Make Your Words Work
by Michelle Prima
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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