writers tips / writing

10 Tips Guaranteed to Rescue Your Story

When you read your story, is it underwhelming? Are you bored and you’re the author? In the excitement of getting your story on


Photo credit: Beeki

paper, developing your characters and moving through the plot, have you missed whatever it is that makes a story worth reading.

I know what the problem is: It’s the basics.

You’ve forgotten the nuts and bolts. Here are ten of them, each designed to address the most fixable parts of your story. Once you’ve edited with these in mind, re-read your story. You’ll find a huge difference. If you don’t, and only if you don’t, read the last paragraph:

  1. The story is too passive. Check for how often you use a derivation of the verb, to be. That would include was, is, were, etc. Limit them to five per page. They take the umph out of your story. Choose a more active verb. Sometimes it’s as simple as switching She was thinking to She thought. Sometimes it takes more time. Doesn’t matter if it takes a while. It’ll fix your story
  2. More dialogue. Less narrative. Dialogue is active. Narrative is passive. Dialogue pulls the reader into the action. Narrative lets them sit outside where it’s nice and safe. You want your reader to feel the plot’s danger, not feel insulated. You’ve probably heard writing professors intone, Show, not tell. This is what they mean. Dialogue shows. It’s in scene. Narrative tells. It’s outside of the scene.
  3. Don’t jump around in POVs so often. Once a chapter only. At the most, between paragraphs (I stick with a full scene for each POV). You’re reader wants to get to know the POV character and wonder about events with them, not jump into someone else’s head to find out the answers. Mystery is good. No mystery is boring.
  4. Your protagonist isn’t likable. People want to like the main character. They want to relate to that person. Your main character shouldn’t be perfect. S/he should have foibles, failures like every person on the planet. Just don’t make them dis-likable.
  5. Add detail. Be specific about the restaurant your characters eat at, the town they visit, the types of dogs in the dog park. Your readers will relate to the details. Specifics pull readers in. Generalities leave them outside the plot, wondering if they want to commit.
  6. Fix your grammar and spelling. Everyone won’t catch every error, but most people will catch some of the errors. If they catch more than a few–and I use that term loosely–you’ve lost your credibility. Catch as many as you can before you even show the mss to your writer’s group. Don’t assume your future agent will fix grammar and spelling. S/he won’t see the plot for the errors.
  7. Your characters must grow. They can’t remain static from the beginning of the novel to the end. There’s something about a trial by fire and coming out better that snares readers. Look at each character. Where did they start? Where did they end? Have they grown? If not, fix it.
  8. Vary your sentence length. Long involved sentences slow the story down. Short snappy sentences speed the action up. Make sure you use each type in the correct spot.
  9. Use picture nouns and action verbs. Every noun should evoke an entire picture in your reader’s mind. Every verb should set off a sequence of actions.
  10. Limit adjectives and adverbs. Replace a multi-adjectived noun with a fully-developed picture noun. Replace an over-adverbed verb with a descriptive verb. A rule of thumb is no more than two adjectives per noun and no more than five adverbs per page.

If these ten tips didn’t fix things for you, well, now you have to enter the murky land of intangible tips. Things like…

  • Put passion in your writing
  • Write what you know
  • Be unique and unpredictable

I know–these last are important, maybe the most important. But, you have to agree, they’re a lot harder to fix. I like to start at the beginning and proceed to the end. Keep my editing as simple as possible until I can’t.

What are your hints?

Click for more about dialogue.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, a freelance journalist on tech ed topics, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculum and technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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48 thoughts on “10 Tips Guaranteed to Rescue Your Story

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  5. Thank you for being so generous with your help and suggestions. I amwriting my family history which for me begins early 1800’s. It is not a long timespan compared with the one you have chosen to tell. I appreciate your suggestions and I will try to use . them for my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am kind of impressed with your writing talents. You have a number of great points there. Back when I first arrived at your website last week I was just looking for something funny to read but this website has been super helpful and informative. Geez, that’s unbelievable. If you have the time, send me an email and we can talk more, I have an idea you will love. I am super shocked at how slow your blog loaded on my computer.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Your site is amazing! I am not an english major, or what people would consider a “writer,” however composing a short story and/or novel is on my bucket list. Not to publish or anything, but just as an accomplishment. So I’ve recently started, and after looking at a bunch of sites realized that writing a story consists of more logistics than I could have imagined! Your resource pages are very understandable and it gives me hope that someone who hasn’t studied literature can accomplish this! Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not annoying at all, Millie. I love talking about writing. Here’s the answer I wrote below:

      New writers think adjectives/adverbs are required to describe a location–“the narrow, litter-ridden, stench-filled, dark pathway”. I’m with Mark Twain who exhorted readers to “kill” any adjectives they could catch. And not just him. Crime writer Elmore Leonard said using an adverb was almost always a “mortal sin.” William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, dismisses most adverbs and adjectives as “clutter,”

      A better way to share that description above is in-scene, active, with all the senses.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Since discovering this little gem, I’ve noticed that over adjectivizing (I’m a writers so I’m allowed to verbize nouns) nouns saps their power. I might not notice it right away, but when I try to analyze why a writer’s story leaves me unconvinced, this too often is it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • New writers think adjectives/adverbs are required to describe a location–“the narrow, litter-ridden, stench-filled, dark pathway”. I’m with Mark Twain who exhorted readers to “kill” any adjectives they could catch. And not just him. Crime writer Elmore Leonard said using an adverb was almost always a “mortal sin.” William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, dismisses most adverbs and adjectives as “clutter,”

        A better way to share that description above is in-scene, active, with all the senses.


  12. How much is too much narrative? My sampling of JK Rowling’s narrative, chapter 9, Sorcerer’s Stone, runs about 20%. (Now if I could only write narrative like her). Her scene (dialogue and action and scene description) = 80%, at least in my sampling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never seen a % number on dialogue vs. narrative. Write what feels right to you–your ideal balance of the two based on informing, action, description, drawing the reader in. Then re-read what you’ve written. If it sounds like you’re standing outside the story looking in, there’s too much narrative. If it sounds like you’re eavesdropping on conversations and not getting the whole picture, there’s too much dialogue.

      Does that help?


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  14. Hello Ms. Murray, I just stumbled upon your blog and I already find it so compelling. I’m really keen on implementing your tips on writing. It’s great help for an amateur. I was just wondering if you could give an example for the 10th. It will be of much help to me. Thank you.


    • Hi Stefanie–thanks for coming by. #10–Instead of ‘really tired’ say ‘exhausted’. Instead of ‘happily grinned’–‘grin’ means happy. Just delete the adverb. Instead of ‘quickly ran’, say ‘sprinted’.

      People like tight prose. Even in literary fiction where beautiful prose rules, you don’t want to waste a reader’s time.

      See you again!


    • It’s really awesome how well these concepts work when applied in the right way. It is a strange thing I believed I was a pro on the subject before coming to this blog but it turns out, I am still a student. The information you are providing is amazing. Will you write up more stuff on this subject? I am visiting for the third time this week. If you ever started a gang, I’d be the first to sign up.


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  16. Great tips! I agree with all of them really. I always make sure that my protagonist is likable and that my characters grow. That’s the most important for me anyways.

    These are the kinds of tips I tell people about when they want to write a book. It’s something all writers should know about.


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  19. Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? And wordiness–great reminder. Every time I read my drafts, I cut so many words out. I have never read an excerpt without shortening it.

    Thanks for your comment.


  20. Great Post. I especially agree with 2,4, and 8. People really overlook the need to have characters they can root for (a la Mr. Vonnegut), and letting the language of characters create the scene.

    and more than anything, writers forget about varying sentence length. This can be used to drive home points, of course, but more often than not a reader needs to have breaks, even if it’s just between three long sentences. A good practice to get into is simply re-reading your story and figuring out a few areas where you can use less words to convey the same meaning.

    Excellent post as always, thanks for your insight.


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