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Finishing Touches by Sophie Duffy

So you’ve written your piece to enter the Hysteria Writing Competition 2016? If you haven’t, you’ve still got three weeks in which to do this. You still have time to start and complete a piece, if you crack on with it. If you’ve already finished your poem, flash, or story, then it won’t do any harm to go back over it and check those finishing touches.

Here are some thoughts to bear in mind when writing, redrafting, and editing.

1. The title. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good title. It needs to be intriguing, It needs to invite the in. It needs to add something to the overall piece so that when we the reader reaches the end, they think, ah, yes. Write several titles and choose the one that does the most.

2. A great first line. This needs to do all of the above. You might well write this first line towards the end of the writing process when you know exactly what you have.

3. Get rid of unnecessary words. Every writer has those words that slip onto the page and you need to cut them as they take us space (which you don’t have), slow the pace, and can be annoying. These are my common ones – ‘just’, ‘seems’, ‘all’, ‘like’. We all have them. What are yours?

4. Get rid of unintended repetition of words, phrases, or thoughts. Sometimes repetition is a narrative or poetic device, when it’s intended, with a job to do. When it’s unintended, it slows the pace, just like those unnecessary words above. But it’s not just words; check that you haven’t repeated ideas or thoughts. You don’t have to hammer home a point.

5. Check for clichés or overused phrases (see above). Not just the obvious ones. Sometimes phrases creep in that we don’t even know are overused. For example, two that slip into all sorts of writing are ‘clothes in a crumpled heap’ and ‘bag slung over the shoulder’.

6. Language. Can you change a word to make it stronger? Use a powerful, unusual verb instead of an adverb ? Are you specific in your detail? Don’t rely on lots of adjectives, but use carefully chosen ones. Instead of a ‘big, black bird’, say ‘crow’, for instance.

7. Don’t over-write or use flowery description. A few well-chosen details can show the reader a whole lot more. In ‘On Writing’, Stephen King quotes Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch when he says ‘murder those darlings’. That phrase you love but that doesn’t quite sit right, kill it.

8. Don’t slide over the stuff that niggles. There is a reason it niggles – so deal with it.

9. Read the piece out loud. Do you stumble, or find yourself changing the word order etc.? There’s probably a reason for this too. Make your changes. Then ask someone to read it out loud to you. How do you feel?

10. Fit the story to the word length. If you are writing flash, make sure it’s more than a character sketch or anecdote. It must contain the elements of a story but the reader will have to work a bit, to fill what is not said. (Theme and subtext are important here.) If there’s too much and you can’t condense it to its minimum, maybe it’s actually more suited to a short story. Or could it surprise you and be a poem?

11. Don’t leave the ending too open or inconclusive. The reader shouldn’t be confused but they can be left with stuff to think about. Don’t go beyond the natural end. Can you cut the last line or paragraph and still make the piece work? Does it work better?

12. Don’t end suddenly and leave us disappointed.

13. Don’t forget the ‘inevitable surprise’.

14. Check your presentation. (Typos, spellings, muddled word order etc.)

15. Check your layout. Are your paragraphs and stanzas doing their job? Have you thought about the white space? How does it look on the printed page?

‘Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.’ Stephen King.

16. Check the rules and make sure you’ve followed them to the letter.

17. Send your entries in good time if you can.

And a final quote from himself.

‘What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.’ Stephen King, ‘On Writing’, p. 255

Good luck (and do remember if you don’t succeed this time, redraft and resend to one of the many wonderful competitions out there). Most of all, keep writing.

Sophie Duffy is this year’s Hysteria Writer in Residence. You can find out more about her in the interview she did with us in April.

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