Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2 Three Tips to Activate Your Writing

As I completed my judges' forms for the The Sandy literary contest this past weekend, I had to examine why I usually knew after the first paragraph whether or not I was going to enjoy the story. And it wasn't just the idea that grabbed me or made me give a mental sigh. 

Some manuscripts (and books!) are technically written well. The writer  has followed "Strunk" rules--no unnecessary adverbs or adjectives, no cliches, no passive voice--but the writing is so bland that, even if the plot is exciting, I have to force myself through the first thirty pages. I start craving details. Other manuscripts make me feel like I need a shovel to unearth what's going on in the story under all the layers of words. In either kind of manuscript, I have a hard time "picturing" the scene. It may just be a personal preference, reading is very subjective after all, but I have to be able to see a story to really like it. To love a story, I have to understand how what I'm seeing feels to the characters.

I recently read a critique that Jeanne Lyet Gassman did for a writer who had written a 400,000 word novel. In two tips, Jeanne neatly summed up a lot of the thoughts I had while judging the contest, so I asked her for permission to repost some of those here. I've edited them to make them a little more general, and added a third tip about imagery and emotion.

Bottom line? You can activate your writing and reduce your word count in three easy steps:
  1. Anchor your scenes around an active, emotional image. Make sure your scenes aren't taking place in empty space, give your characters something to do while they are talking to each other, and make sure that the things they interact with in the scene give them the opportunity to reveal both character and emotion.
  2. Be selective in your descriptions. Make sure there is one specific, central image in each scene or paragraph. If you are in a forest, we don't need to know every single type of tree in the forest, but at the same time, we need to know the kind of tree the protag is sleeping under.
  3. Let your verbs do the heavy lifting. Reduce the number of passive and being verbs, including: is, was, were, could, seem, might, appear, etc., and make the verbs themselves more descriptive to eliminate the need for adjectives and adverbs. Instead of "she was walking quickly," which is a linking verb of being with an adverb, you could use "she walked quickly," which is an active form of the same basic verb coupled with an adverb. An even better fix is simply "she jogged," which is a precise verb that eliminates the need for the adverb.
Happy writing!


For more info and tips from Jeanne:


  1. Thanks for the recognition. You have a great blog. I've nominated it for a "blog award." You can check it out and the other nominees at my blog:

  2. Thank you SO much, Jeanne! We really appreciate it.



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