Friday, August 26, 2016

How to Crisp Up Your Writing--Revision Tools for Wordsmithing

I'm a lifelong learner--there's always so much new stuff to practice and absorb about making great books.  I take different online classes for accountability and to keep up with new writing ideas. 

This summer, I took two classes on revision. 

We posted our writing for feedback.  Writers were experienced and got mostly positive comments, but occasionally we'd see this:  "I love your writing but can you make it a little crisper?"

Crisp writing.  What is that?  Tight, toned, well paced, fairly bouncing off the page.  Stands out to a reader, an agent, an editor. 

Easier said than written, I think! 

Crisp doesn't usually appear in early drafts (if it does, you might be holding back too much, wordsmithing too soon!).  Early drafts are about content and structure, exploring what you want the writing to say, what flow you're after.  It takes a while to get these two aspects solid.  In books, even longer.  I find about 80 percent of total time with a book, from idea to publication, is spent on content and structure.  So if you're still there, don't worry too much.  Take your time--you need to get this part right before you begin to work on tightening the prose.  Otherwise you'll have beautiful sentences that mean nothing.

But once you're ready to crisp it up, here are some global searches that help me a lot:

1.  Search for "was" and "were" and "are"--any form of the verb "to be."  E.B. White who coauthored the famous book The Elements of Style, talks about this being a blah verb, one that doesn't provoke imagery or excitement in a reader.  It's true--and when you do a search for "was," and begin to see how often you use it (was staring instead of stared, for instance), you'll be stunned.  Replace with more direct, active, vivid verbs.

2.  Then search for "-ing."  Again, this form of the verb denotes progressive movement, rather than anything sharp and decisive.  You'll need it sometimes, but writers use it a LOT more than they should, IMHO.  Replace where you can.

3.  Look for repetitive sentence patterns.  My unconscious pattern is groups of three actions in one sentence (they sat, ate, then left).  Find yours--easier with feedback from a close reader.  Then vary, vary, vary!

4.  Watch out for your use of sentence fragments.  These are great little punches every now and then but like any device, they can be overused. 

5.  Cut some of that imagery, especially as "stage set" at the opening of a chapter or scene.  Do you need to set the stage?  Can you just jump right into action?

6.  Search for "-ly" words, the dreaded adverb which Stephen King rails against in his writing-craft book On Writing.  Delete whenever possible. 

7.  Search for "suddenly," "finally," and "at last"--these can create melodrama, so be sure you need them when you use them.  I'm guilty of three to four "suddenly's" in one page!

There are more, but this should give you a good start.  You will be amazed at how much your writing crisps up!

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