Writing is a journey: a constant striving for new skills, a struggle to learn and implement new ways of communicating. Abraham Lincoln once said that if he was given six hours to chop down a tree he’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe – he knew the value of preparation.

Sharpening my writing skills is essential, and it’s an ongoing journey. While the friends in my writing group have praised my writing I’ve not been able to attract attention from literary agents – so my axe needs a finer edge. I paid for a report from a literary consultancy – the feedback said there was a lot to like in my novel but work was still needed.

Areas to consider included making sentences vary more in length – too many were single clause which gave a staccato effect. Reading up on basic punctuation rules has helped me say things in more ways: combining ideas in single sentences when needed.

I’d also started several sentences with the subject’s sentence – often three or four sentences would begin with personal pronouns. He would do one thing, he would do another, he would do a third and so on. Change was needed – I can’t rely on a plodding depositional tone to carry my ideas. I found myself reading through existing sentences looking for words or ideas which could make a better starting point. Consider what image or sensation you want to foster in your readers mind – the desired feeling may belong early on in a sentence.

One clear recommendation from the report covered the flow of information – I needed to make this more logical. People will notice objects or concepts in a particular order and I need to ride this sequence with my text, helping readers feel at home with my character’s thoughts.

Vague phrasing was also a problem. I tend to overuse phrases like strange, or things, or items, or patterns – I may have a clear image in my mind but that’s not enough: the reader needs it as well. Giving concrete examples and having clear images in my mind should help communication – I’ve been going through these weasel words and replacing them. Do let me know if you know of a good home for weasel words.

The passive voice has a place, but too often it dulls a sentence’s impact – the passive tends to hide in sentences and spotting it can be tricky. However, careful use of automated editing software (I use Pro Writing Aid) can help – the software highlights what may be a passive verb or an emotion tell – and you can decide if this needs to be converted into the active voice. Usually conversion is the best option.

Automated editors need to be treated like ten-year-old sat navs – they can warn you of issues but be careful not to follow their suggestions without thinking. I deliberately chained three adverbs together in one line of dialogue which gave my software a fit – but I think the line works. Remember you’re in charge.

“You are so completely, utterly, wonderfully useless. Every time Caliper, you never fail—”

From ‘We Make Our Own Light’

Reading my work out loud is also on the to-do list. My writing group has given me several opportunities here – not only do I get free high-quality feedback but your own ear can prove a stern critic – anything which sounds awkward may need investigation.

I’ve read widely, going outside my chosen genre of science fiction. George Orwell for clarity of thought, Laurie Lee for magical conjuring of images, modern authors such as Alice Seebold and Kazuo Ishiguro to help develop character.

I’m working my way through the manuscript making changes as needed. An image of the Forth Bridge is now in my mind as making alterations teaches me more about the writing craft. My axe is being sharpened. I may need to go through the novel again to apply what I’ve learnt through making these changes – but learning will help become the best I can be.