A Summer School Project: Work to Improve Your Writing
Summer school is often thought of as an opportunity to squeeze in some extra work – a way to concentrate on particular areas in our life we want to improve. Our written work could benefit from this additional time, and you may decide to remediate specific areas of your writing in the summer months ahead.
The first step in planning for this summer activity is to identify the particular components of your written work needing attention. Begin by selecting a draft of your writing and rereading it slowly, as though you are not at all familiar with the words. What is your first impression of your own work? What do you think are its strengths? What may be its weak spots? Create a list of those areas.
Next, consider offering the manuscript to someone you know and trust and having them read it. Encourage that reader to talk with you about what they consider the strong and weak areas of your work. Make sure you listen and take some notes – there is no need to be defensive or second-guess their remarks.
What to Improve in Your Writing
These tend to be common areas cited as needing attention:
- The story does not hook the reader: The writing is flat – some may say it is boring – and as a result, readers don’t care about the problem or the characters. The beginning of the manuscript may not entice readers to continue with the story. This is an important problem to resolve because if your audience is not interested in what you have written and not eager to read more, the manuscript will be difficult to market.
- The characters are using unrealistic dialogue: The words spoken by the story’s characters sound fake or forced, and not likely to have come from the person in the story. Often the dialogue sounds too mature, too stilted, too stiff, or even too babyish for the character speaking. This causes readers to mentally jump out of the text and realize they are reading something that is made up. The best writing keeps a reader in the world of the story or book for the duration of the piece.
- The story’s timeline is hard to follow: Of course, the writer knows what is going to happen, but sometimes readers have a tough time figuring out what is going on. Without explanation, time may move quickly in some parts of the story and slowly in others and new characters may just appear at random. The reader may be scratching his head and rereading parts of the story as a way to figure out what is happening.
- Most of the story is told to the reader, rather than shown by characters’ dialogue, body language, and actions. Readers don’t get a chance to imagine what the character is going to do or say, or to formulate opinions about the story. Instead, they are told what is going on, leaving little room for readers’ inference and imagination as they read the story.
- There are spelling, grammar, and punctuation problems. Verb tense is not aligned throughout the story. The story may begin in past tense and then inexplicably move to present tense and then back again, sometimes in the same paragraph. Weak grammar and punctuation may be distracting to the reader.
How to Improve Your Writing
Remediating these problem areas takes hard work but is worth the time and effort. Here are some ways to make progress this summer:
- Ensure your content will appeal to readers straight away by studying other writers’ first chapters in books you like. Think about why you want to keep reading a particular book and take notes detailing why you care about a specific character or why a problem intrigues you as a reader. You will need to read dozens of books to really understand why some writing pulls the reader in and other writing leaves the reader uninterested.
- Inauthentic dialogue can be improved by paying close attention to what characters say in the books you read. Listen to how kids, teens, and adults talk and notice the nuances that make each individual’s dialogue personal. Watch movies with a main character who is similar in age to your own protagonist and think about the way he or she is talking as you work to improve your writing in this area.
- Pay closer attention to the order of events in your story by outlining and making a rough plan before you even begin the manuscript. Alternatively, draft your story as you normally do and as you end the day’s session, review for good order, and move pieces of text around.
- Spend time revising the telling parts of your manuscript so that the characters are showing readers what is going on. As above, read and study other writers’ methods of showing their story as a way to improve this important skill.
- Grammar, verb tense, and punctuation errors can be reviewed with workbooks specifically designed for school students who are just learning these skills. Look online or in a bookstore for student workbooks that concentrate on the areas of grammar, verb tense, and punctuation that you need to work on.
As you work to improve your writing, remember that it can be helpful to have professional remediation to help you work on weak areas. Enrolling in a writing course and talking with your instructor about your challenges will often be the most effective way to see real progress in your manuscripts.
Susan Ludwig, MA has been an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature for over 17 years. Susan’s writing credits include teacher resource guides, English language learner books, and classroom curriculum for elementary through high school students. A former magazine editor, she assesses students’ written essays as a scoring director for the SAT exam. When she is not writing or working, she is usually found cooking or curled up with a good book.