Editing / Writing

Writing Workshop 5: Details

The first building block of writing style was VOICE. The second was CHARACTERS. The third was PLOT. The fourth was THEMES. The fifth is DETAILS.

They say the devil is in the details. Though it can be devilishly hard work to add in all these details, the results will be heavenly. Getting the details right can make the difference between a good book and a great one.

Every writer needs editors and test readers. EVERY. WRITER. However, that doesn’t mean you get to slack off. You’re responsible for doing a lot of editing on your own. Learn the rules of grammar, spelling , and punctuation—then master those rules. Triple-check your figures, quotes, and references. You have to search for mistakes in all these areas, plus many more. Here’s an editing cheat sheet to help get you started:

Create atmosphere with the setting. You’ll see this trick when a storm is brewing right before something ominous happens in the story. Hello, tension. Setting can also refer to the charm of a small town, the mystery of the woods, the fast-paced city life, etc. What mood do you want for your story?

Work all five senses into each scene.  This makes the story come alive and seem more real. Sight and hearing are the easiest to describe. Taste is the hardest one to incorporate (unless your character is eating in every scene). But maybe your character is biting her tongue, or her mouth is dry from nerves. Don’t forget about using touch to ground the reader, plus smell—often associated with strong memories.

Make your punctuation pack a punch. Don’t limit yourself to commas and periods. Use ellipses to convey a pause or hesitation. Use dashes to show abrupt change or instant action. Mix things up with the occasional semicolon. These things are great in moderation but will lose their impact with over usage.

Make your words even stronger.  You’ve no doubt heard about limiting your use of adverbs. This is because relying on adverbs makes us lazy. We need to find stronger verbs that reduce the need of adverbs. Even using too many adjectives can be bad. Paint a vivid picture with a few powerful words. Limit passive voice until it’s nearly extinct, making it easier to pack your sentences with action. Beware of “purple prose”—flowery descriptions that are too wordy and too unrealistic for characters to think or say. On that note . . .

Develop characters with dialogue and metaphors. If you know your character well, you’ll know what he or she will say. And whenever possible, use metaphors tailored for your character. Like if she’s a sports fanatic, she’ll compare bad luck to a strikeout, or good luck to a shot at the buzzer. Always ask yourself, “Would my character say this? Is the language appropriate for her age and personality?”

Delete repetitive words. Most writers tend to overuse certain words. If you’re not aware of what words you’re overusing, copy and paste your manuscript into Wordle, which will produce a word cloud for you. The more often you used a word, the larger it will appear in the cloud. Once you’ve identified the overused words, search for them in your manuscript. Utilize a thesaurus to find better words. And beware overusing character names. In real-life dialogue, we use each other’s names sparingly.

Delete anything unnecessary. Every word should be required. Don’t say “stand up” when “stand” is sufficient. Don’t say, “I am going to run to her house.” Say, “I’ll run to her house.” Don’t use two similar sentences when one strong sentence will have more impact. Ask yourself if every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene is necessary for the sake of understanding the story.

Spice up your openers and closers. This entices readers to keep turning pages. Start each scene or chapter with an interesting hook—a few minutes into the scene, not a few minutes before the action starts. And whenever possible, end a scene or chapter with tension. Don’t tie up every chapter with a nice neat bow, because that will tempt the reader to put the book down.

Check your story with eyes and ears. Yes, you’re mainly editing with your eyes to find mistakes, and you want to make sure the words look good on the page—enough white space and a variety of structure in sentences and paragraphs. But you should also edit with your ears. Read the story aloud, or better yet, get someone to read it to you (even if that someone is a robotic voice on your computer). You’ll be amazed at how often something doesn’t sound right. Then you can choose words with a better flow.


That’s all for this week, but check back next week for one last writing workshop!!


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