Make Your Words Work

by Michelle Prima




In this competitive market of book publishing, it is getting more and more difficult for new authors to break into the scene.  Editors are more critical of every manuscript that crosses their desk.  Agents are inundated with piles of submissions from hopeful authors.  So how can you make sure your manuscript will be one that's read?

We've all heard--write the best story you can.  And we've all done it.  But even the best stories, unless written well, will not be picked up.  So how can you help increase the odds that your manuscript will be one of those read by the editor? 

Make every word count. 

Long gone are the days when people had time to read long, narrative, descriptive historical novels.  Rather, readers are looking for a quick read, but also a quality read.  Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen are gone by the wayside in favor of faster-paced novels.  They want to read a good story, and quickly. 

So how can you make your words work for you to create a quick and easy read?  Here are some pointers.

  • Avoid redundancy--Don't use descriptive phrases when the word itself does the describing.  For example, a "enormous giant" of a man, or a sky blue "in color."  Can a giant be anything but enormous?  Can a sky be anything in blue but color?  Is a bicycle anything but two-wheeled? 

  • Avoid wasted words--Don't use extra words that serve no purpose or slow down your writing. Can you say the same four or five-word phrase in just one carefully chosen word?  For example, doesn't "if" mean the same thing as "in the event of"?  And how about "for a month" instead of "for a period of a month"?  Also be careful of using modifiers.  If you use the word "unique", can it be "very unique?"  Isn't uniqueness implied by the very definition of the word?

  • Avoid weak words--Rather than using a longer phrase of modifiers with a verb or noun, choose a stronger word instead.  "Looked curiously" means the same as "peered."  "Hit angrily" means the same as "slapped."  "Pulled quickly" means the same as "jerked."  Where can you replace weak modifiers with a stronger verb or noun?

  • Use active voice--Write about the person, not the thing acting upon the person.  For example, instead of "A good laugh was had by all," use "Everyone laughed afterward."  Your characters should not be passive recipients.  The accident did not result in John's injuries.  Rather, John broke his arm and fractured his jaw in the car accident.  Subtle, but effective.

  • Use strong verbs--Anyone can say that the dog ate, or the little boy fell, or the young girl walked.  But how different would your scene be if the dog gobbled down his food?  (Indicating perhaps, that he had been starving or abused?)  If the little boy stumbled?  (Was he clumsy, or was the sidewalk uneven?) If the young girl skipped along the street?  (What a cheerful disposition she must have.)  Do you see how the choice of verb can create a whole new set of questions and possibilities for the reader?

  • Say things in a positive way--Why write about what is not true, when you want the reader to know what IS true?  Saying there were no lights on, or that there were no errors in the typing, is stating what isn't there.  Rather, show the reader what IS there, because that's what they want to know.  "The house was dark when Mary arrived home."  Or "The manuscript was flawless."  These are the things that are real. 

  • Avoid cliches--It is so easy to fall back on the familiar.  As sly as a fox, or black as night are so overused, they are almost meaningless and glossed over by the reader.  They are a sign of laziness--that you couldn't think of your own descriptive phrase.  Be creative.  Look at your story idea or theme, and work around that.  If your hero is a physician, use medical references.  "He was as startled as a child being stabbed with a needle." Or "The draperies were a bluish-purple like a new bruise forming." 

  • Write things in a logical order--To be clear, write things in the order they happen.  Don't talk about a skinned knee before the bully pushes over the child.  Don't have your characters start jumping out of windows before you mention the fire.  And don't have anyone shoot another character if they haven't even picked up a gun.  Your reader will be confused, and even angry after a while if you do too much of this.

  • Put emphasis at the end--What is the most important idea in your sentence, your paragraph or your chapter?  You should always end with a bang.  For example, there is a county fair, and Mrs. Marple just won for her peach pie entry.  Is the fact that Mrs. Marple won the most important element in the story?  Perhaps this is her first win in eleven years.  Then it's important.  Or is it the fact that her peach pie won?  Maybe she baked ten apple pies before being satisfied with her entries, but only one peach pie that somehow won.  Or maybe the county fair is the most important aspect of this situation.  Perhaps Mrs. Marple is really a city girl, and didn't even know what a county fair was until she married her husband and moved into Smallville.  Whatever the fact is that you want to stress, end the sentence with that idea.

Whatever your story, all of these practices can be incorporated into your writing to make it strong and effective.  Make your manuscript the one the editors and agents will continue to read after the first page. 




Michelle Prima is owner and President of Literary Liaisons, Ltd.  For more about her, visit her personal web page

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