terror snapping at her heels like all the hounds of hell, Sam sprinted rapidly away into the dark night as if her life depended upon it, as indeed it did. Ahead was a wide expanse of open ground with absolutely no cover whatsoever, but she had no choice but to traverse it. Fortunately the moon, which was at the full, had glided behind a cloud, giving her some slight relief. She pulled her 9mm Berretta from its holster, and slipped the safety catch off as she hastened across that no-man's-land.

She was racing onward, all the while fearful of missing her footing on the uneven rocky terrain, when the treacherous moon reappeared. On the plus side she could be more certain of where she was putting her feet, but the moonlight glinted on the barrel of her weapon, giving away her location to her pursuers. Amazingly, she made it across to the other side and into the darkness of the shadows that clothed the rocky outcrop where she scrambled behind a massive boulder. For the moment she had found sanctuary.

Then the infuriated villains who were pursuing her broke cover. Their dark forms were illuminated by the silvery moon. Although she was in hiding, nevertheless they sprayed the whole area in front of them with a barrage of fire from their automatic weapons, hoping that maybe they would get lucky.

The bullets mostly sprayed over Sam's head but one stray one collided with the boulder behind which she huddled and sent out an eruption of rocky shrapnel. A sharp shard of granite sliced across her cheek. It was all she could do to avoid crying out with the vicious pain. She put her hand up to her cheek and felt her warm blood trickling downwards, realizing in consternation how close she had just come to annihilation.

Angrily, Sam forced herself to concentrate on the problem at hand. This was not the time to fall apart. She was a seasoned veteran of countless dangerous missions and hopefully this would be just another one such. First, she needed to know how many adversaries she was facing. Cautiously, she peeked around the boulder. There were only three of them left now and they were moving apart in order to cover more of the area. On the plus side, they were now slowing down and seemed to be uncertain either about her whereabouts or which direction they should take, or both.

Now back in control of herself, Sam waited until she could be sure of getting a clear line of sight on one of her would-be attackers. She selected the opponent on the left of the three and took careful aim before she squeezed the trigger. He came to a halt for a moment as if listening for her to make a sound and betray her position. If he heard anything at all, it was too late. With a deafening report, Sam's Berretta removed him crisply and certainly from life.

Sam ducked back behind her boulder as the remaining pair spun round to see their colleague collapse to the ground like a broken doll. Immediately, they raised their weapons again, causing Sam to duck behind her friendly boulder again. She was just in time as the belligerents covered the whole area with round after round of angry submachine gun fire.

Under cover of the rattle of automatic fire, Sam crept with utmost caution crabwise to her right, making certain to remain in the sheltering lee of the friendly boulders. She felt sure that her hunters would expect her to move away from them not closer towards them. She paused and let them come closer. They almost seemed to be sniffing the air like Tolkien's Black Riders. Onwards they came, yet they were looking in totally the wrong direction. As they approached, they were moving closer together. Soon they were almost alongside her.

Realizing that she was now in their peripheral vision only, Sam knew instinctively that this was her chance. All of a sudden, she leaned out from behind her boulder and fired two shots which unerringly hit their targets. Both assailants collapsed into an untidy heap and lay still. A sudden silence filled the watching air around her as she, too, slumped to the ground, but with relief that her terrifying ordeal was at last over.

The same scene in 100 words:

Sam ran across open ground - slipped off the safety. Moonlight on metal. Into darkness again behind a boulder. Safe!

Silhouettes broke cover, following. A volley of shots. Sam felt pain - blood running down her cheek. Just a rock splinter. Damn, that was close.

Focus, Sam! How many? Three left - fanning out, slowing down now - unsure. Wait for a clear shot. Guy on the left, and— One down.

The other two turn, guns raised. Keep down. Another volley overhead.

Crawl carefully right, nearer the hunters. Not what they'll expect. Coming closer but looking the wrong way. Now! Two quick shots. Silence.

Be prepared to throw out your babies.

Okay, this is an oldie, but it's a good one.

Imagine you've just written a fizzing, sizzling, red-hot scene where Daniel's just fucked Jack to within an inch of his life. It's really, really brilliant and you're immensely proud of it, but...

Our two heroes are fleeing a horde of Jaffa. They've taken refuge in a deserted building (where they surrendered to their lust) in hopes of evading capture themselves and coming up with a plan to rescue Sam and Teal'c who're being held captive.

Trust me, they would not take time out for an inspired session of wild and abandoned sex at this point in the story. The scene is completely out of place and, however magnificently inspired it is, it must be thrown out. It's heart-breaking, but it has to be done. :-(

As it is, it's like finding the most beautiful and exquisitely fragrant rose bush in the middle of an Alpine garden full of dainty little plants. Heavenly as it is, it spoils the appearance of the whole garden and in this respect, it's a weed. Get rid of it!

Of course, you can always cut and paste it somewhere else, 'cos if it's that good, you're bound to find a use for it somehow. ;-)

Consistent Characterization

One thing that tends to throw a reader is when someone acts 'out of character' for no apparent reason. Of course, it's understandable that we humble fic. writers would do this, probably without realizing it. Unfortunately those wacky guys that get paid to write the episodes seem to make so little attempt to keep the team in character, that out-of-character behaviour is practically canon. ::sigh::

For instance, if a leader thinks a member of his team is causing problems, he takes that person to one side - preferably out of earshot - and asks him why he appears to be rocking the boat. He does not humiliate him in front of fellow team members and other interested parties, cf. The Other Side.

This conduct is unprofessional, unethical, and completely out of order, since it lowers the morale, and compromises the performance, of the whole team. Who will risk being the next victim of capricious pettiness? However peeved the leader feels, military discipline should override such an overt hissy fit.

Of course, once the leader is in possession of the facts, he may then give the guy a rollicking and/or lay down the law in private. At least he will now have a plausible, if contestable, reason to do so. It doesn't come straight out of left field.


Be prepared to do at least some basic research, especially if you're writing fan fiction for a show you've only just found. At least check out the characters' back-stories and their personal preferences and such like so you can keep them in character. Also research the set-up: Stargate Command, the Cheyenne Mountain Complex and Colorado Springs. Yes, it does have a zoo.

If you're sending any or all of the team off-world to a planet where the civilization derives from earth, it's a good idea to do a little background reading on the civilization in question. This may seem obvious, but not, apparently to some writers.

The reader expects some factual errors - even experts get things wrong - but whereas spotting a goof from an expert is mildly satisfying, goofs which a reasonably well informed ten year old would spot - aren't. And where you find one of those, there are usually several more. This is bloody annoying.

To Beta or Not to Beta...?

However good a writer you are it's always a good idea to get someone else to give it at least a quick read through. You 'know' what you've written, so that's what you read. Even of you haven't written what you thing you have. She will also pick up on repetitions of your favourite phrases. "This was something he so did not want to know," is fine the first time, but by the third repetition, it becomes distinctly irritating.

Your friend will also, one hopes, spot plot holes. Because you know what's happening, it's difficult to be sure that you've explained adequately everything that needs explaining. When your friend says, "Huh? What's going on here?" you'll know which bits need a little more work doing - unless you're deliberately keeping the reader in the dark for a while.

It can be just as destructive to put in too much explanation as too little, so avoid over-egging the pudding. Don't overstate what's going on; leave something for the reader to do. Most exclamation marks can be left out too, especially multiple ones. Understatement can be more effective than overstatement.

Maybe you want a real Beta to straighten out the wrinkles, especially when new to creative writing, but... Don't use your Beta as an English teacher. That is not her function. Be prepared to re-read, revise and rewrite before you send your magnum opus to her. If you find your story too boring to re-read, then likely you won't be alone there.

If you have a genuine problem with grammar and spelling, make this clear before you go in. Don't rely too heavily on Spellchecker. It will find spelling errors but won't raise a red flag if you've used the wrong worm. And ask for an English primer for Christmas. {g}

Sez Who?

One thing that really slows down the flow of a story is making the reader stop and re-read a paragraph to work out who's speaking. Sometimes, in a single paragraph, one character has spoken, he or someone else has done something, then one of the two - or a third person - has said added another comment.

Sometimes it's still impenetrable even after reading a paragraph several times over as the reader does not have the writer's omniscience. Unless you're an encryption agent for M.I.5 or the C.I.A. then clarity is a virtue. If there can possibly be any iota of doubt, then start a new paragraph so that only one person is speaking and/or carrying out an action in the paragraph.

In relation to speech, please, throw out your Thesaurus. 'Said' may be a four letter word, but being small, it doesn't attract undue attention to itself unless it's really over-used. Okay, a little variety is good, but not when you find:

" ... " Daniel remarked snarkily.

" ... " Sam exclaimed crossly.

" ... " Teal'c interrupted sharply.

" ... " Jack objected prosaically.

" ... " she remonstrated severely. (getting more desperate now. ;-) )

" ... " Daniel asserverated pedantically.

" ... " she expostulated indignantly.

" ... " Hammond animadverted unanswerably.

" ... " they muttered gloomily.

If it's clear who's speaking, the verb can be left out altogether. Alternatively, the spoken word can be included with an action:

Sam stared at the blackened mess on her work bench. "Sorry, sir, but we'll have to go back to P7T for some more of that compound."

Oh, and go easy on the adverbs too. Okay, that was exaggerated, but it used to be one of my failings until a tutor drew my attention to all the sentences ending in 'ly.' Ouch!

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