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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Keep Your Reader in Your Story: Seven Tips on Editing for Flow

Please welcome guest blogger Linda Poitevin

Whether you edit as you write (as I do) or you’re the kind of writer that gets the whole story down on paper before worrying about the craft points (which I wish I could do), sooner or later you’re going to face a final edit. By this point, your major plot problems have been solved, your characters are all behaving in character, your timeline makes sense, and you’re ready to look at the less shiny side of the writing process: the underlying structure. I’m not talking story structure here, I’m talking bare-bones structure. Nitty-gritty, duller-than-dishwater, high-school English “why am I learning this?” grammar stuff.

“But,” you may be wondering, “if I have a story with a gripping plot and sympathetic characters, why do I need to worry about the grammar stuff? Won’t readers be willing to overlook that kind of thing?” Well, yes . . . and no. The fact is, shoddy writing matters. No matter how shiny your plot and characters might seem on the surface, readers will notice if they have to reread passages multiple times to make sense of them, or if the same word or turn of phrase crops up over and over again. Maybe not all readers, and maybe not right away, but they will notice. It will irritate. It will annoy. It will pull them out of the story and allow them to walk away. . . and maybe even (horrors!) allow them to forget about it. And that, my friends, you do not want. Especially when a little effort on your part can make such a difference.

Enter the final edit. The one that will make sure readers read your fabulous story instead of falling asleep in the third chapter. While everyone will have their own checklist list of things they need to watch out for, the following seven tips will get you started. These are some of the things that I notice in others’ stories and edit for in my own.

1. Sentence length and structure

Your sentences should vary in both length and structure. If they’re all the same, the rhythm of the story will become repetitious and boring. Don’t always start with the subject. Have adjectives in some sentences, but not in all (and have more than one adjective in a few). Use short sentences for punch and emphasis. If you have a long sentence, read it aloud to make sure you don’t run out of breath (if you do, it’s too long). In fact, read aloud whenever you want to check your rhythm…your voice and ear will catch what your eye often misses.

2. Conjunctions

Remove some of the ands, buts, and thens. While these conjunctions are invisible for the most part, they’re like any other word: too many will begin to catch the reader’s attention, pulling him/her out of the story. Bonus: getting rid of some of these will automatically help with varying your sentence structure.

3. That pesky that

Do a search for that and remove the ones that aren’t necessary. A seemingly small point, but your writing will be tighter for it.

4. Filter words

Words such as thought, reflected, mused, felt, heard (among others) can distance your reader from your character, almost like throwing up an invisible barrier between them. It’s part of the old “show, don’t tell” issue: instead of letting your reader be in your character’s head, you’re telling him/her what the character thinks/feels/hears, etc. Suzannah Freeman has a great list of these words on her blog at Write it Sideways, along with examples.

5. Adverbs

Also known as the “ly” words, these descriptors are one of those “in moderation” things. They’re also extremely sneaky. If you’re not careful, they can become a crutch that weakens your writing: it’s far easier to write the brightly lit room than it is to take the time to visualize and describe how the room is bright: He stepped into the room and blinked against the glare of the bare overhead bulb. My rule of thumb is no more than 4-5 adverbs per page—and yes, I count. J

6. Repetition

Too many uses of the same gesture, movement, body part, etc. can be distracting for a reader. When I first started writing, I had a fixation with eyes…so much so that you’d have thought my characters lacked actual bodies. Now that I’m hyper vigilant about that issue, a new one has cropped up. Two of my beta readers for the first draft of SINS OF THE SON, which I recently handed in to my editor, picked up on the number of turns in the book. Characters turned, their heads turned, their voices turned, their gazes turned… like I said, distracting.

7. Dialogue tags

While you want to make sure your reader knows who is speaking in a dialogue sequence, too many instances of he said/she said will drive them to . . . you guessed it, distraction. Vary your tags. Find words to replace said, use an action instead, or skip identifying the speaker altogether if you can do so without confusing your reader.

These seven tips are far from definitive, but they’re a good place to start the editing process. The good news is that, the more you become aware of the possible pitfalls, the more you’ll bear them in mind as you go through the writing process. You’ll find a rhythm for your sentence lengths, catch the pesky adverbs as you write them down, find yourself avoiding repetition in the first place, and so on. But no matter how much you self-edit as you go, do yourself a favor and do at least one final once-over before you submit or publish it. Because no matter how thorough you think you’ve been in your writing, I can guarantee you’ll find things that slipped past.

So what are some of the things you edit for that I haven’t mentioned here? I’d love to hear your tips!

Linda Poitevin lives just outside Canada’s capital, Ottawa, with her husband, three daughters, one very large husky/shepherd/Great Dane-cross dog, two cats, three rabbits, and a bearded dragon lizard. Turned down in her pursuit of a police career after a faulty height measurement, Linda lives out her dream of being a cop vicariously through her characters. When she isn’t writing, she can usually be found in her garden in the summer, hugging the fireplace in the winter, or walking her dog along the river in any season.

SINS OF THE ANGELS: The Grigori Legacy

A detective with a secret lineage. An undercover Hunter with a bullet-proof soul. And a world made to pay for the sins of an angel…

Homicide detective Alexandra Jarvis answers to no one. Especially not to the new partner assigned to her in the middle of a gruesome serial killer case-a partner who is obstructive, irritatingly magnetic, and arrogant as hell.
Aramael is a Power—a hunter of the Fallen Angels. A millennium ago, he sentenced his own brother to eternal exile for crimes against humanity. Now his brother is back and wreaking murderous havoc in the mortal realm. To find him, Aramael must play second to a human police officer who wants nothing to do with him and whose very bloodline threatens both his mission and his soul.

Now, faced with a fallen angel hell-bent on triggering the apocalypse, Alex and Aramael have no choice but to join forces, because only together can they stop the end of days.


Annette McCleave said...

Excellent editing advice, Linda. Can't wait for SINS OF THE ANGELS to hit the shelves!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Annette! :)