Improve your writing - how to hone your story

Improve your writing - how to hone your story

18 July 2016 Life Writing Autiobiography Memoir


A storyline can be a road map of your story, it is what happened and in what order.

Will your story be chronological? Start at the beginning of the timeline and work your way through to the present. You could use a journal or diary style.

Is the story a quest? You could start with the ordinary world, then, discuss the major conflict, how you dealt with the conflict, and finally, return to the ordinary world as a changed person.

Adventure or survival could start in the middle of the excitement or turmoil, then go backwards to the beginning to explain, then back to the present. Moving around in time helps to keep momentum and excitement.

Use your particular expertise, humour or passion to describe a place; this can portray everyday experiences in a completely new light for the reader.

Write as you talk

Writing as you talk is a good way to start, use the same words and expressions as you use in everyday speech. Imagine you are telling the story at a dinner party with friends. Your voice is animated, the tone fluctuates and you speed up on some parts and slow down at others, to create drama, or to focus on a detail – do the same with your written words.


Dialogue can help describe a person or situation, and can sum up people’s characters better than many paragraphs.

For example:

“Get over ‘ere you bloody kids”, Mum bellowed across the field.

We sprang to attention, knowing full well not to ignore her summons.

This gives the reader a visual picture of what type of character Mum was.

Show, not tell - Use your five senses to describe scenes and people

Write about the look, sound, smell, feel and taste of your experiences, to show, rather than tell, the scene for your readers. 

For example:

The acrid temple smoke burned my eyes, tears streamed uncontrollably down my face, wetting my sari and sticking it to my chest. I gagged at the taste of incense in my throat. I felt like spirituality was pushing into me, and my body was fighting to keep it out.

Another example:

Tell: I was afraid

Show: I shook with fear

Compare and contrast

Compare places, attitudes, language, or fashion, from what you experienced or had in the past, to your views now. Paint a picture with your words to show the differences from then to now.

For example:

Getting to school was one of the biggest challenges of my youth. Not only did I have to battle with my father, he would rather I stayed home to keep the house and prepare the food for the workers, but I had to battle the school and nature as well.

Discuss the battles. Compare how your children went to school or even your grandchildren.

Another example:

When I first started work at the factory in 1936, a man was killed or maimed every week, and this was normal for the industry. In 1942 rudimentary safety training was introduced, and a death once a month became normal. Now, if there is one death a full investigation is launched and production is stopped.

Discuss an incident as an example of how things are different now.

Zoom in and out

Just as movies zoom in and out of a scene to give perspective, or to show great detail, do the same with your words. Start with a big scene and work your way in, or vice versa.

For example:

The forest loomed, dark and unwelcoming before me. Each tree a sturdy mirror of its neighbour, limbs touching, their leaves entwined, as if holding hands to create an impenetrable wall.

Change angles/viewpoint

Describe people and scenes from different perspectives or viewpoints. This generates more specific details and emotion.

For example:

My father was a fair and respected businessman... I saw his secretary hunch down behind her workstation partition, her hands fussing over paperwork and eyes averted. Cringing like an often whipped dog.

Another example:

A bird’s eye view –

Farmland, in a patchwork quilt of straight lines and multiple colours, stretched in every direction.

Strong emotions – anger, forgiveness

Your life stories are very personal and could generate a lot of unexpected emotions. Do you feel you have unfinished business in your life? Here is a chance to right wrongs. Anger can be all consuming, perhaps writing about your anger can put many entangled emotions into perspective, and you can start to heal. Forgiveness, perhaps you have been stuck in past hurt and anger, after writing about the situation can you see it from different perspectives?

Adverbs – overused and redundant

It is a common mistake, when you are new to writing, to try and make your writing sound better by using a lot of adverbs.

For example:

the car zoomed around the track speedily.

‘zoomed’ and ‘speedily’ essentially mean the same thing, so to include the adverb speedily does not add anything to this sentence, and is redundant. 

Another example:

the stone sank quickly.

too obvious, of course a stone sinks quickly.

A better approach is to show, not tell, the scene:

the body sank quickly, like a stone.

Adjectives – ponderous and redundant

Too many adjectives can clutter up your writing, or even be redundant.

For example:

The dark and dreary room had an empty, suspicious feeling to it, the air hung stale and thick with undefined strange odours.

‘dark’ and ‘dreary’, ‘stale and thick’, ‘suspicious and strange’, these combinations all essentially mean the same thing, so to include both does not add anything to the sentence and are redundant. 

A better approach could be:

The dreary room felt empty, the air thick in my throat…

Vary sentence lengths

Vary sentence lengths to create more interesting paragraphs. Too many short sentences produce a choppy feeling, however, too many long sentences can confuse the reader. Mix it up.

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