Da Guidelinez

Here are nine writing checks you should really do prior to giving your magnus opus to your critique group, your editor, or your readers.

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  1. Tighten, Tighten, Tighten
  2. Use Five Senses, Plus Two
  3. Unclear Grammar Confuses Reader
  4. Reveal Something
  5. Don’t Lose the Reader
  6. Avoid Unnecessary Dialogue Tags
  7. Check Your Word Uses
  8. Don’t Filter Emotions
  9. Scrutinize
  10. (reserved for the future)

1. Tighten, Tighten, Tighten

If real estate can be boiled down to three words: location, location, location, then writing can too: tighten, tighten, tighten. With tightening, look for plot or character tension on each page (see Maass’ “Writing the Breakout Novel“). Avoid unnecessary details and wordiness. Remember the rule of three–most people only remember up to three things in a list. Watch for redundancy. Ensure your dialogue moves the story forward. And try Self-Editing for Fiction Writing to make sure you catch all your editing problems. Go to top of page.

2. Use the Five Senses, Plus Two

Fill out your the scenes. Richness of the scene is managed by what your POV character sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches. Plus, don’t forget to pepper lightly your senses with intuition (experience based) and premonition (the anticipation of an event without conscious reason). Jessica Page Morrell’s book “Between the Lines” highlights the five senses succinctly. Go to top of page.

3. Unclear Grammar Confuses Readers

Learn your grammar, practice, and improve before breaking convention. Spell checkers help, but they are only the first step to the editing process. Keep the holy trinity of reference books nearby–dictionary, thesaurus, and “Chicago Manual of Style“–and use them. “The Elements of Style” is a classic useful for tightening your writing. Then there are other entertaining grammar books like “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” that can help clarify the messy and ever evolving English language. Go to top of page.

4. Reveal Something

Move it forward in each sentence. Reveal through character development (D), background information (B), foreshadowing (F), tension (T), conflict (C), surprise (S), or resolution (R). Take a page of your story. Mark it up using these identifiers. If your page isn’t marked up like a kid with chicken pox, it’s probably not moving the story forward. Whether genre or literary fiction, you don’t want the story to lie there on the page like a three-week-old flounder stinking things up. Go to top of page.

5. Don’t Lose the Reader

Avoid unattributed pronouns at the start of a scene or chapter unless it is a story device. Do the who, what, where, when, and why check at the beginning of transitions so the reader isn’t lost. This doesn’t mean the five W’s must be there, but don’t assume anything about the reader’s retention rate. And don’t forget to set the scene goal. The novel may have put down for days or weeks. When a reader picks it up, some or all of the five W’s can pull them back into the story. Go to top of page.

6. Avoid Unnecessary Dialogue Tags

Search your story for said, asked, and thought. Reduce the use of said and asked, especially during action sequences. Once the action is set up, strong characterization should key speaker identification. This keeps the action flowing. Instead of “thought”, show some physical action occurring during the thought by the person doing the thinking. When not using “said”, make sure your tags are appropriate. Use speaking verbs (whispered, shouted, exclaimed, etc.) and not actions (laugh, smile, giggle). Go to top of page.

7. Check Your Word Choices

This August, 2002 “Writer’s Digest” article, “The Marshall Plan”, and I advice you to check your word choices. Search for and replace, if necessary, the following:
* Redundancies like: armed gunman, personal friend, plan ahead, and totally destroyed.
* Unnecessary uses of “of”.
* Sentences that start: “It is”, “There are”, “There is”, or “It was”, and their contractions.
* Phrases: “which is”, “who are”, and “who is”, and their contractions.
* Vague modifiers: a lot, essentially, fairly, kind of, quite, perhaps, rather, seemingly, so much, some, somehow, somewhat, and such.
* Empty modifiers: genuinely, really, truly, and very.
* The unspecific verb “went”.
* Vague adjectives: amazing, appealing, compelling, and interesting.
* Empty words: actual, actually, basic, essential, extremely, totally, and worthwhile.
* Weak words: anyway, arrive, as, attach, began, had, just, just a bit, look, off of, that, turn, and well.
* “ly” words: adverbs that are not pulling their weight and could be replaced by stronger verbs and nouns within the sentence.
It’s not that any of these words or phrases can’t be used, but they should be used when appropriate and not over used, that is, unless there is a specific and necessary story construction for them. Go to top of page.

8. Don’t Filter Emotions

One big reason I believe Stephen King’s writing works is that he’s not content to write, “Bobby felt afraid.” No. He and other great writers aren’t timid about tunneling down into emotions. Feel and felt filter emotion. Search for those two words and see if they can be replaced with words, actions, or dialogue that show the true emotion. Go to top of page.

9. Scrutinize

Scrutinize every use of “was” for passivity and weakness. Using “was” doesn’t mean you are writing a passive sentence. However, it is the number one quick clue that you may be. Contrary to many “rules,” passive sentences are not evil. In the right moment, genre, or scene, a passive sentence may be the perfect choice. Using “was” is easy. It may also create weak sentences even if they are not passive. Look it over. Is there a stronger way to write that sentence? Is there a stronger and more vibrant verb? Go to top of page.

10. (someday I’ll think of something else good)

Go to top of page.

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