In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.
All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.
LEVEL THREE: STYLE
When the story line is set and the character and setting details are brought into focus, concentrate on prose. A writer’s style of storytelling is evident from the beginning of the tale’s construction. It is an extension of his brain and the way he absorbs and interprets the world around him. With the arc of the story set, it is time to clarify the prose, as only he can do it.
Establish Consistent Tone
Tone refers to the quality and pitch of the prose. It is the emotional resonance of the story, albeit humorous, horrifying, or dramatic. Whatever the tone, search for inconsistent passages that sabotage the integrity of the story.
Simplify Sentence Structure
Always look to prune and clarify sentences. Be concise. One powerful phrase might replace a few fuzzier statements. At times, writers struggle for an exact description, circling the point with a collection of words. Take a moment to uncover the precise description in one brief phrase.
Vary Sentence Structure
The length and construction of sentences serve different purposes. Action scenes require crisp short sentences to maintain the pace. Long sentences serve panoramic scenes or deep introspection. Poetic phrases work for romance and comedy. See what works for your scenes. Play with the sentence structure.
Vary Paragraph, Scene, and Chapter Length
Changes keep readers attentive. Blocks of paragraphs of equal length create a visual monotony. I am getting sleepy just thinking about it. The same goes for scene and chapter lengths. Try a scene that is only one paragraph long or a chapter of just two pages. Search for variety.
Examine Word Choice
Root out vagueness. Replace words like something, anything, and everything with concrete nouns.
The thing about dessert is the calories.
The problem with dessert is the calories.
Select strong verbs. Replace verbs like was, is, would, should, and could with powerful and engaging verbs.
He was at the top of the corporate ladder, but he would rather be home with his family.
He fought his way to the top of the corporate ladder, but he missed his family at home.
Too many adjectives? Change noun and adjective combinations into one strong noun.
Tom drove the thin nail into the orange-yellow skin of the fruit.
Tom drove the brad into the ocher skin of the fruit.
Too many adverbs? Change verb and adverb combi-nations into one strong verb.
She slowly walked into the boardroom.
She sauntered into the boardroom.
Reduce compound descriptions. Use discrete words that relay the point. Observe the following passage:
A small, deep purple 3×5 note arrived in the mail. Joe recognized his former wife’s handwriting. She wanted him to return their children. She was coming to visit in a few days.
The passage might sound better as:
Joe’s ex-wife dropped him a maroon postcard: ‘I want the kids back. See you soon.’
Find the right word. Employ a thesaurus and dictionary. The appropriate word is out there for the taking.
Remove ‘said’ and ‘thought’
The person thinking or speaking in a story is often implied by his position in the text. Be creative. Use action or narration alongside the thought or dialogue to identify its owner. In the following example, use of the words ‘said’ and ‘thought’ are unnecessary to identify Jane as the person doing the speaking and thinking.
Jane took the horse by the reins. “Git!” She dug in her spurs. I hope this old mare’s got enough left to make it.
Remove Instances of “Fine Writing”
Track down instances of fine writing and remove them. Fine writing occurs during wonderfully unnatural stretches of prose. It might be the flowery description of the chipped table in the office or the overblown insight to the human condition. When the writer pens these lines at 3 A.M., they often appear brilliant, but when they hit daylight, they are exposed like a pink bowtie. They are funny and overdone, when they intend otherwise. Readers will roll their eyes because the writer is trying too hard to impress.
Reading the prose aloud identifies errant and clumsy passages. The writer stumbles over poor words, phrases, and sentences. Unnatural dialogue hits the ear like a spitball. Read your work aloud within the safe confines of your working space before exposing your errors to the public.
Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.
Next in the Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Four, Presentation
Previous on the Book Killers series: Poor Revisions – Level Two, Struture/Content