I mentioned in a previous post that I had the pleasure and good fortune to work with freelance book editor Laurie Rosin on my first novel. I saved every letter because her advice was – and is – timeless. Once I grasped and implemented her suggestions, my writing improved enormously. I still review the dog-eared notes from time to time and always find a gem I can apply to my current work, so I thought I’d share a few with you. These four points comprise Laurie’s essential general guidance:
1) Show readers your story, don’t tell it. One of the most common errors made by new writers is relying on narrative to explain what characters feel, think or have endured rather than allowing readers to learn about these experiences through the character’s interactions with their world. When the author tells the story, he/she is inserted between the reader and the action and characters, and impact is lost. Example: Don’t tell us your main character loves her home, show us through dialogue and actions. She may lovingly smooth the silk throw placed just so on an antique white chaise, straighten a picture, or stand in the doorway of the newly renovated great room with a friend, sipping wine and discussing how the dappled light falls through the linen drapes at dusk.
2) Tighten your manuscript at the sentence level by editing out unnecessary words, clichés, and bland or wordy phrases. Old lines such as “sick as a dog” have been used enough – banish them! Also, become aware of and delete redundant words such as following after (after is unnecessary). In addition, slash “throat clearing phrases” such as these:
Rather than: use:
due to the fact that because
at that point in time then
a vast amount of much or many
for the purpose of to
in the event that if
3) Enhance your word choice and build a fabulous vocabulary! Laurie inspired me when she wrote, “The challenge of being a good writer is to find new and vivid ways to use words to paint mental pictures.” Try these suggestions:
- Substitute alternate phrasing for “It is/was” and “There are/were” at the beginning of a sentence whenever possible. “There are three things you must understand” is a bit dry, but the sentence “I insist you memorize the three basic rules of this household” is compelling – and I’d like to know more about that character!
- Hard-working writers may fall into a rut – and bore the reader and stagnate the story – by depending on a few “go-to” word choices. You can provide your readers with a powerful, moving experience by growing your vocabulary. For instance, the first review of my novel Mark of the Loon revealed at least 100 uses of “wonderful.” I used Word’s find and replace option to locate and substitute or rewrite 98%.
- Laurie taught me to recognize my habit of overusing certain words repeatedly within scenes or pages. Last week I read a story about a hike through the countryside, and I imagined the screech of fingernails scraping a chalkboard as I read the word “trail” in graph after graph of the 7-page short. Suggestions: rutted path, rural route, muddy, weeded course, graveled track, overgrown passage, misty byway are all interesting alternatives and paint a stronger picture of the scene. Conclusion: every writer should own a great thesaurus, such as my 1997 edition of Rodale Press’ “The Synonym Finder,” which Laurie recommended. Even Word’s programmed thesaurus can be valuable. And because it’s often impossible to catch them all as you’re crafting the plot, ask a beta-reader with a good eye to review your manuscript and circle instances of overused words
4) Grammar counts. As a writer, it’s up to you to have a good grasp of grammar and sentence structure and to apply it as you’re crafting your manuscript. Don’t depend solely on your editor or beta readers to resolve grammatical problems once the entire story has been written. Learn your craft. Read books, take a class. Know what a sentence fragment is, recognize comma splices, understand the correct use of the apostrophe. Poorly-written passages stop the reader’s progress and insert the author between the characters and a wonderful reading experience.
Hope this helps – even if it’s a review of the obvious!
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