How to Write With Confidence Using Active Voice

For a long time, I had a bad habit. I was an unconfident writer. In this series of articles, I’ll show you how you can avoid my mistakes and write with confidence.

Writing with confidence isn’t just about trusting your skill as a writer – it’s more than that. It’s about writing in a way that’s clear and honest, rather than distant and ambiguous. It’s about projecting confidence in the way you write, and sharing that confidence with your readers.

We can inject confidence into our writing by focusing on three qualities:

  1. Assertiveness
  2. Authenticity
  3. Active voice

We’ve already discussed how avoiding subjective phrases like ‘I think’ can make our writing more persuasive, and the importance of writing how we talk. Today, we’re going to take a quick look at grammar. In particular, we’re going to talk about something called ‘active voice’.

Active Voice

Most sentences can we written in two ways: active voice and passive voice.

In active voice the thing doing the action (the agent) comes first:

  • Sarah sends the email
  • Jo gave me a promotion
  • I agree with you

In passive voice the thing that receives the action comes first. The agent might appear later, usually with a ‘by’ before it. Sometimes, the agent won’t appear at all:

  • The email was sent by Sarah
  • I was promoted
  • Our strategy will be approved by the board

Active voice is more direct and easier to understand. More importantly, active voice assigns clear responsibility for the action that’s being done.

Active Voice in Business

Imagine the following statement in a group email:

Our customers need to be informed about the delay.

This is passive voice. The sentence seems perfectly clear, but it hides an important flaw.

Because there is no agent, it doesn’t explicitly state who needs to inform the customers. In effect, it shifts responsibility to the reader to decide who should be doing the informing.

Don’t be surprised when, at the next review meeting, nobody has spoken to the customers.

Active voice forces you to provide the subject:

The comms team needs to inform our customers about the delay.

It’s still possible to have a vague agent with active voice (for example ‘someone’), but it’ll be much more obvious to you when you do it. Then you can fix the problem before you press send.

There are times when passive voice can be useful. If the agent is unknown or you want to focus specifically on the person or thing being acted upon, passive voice does this well. For example:

Our new warehouse was opened last month.

Here, the fact that ‘we’ opened the warehouse is more or less irrelevant, and putting the important information first makes the sentence clearer.

Keep passive voice in your toolbox for when you need it. Most of the time though, active voice will give you more authority and less ambiguity. Combine it with an assertive, authentic writing style, and you’ll create confident writing that people will stop to read. And reading means results.

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Coronavirus – When Clear Instructions Save Lives

As the coronavirus crisis escalates, informing and instructing the public is critical to managing the situation effectively.

While governments are getting better at communicating on this front as their grasp of the situation improves, not all official instructions have been effective.

This is a good demonstration of the importance of clear instructions, particularly when it comes to public safety.

Providing clear instructions

Instructions are only effective if they are understood correctly. When you want people to do something, use clear language.

Over the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen people told to self-isolate or practice social distancing. For example, take a look at this graphic from the Sun:

Terms like ‘self-isolation’ and ‘social distancing’ are useful for describing sets of helpful behaviours. However, they’re not very useful as instructions. This is because they are:

  • Unfamiliar – people don’t already understand them
  • Broad – they cover a range of behaviours and not everyone will define them in the same way
  • Abstract – they rely on people understanding a concept and then applying it

Compare this to the following instructions from the NHS and government:

In contrast, these instructions are:

  • Familiar – they only use words that everyone understands
  • Specific – they tell you exactly what they want you to do and why*
  • Concrete – the instructions are literal and require very little interpretation

* Although they could have made the first example even more specific by swapping ‘high temperature’ for something measurable like ‘a temperature of 38 degrees or above’.

A similar thing can be said about giving instructions that feel optional. While the statements on Boris Johnson’s twitter account are generally pitched about right, take a look at this one:

Phrases like ‘as far as possible’ and ‘we want you to’ make their recommendation (to stay at home) feel much less important than if they had just said ‘stay at home except for essential trips’.

Hopefully you’ll never have to organise the response to a pandemic, but even so there are valuable lessons here:

  1. Give simple, concrete instructions in language that is familiar to your audience.
  2. Don’t phrase important instructions in a way that makes them feel optional.

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How to Write With Confidence by Being Authentic

For a long time, I had a bad habit. I was an unconfident writer. In this series of articles, I’ll show you how you can avoid my mistakes and write with confidence.

Writing with confidence isn’t just about trusting your skill as a writer – it’s more than that. It’s about writing in a way that’s clear and honest, rather than distant and ambiguous. It’s about projecting confidence in the way you write, and sharing that confidence with your readers.

We can inject confidence into our writing by focusing on three qualities:

  1. Assertiveness
  2. Authenticity
  3. Active voice

In my last article we talked about being assertive, and avoiding phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’.

This time, let’s look at the core of confident writing – authenticity.

Business Bullshit

Ask anyone what they hate most about business writing, and you’ll hear the same answer over and over again: business bullshit.

To be clear, every industry has jargon and most of it is genuinely helpful and descriptive when used appropriately, even if in practice it is often used too much. This is not what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about a specific type of business bullshit: the type that relies on jargon and fancy-sounding language to make it look like you’re saying something meaningful, while actually making it harder for the reader to understand.

In some cases, business bullshit is used to hide the fact that there’s not much being said. In others, it unintentionally drowns valuable information in a sea of well-meaning but largely meaningless nonsense.

Consider the following sentence. This is far from one of the worst offenders, but it’s a very typical example that’s loosely based on a real document I’ve worked on:

Our project management system will be refreshed based on joined-up principles to provide a connected view of projects and deliverables.

This sentence sounds like it’s saying something. It includes businesslike words such as ‘refreshed’, ‘principles’, and ‘connected’, but the actual thing being proposed is very vague. Even if the underlying message is genuine (as I’m sure in this case it was), the language positively encourages readers to skim over it and move on.

Assuming the writer really does understand what they’re talking about, how could they communicate that more effectively?

Being Authentic

Part of the reason business bullshit is so widespread is that, culturally, we’ve created an idea of what it means to sound professional. Just as we write essays differently to how we write WhatsApp messages, we write our business content according to a set of unwritten rules.

This is why, even though we might all complain about business bullshit, most of us are also guilty of using it in our own writing.

Many of these rules are counterproductive. It’s time to stop following them.

Instead, I want you to think carefully about what you want to say, and then imagine how you’d explain it so someone in person. Taking the example sentence from above, we might explain it something like this:

We’re going to update our project management system to capture more information about how different projects and deliverables interact with each other. This will help us track key dependencies and identify potential problems earlier.

Take a sentence you’ve written and try rewriting it the way you speak in your own head, free from the unwritten rules of business writing. Imagine someone listening to you say it, and think about whether you’ve explained it well.

Pay attention to the words you choose. Most of us think and talk in far plainer language than we write. Does it really help to say ‘utilise’ rather than ‘use’, for example?

You’ll find that not only will this make your writing clearer, it’ll also make it more honest and authentic. Readers will be more likely to pay attention to the things you write, and you’ll develop a reputation for delivering substance rather than noise.

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How to Write With Confidence by Being Assertive

For a long time, I had a bad habit. I was an unconfident writer. In this series of articles, I’ll show you how you can avoid my mistakes and write with confidence.

Writing with confidence isn’t just about trusting your skill as a writer – it’s more than that. It’s about writing in a way that’s clear and honest, rather than distant and ambiguous. It’s about projecting confidence in the way you write, and sharing that confidence with your readers.

We can inject confidence into our writing by focusing on three qualities:

  1. Assertiveness
  2. Authenticity
  3. Active voice

Let’s start by looking at how we can make our writing more assertive.

Being Assertive

What’s the difference between saying ‘this is a bad idea’ and saying ‘I think this is a bad idea’?

On the surface, they’re very similar. They’re both stating the same view. In both cases, it’s clear that it’s the writer who has this opinion.

The difference is that saying ‘I think’, ‘I believe’, or ‘I feel’ draws attention the idea that this is an opinion. It makes the statement less persuasive, and encourages the reader to disagree with it if they want to.

On top of that, phrases like ‘I think’ moves the focus away from the subject (‘this’ in the example above) and to the writer who’s thinking it. It’s like taking a step back.

This can feel more comfortable, particularly if you think some readers might actually disagree with you. But it’s also counterproductive – readers who disagree with you are exactly the people you’re trying to persuade.

Compare the following examples:

  • I think the project is getting off track.
  • The project is getting off track.
  • I believe our results show that the strategy is working.
  • Our results show that the strategy is working.
  • I feel like you’re not taking this seriously
  • You’re not taking this seriously.

Can you feel the difference?

These phrases aren’t always bad – there are times when you might genuinely want to frame something as your own opinion. However, they have a habit of showing up where they aren’t helpful. Be wary.

The same is true of words like ‘maybe’, ‘possibly’, or ‘potentially’. Use them when you mean them, but don’t say ‘maybe we need to change our approach’ if you actually mean ‘we need to change our approach’.

Keep an eye out for these phrases in your own writing. If you find them (and you will), ask yourself whether they’re helping you or whether your writing might be more persuasive and more effective without them.

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Are Native Speakers Really Worse at English?

As Brits, we’re used to meeting non-native English speakers who speak our language incredibly well. We might even joke that their English is better than our own. But it’s just a joke, right?

According to this article from BBC Worklife, the joke is on us. When it comes to speaking English in an international environment, we might actually be the worst.

English speakers with no other language often lack awareness of how to speak English internationally.

Wounded national pride aside, there’s a useful lesson here that can be applied to our writing.

There are two major differences between native and non-native speakers:

1. Non-native speakers have a more limited vocabulary.

In particular, they’re likely to rely on more common words and simpler sentences, with fewer idioms.

2. Non-native speakers have to think more carefully about their words.

When you’re speaking a second language, being understood isn’t taken for granted. For a non-native speaker, consciously making sure that your audience understands you is a core part of using the language.

By using simple language and pitching it at a level appropriate to their audience, non-native speakers are already using two of the fundamental skills involved in writing clear, plain English.

These skills don’t just apply to international contexts. In today’s world of overflowing inboxes and skim-reading, making your writing as simple to understand as possible is always valuable.

So next time you write an email, particularly if you’ve got international colleagues, take a moment to think like a non-native. And maybe we’ll be able to laugh along after all.

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How to Edit Your Own Writing

Editing your own writing effectively is really, really hard. That’s why professional editors exist, and why writers and publishers pay significant money for their services.

However, let’s assume you need to edit something yourself. How should you start?

Why is editing your own writing so hard?

To solve this problem, we need to first understand why editing your own writing is so difficult.

It’s difficult because you know what you intended to say. Instead of seeing what’s actually on the page, your brain will fill in the blanks and see what’s supposed to be there.

That’s why having someone else read your writing is so useful. They don’t see what’s in your head – they only see what’s on the page. Even if they’re not a trained editor, they’ll notice problems that are invisible to you.

How can you make editing your own writing easier?

To edit your own writing effectively, you need to stop your brain filling in those blanks.

That can mean using tools to help you see what’s really on the page, or simply looking at the text in an unfamiliar way.

In my experience, some of the best ways of doing this are:

1. Read it out loud

This naturally slows down your reading, which can make it easier to spot errors. It’s also useful for detecting awkward phrasing – if you find yourself stumbling over a sentence or wanting to say it differently to how it appears on the page, that’s a strong sign that it could be written better.

2. Use a text-to-speech program

Copy and paste your text into an online text-to-speech program such as TTS Reader. This is a fantastic way to pick up on misspellings and missing or duplicate words. Your eyes can skim over these sorts of mistakes, but your ears won’t.

3. Read it backwards

Don’t literally read backwards – that would be confusing! Start by reading the final sentence, by itself. Next, read the previous sentence, and so on until you reach the beginning. By reading each sentence without the surrounding context, you can discourage your brain from filling in the gaps. This is particularly good for noticing sentences with odd or broken grammar. For longer texts, you can do this one paragraph at a time if that feels easier.

4. Use online editing tools

There are a variety of online tools that can help you identify problems with your text. These range from grammar and spelling checkers such as Grammarly to apps like Hemmingway, which is designed to help you improve your writing style. Like any automatic check, these tools aren’t perfect. However, they can be a great additional step in your editing process.

5. Leave it for a while

Sometimes, the best way to see a text clearly is to move on to something else and come back to it in a few weeks. You’ll be amazed by how much difference this can make. Mistakes that slipped through multiple rewrites will suddenly jump out, and wording that seemed fine before will read as awkward or confused.

So that’s it? Problem solved?

Well, no. Not exactly.

None of these methods deal with the core problem of you being too close to your own writing to edit it effectively. However, they do make things a little easier.

Ultimately, it’s still a really good idea to have someone else read your text, even if that’s just your husband, neighbour, or pet cat. There’s no substitute for a second pair of eyes.

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4 Reasons to Write Less

When we were taught to write in school, more was better. Our goal was to demonstrate everything we’d learned (or at least, read on SparkNotes) and the best way to do that was to write long, detailed essays that included plenty of advanced words.

It’s time we learned to write less.

It’s never easy to break a habit, but if you’re going to be an effective business writer, it needs to be done. You’re no longer writing to show off what you know. Now, you’re writing to inform, to persuade, or to drive action. That’s an entirely different skill.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are four compelling reasons to write less:

1. Attention spans are short

Your readers are busy. The longer and more complex your writing is, the less likely they are to give it their full attention, or even to read it at all. It’s far better to have a few paragraphs that are read and understood than a few pages sitting unread in someone’s inbox.

2. It forces you to focus on what’s important

It’s always tempting to include more detail. After all, why risk leaving out something that might be relevant? Unfortunately, this means your most important content often gets lost among the clutter. Writing less forces you to focus on what you really want to say, resulting in a clearer, more persuasive message.

3. It gives your writing weight

Talk too much, and you might find people stop paying attention. It’s no different with writing. We’re judged by our readers on the average quality of what we write, not on the best bits. If you can write short, clear content that gets straight to the point, you’ll get a reputation as someone who’s worth paying attention to.

4. Your readers will thank you

Remember the golden rule: put your reader first. Nobody likes to feel as if their time is being wasted, and nobody likes hunting through a wall of text to find what they’re looking for. Put in the effort to focus your writing on what your readers need to know, and they’ll return the favour by giving you their time and listening to what you have to say.

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The Golden Rule of Business Writing

If I could get every business writer to follow one rule, it would be this:

Put your reader first

The fundamental goal of business writing is to transfer a message. That message might be “this is why you should buy our product” or it might be “this is what our team achieved this quarter”. It might aim to drive action or simply to inform. Either way, your goal as a writer is to get that message from your head to the reader’s.

To achieve that goal, you rely on your reader doing two things:

  1. They have to read what you’ve written. Attention spans are short. If your writing is too long, too boring, or too difficult, your reader will simply skim it or skip it.
  2. They have to understand it. If your reader is confused or takes away a different message to the one you wanted to give them, your writing has failed to do its job.

So how can you increase your odds? Follow the golden rule. Put your reader first.

When you use a technical phrase, ask yourself whether it will help or hinder your reader. Before you add information, consider how useful it will be to your reader versus how long or complicated your content already is. Try to view everything you write from the reader’s perspective.

To do that effectively, you’ll need to consider who your audience is. What is their level of technical knowledge? How interested are they in what you’re telling them? Have they asked for the information, or are you competing against every other email or report that’s asking for their time? Ask yourself these questions and then pitch your writing appropriately.

Finally, edit your writing with the reader in mind. Be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to ask someone for a second pair of eyes. Cut anything that isn’t useful to the reader. Revise anything that’s unclear. It doesn’t matter how much you like something – it’s the reader that matters.

If you can create writing that’s consistently read and understood by your readers, you will be far more likely to achieve your goals. What’s more, you will develop a reputation as someone whose emails or reports are useful and worth reading. Put your reader first, and they will return the favour.

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What Type of Editing Do You Need?

So you’re looking for an editor. You know roughly what you want, but every editor you look at seems to offer a whole catalogue of different editing services: copy-editing, line editing, structural editing, and more. Some editors even seem to use different names for the same thing. How can you make sure you’re buying the right one?

The dilemma you’re facing is a common one, but don’t be put off – I’m here to help! To begin with, it’s useful to understand a bit about how editing fits into the traditional publishing process.

The publishing process

Under traditional publishing, a book isn’t edited all at once.  There’s usually quite a lot of back and forth, with the editor making suggestions and the book returning to the author so they can implement them.

To avoid wasted effort, this editing process is broken into stages. We start by looking at ‘big-picture’ things like plot and characters. These are the areas where, if we decided to change something, it would have the greatest number of knock-on effects.

Next we look at slightly lower-level changes such as individual scenes, before moving on to language and grammar. Once everything else is complete, we finish off with a proofread to eliminate any remaining errors.

The reason we do it this way, rather than just tackling everything at once, is simple. If we spent time polishing the language in a chapter only to later decide that chapter needed to be rewritten, that time (and your money that paid for it) would be wasted.

To help publishers and editors work together, we’ve developed terms for these different stages of editing. The boundaries between them can be blurry and may vary from editor to editor, but this should give you a broad understanding of what each term means:

Types of editing

Manuscript assessment

Also known as a manuscript critique or editorial letter, this is a high-level assessment of your book’s condition – where it’s strong and where it needs a little more love.

A manuscript assessment is not designed to solve problems for you, so much as to show you where they are and help you understand how to fix them yourself. It tends to be one of the cheaper forms of editing and is great for gauging whether your text is ready for the next step.

Unlike with the other services in this list, an editor performing a manuscript assessment probably won’t make changes or insert comments directly into your text (known as ‘marking up’). Instead, they’ll usually provide a short report containing their feedback and suggestions.

Developmental editing

This is a broad category that goes by many names, including structural editing, heavy editing, substantive editing, and book doctoring.

Developmental editors help you solve the kind of big-picture issues that a manuscript assessment might flag up – things like structure and pacing.

A developmental edit can be very wide or very specific. It could be a quick pass through to make sure your chapters flow together properly, or longer-term help turning a difficult work-in-progress into a finished product.

Developmental editing is the most intensive kind of editing available, and so tends to be the most expensive. When hiring a developmental editor, it’s very important to be clear about the kind of help you’re looking for and anything in particular you’d like them to focus on.

Line editing

A line edit or stylistic edit gets down into the language. Line editing polishes things like clarity, flow, and word choice to make sure you’re communicating your story as effectively as possible, while preserving your unique voice.

Line editing will probably be the first time that your editor makes changes to your text directly, rather than simply providing comments or suggestions. Don’t worry though – you always get the final say over whether or not a particular change makes it through.

Unlike copy-editing below, line editing is still primarily about improving and polishing the text, rather than correcting mistakes. Because they operate on a similar level, many editors offer line editing and copy-editing as a single package.


Copy-editing is an editor’s bread and butter. Unlike line editing, copy-editing aims to correct technical errors rather than improve style. A copy-edit will iron out any mistakes in grammar, spelling, and syntax, while also checking the text for inconsistencies.

While copy-editing a longer text, your editor will might also crease a ‘style sheet’. This is a handy reference for any stylistic decisions such as preferred spellings and formatting. In some cases, fiction editors might expand this style sheet to include character and timeline information too.

Your copy-editor will make their changes directly on your manuscript, but as always, you’ll get the final say. As I mentioned above, copy-editing is often offered together with line editing and the distinction between the two can sometimes be blurry.


Proofreading is similar to copy-editing, except that it’s more limited in scope and happens later in the process. Errors have a way of slipping through even after multiple rounds of editing, or simply being introduced while you’re implementing the last round of changes. Proofreading aims to catch those errors before your book is published.

Proofreading is done after the book has already been copy-edited and all changes have been implemented. A proofreader will check broadly the same things as a copy-editor, except that they’ll only make corrections where it’s absolutely necessary – any larger changes at this stage could potentially introduce further errors.

Just like how writers can get so close to their work that errors begin to slip through unnoticed, an editor who’s already carried out multiple passes is more likely to miss things during a proofread. For that reason, it’s a good idea to hire a proofreader who isn’t your normal editor.

Choosing the right editing service

If you’re publishing a book trough a traditional publishing house, everything other than a manuscript assessment and developmental editing will be organised for you by your agent and publisher after you’ve signed a deal. Whether you want to arrange either of those two services is entirely up to you, and will probably depend on your experience and confidence as an author. While developmental editing can be quite expensive, manuscript assessments tend to be relatively cheap and can be a good way to test whether your book is ready before you send it out.

As an independent (self-publishing) author, you’ll need to decide for yourself which services are most worth your money. Independent authors aren’t likely to have the same budget as a publishing house, so you’ll probably need to be more selective when it comes to the editorial input that you look for.

My personal view is that if you can only afford one round of editing, a copy-edit is the one to go for – it’ll help eradicate those pesky errors and inconsistencies that could otherwise leave your book feeling unprofessional. If your budget reaches further, go for a manuscript assessment first – it’s a cost-effective way of getting high-level feedback, and will help you direct your own efforts before you move on to the copy-edit.

Ultimately, the point of all of these different terms is to make sure you and your editor are on the same page, and can both be confident that the service they’re delivering is the right one for you. If it all feels a bit much, or if you’re simply not sure which type of editing your text needs – just ask!

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How to Create Tension with Goals, Conflict & Stakes

So you’ve been working on your novel. You’ve got a cast of fascinating characters, kick-ass world building and plenty of action, but your plot still feels a little flat.

If that sounds familiar, you probably need to build more tension.

What is tension and why is it important?

New authors often assume that the difference between a boring scene and an interesting one is what happens in it. A fight scene is interesting for example, while a travelling scene is not.

However, that’s not really true. Tales of epic battles can still feel dull – just ask anyone who didn’t enjoy history class – while a simple phone call has the potential to be nail-biting. What really matters is tension.

Tension is the difference between driving to work and being stuck in traffic on the way to the most important meeting of your life. It’s the difference between watching a movie and going on your first date. One is a non-event – we have no reason to care about it. It doesn’t really matter. The other is engaging – it’s uncertain, it’s got weight, and we want to know what happens next.

In short, tension is what keeps your readers reading. In today’s post, we’re going to talk about how to create it.

To get started, we need to understand tension’s three key ingredients: goals, conflict, and stakes.

Goals – what does your hero want?

Every character should want something, and this goes double for your hero. Their goal doesn’t have to be big – it could be to save the world, to find love, or simply to get through the day without anything going wrong. It can also change as the story goes on – the protagonist in a thriller might start out trying to locate a missing person and end up fighting to topple a global conspiracy.

Figuring our your hero’s goal has plenty of advantages. For a start, it’ll help you keep their choices consistent and believable. It also encourages proactivity, which is invaluable – a character who acts is usually far more interesting than one who simply goes where they’re pushed.

For our purposes though, having that goal is also the first step towards creating tension.

A goal is something we can root for. We want the sports team to win or the bad guys to be vanquished, and when our heroes finally succeed – or when they don’t – we get to share a little piece of that experience.

Of course, your protagonist isn’t the only one with goals. What does their sidekick want? Is it the same thing as the hero, or something slightly different? What does the antagonist want?

When two characters have opposing goals, that’s a great way to create… Conflict!

Conflict – why can’t they have it?

Having a goal is a good start, but if it’s too easy it won’t keep anyone hooked. If the bad guys give up without a fight or the romantic couple live happily ever after from page one, you won’t have much of a story. If the only reason the goal hasn’t been achieved yet is that your protagonist has been arbitrarily doing other things to pad out your book, your readers are probably going to be left pulling their hair out.

We need to put something between our hero and their goal. It doesn’t have to be world-ending, but it needs to be big enough for their success to be uncertain – enough to make us doubt, or at the very least wonder ‘how will they do it?’.

This is what keeps us reading. We want to know if the hero will succeed. We want to find out how it ends.

Most good stories will be packed with conflicts of all shapes and sizes. There’ll be a huge, overarching conflict that forms the backbone of the plot, and there’ll be smaller, temporary conflicts that must be overcome along the way. These conflicts might be external – between two characters or due to events beyond the hero’s control. Or, they could be internal – a flaw or character trait that must be overcome in order for them to succeed.

With a good conflict in place, we’re most of the way there. We just need one more thing.

Stakes – why does it matter?

We know what our hero wants, and we know what’s stopping them. The only question that remains is… So what?

Say our hero is a detective on the trail of a wanted man. If she fails, what are the consequences? The fugitive gets away? Our hero doesn’t get paid? How interested are you in that story?

What if the fugitive is a murderer, and will kill again if our hero doesn’t stop them. Better? What if our detective is the next name on their list?

Stakes force our hero to do something – they can’t afford to fail. They have to act, fight, and choose. They have to succeed, or else. The higher the stakes, and the more personal they are to our hero, the greater the tension.

Having said that, not all stakes are appropriate for every story. Thrillers and horror stories practically require our hero to be in mortal danger. A cosy detective novel, less so. A love story where the fate of humanity is at stake might be really tense, but would it still feel like a love story? Probably not. Choose stakes that set the right tone for your novel; just make sure that – to your hero – they matter.

Managing tension

Tension is vital, but more tension isn’t always better. Some stories thrive off it, while others work better when it’s subtle, lurking in the background.

One rule is constant. As your story progresses, tension can only go one way – up.

That’s not to say tension shouldn’t ebb and flow along the way, giving your readers a moment to reflect before pulling them back in – it should. However, broadly speaking the tension must get greater as the book progresses towards its climax. If the most nail-biting moments in your story all happen in act one, the rest is going to feel flat and disappointing by comparison.

Most importantly, there should always be tension. Even during a moment of relaxation between major plot points, there has to be something that remains unresolved, to tug us forward onto the next page. As the story goes on, keep adding new conflicts and increasing the stakes. When your protagonist overcomes one obstacle, reveal a greater one in its place. When your heroes feel safe, raise the stakes. Think about the stories you enjoy, and look at how they do exactly that.

And next time your story starts to drag, ask yourself – what are the goals, the conflicts, and the stakes? Find those, and you’re on the right path.

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