Part I of the Writers Workshop: Revision checklist with examples.
Would you like to be a published poet? Would you like recognition for your work?
Please check out the "Invalid Item"
Part I of the Writers Workshop: Expanded Power Revision Checklist
I first presented the content of this article at a writers workshop. Hence, the way this material is formatted and presented here is probably more suited to verbal presentation in a class with hands-on examples. However, with the positive response I have received for the short version of "The Power Revision Checklist" and seeing a need amongst fellow writers for a more in-depth handling of these superb techniques, I decided to do some moderate reformatting to make this reader-friendly and suitable for posting.
This article is a compilation of the techniques culled, distilled, and synthesized from the thirty-eight references listed at the end of this piece. These books were not merely used as cursory references. They were all read in their entirety, some more than once.
Warning: Some of these techniques may not fit with what you may have thought was great writing. These techniques are, however, the prevailing methods of writing fiction and non-fiction today, and are what editors and publishers are looking for. Nine out of ten contemporary books on writing will detail for you the techniques and methods I am going to set forth in this article.
Although these techniques apply to both fiction and non-fiction, most of my examples utilize fiction because it is my favorite form. Some of the techniques, such as those that relate to dialogue, may not be as critical in certain types of non-fiction. But all these techniques will be helpful no matter what you write.
These techniques are not designed to teach someone how to write. They cannot make poor writing into good writing. They are designed for those who already have a good grasp on the basics of writing. These techniques will help make good writing into great writing.
Keep in mind that avoid and limit do not mean never. There will be times when an adjective or adverb is the best word, or a couple lines of description are necessary. As you develop skill with these techniques, you will also develop the skill to know when an adjective or adverb is the best word, or a couple lines of description are necessary. Be patient, keep learning, and never stop writing.
1. Show, don’t tell. Write in vivid imagery. Allow the reader to “see and experience the action” for themselves rather than to tell them about it.
Showing expresses action, while telling explains. The majority of your story should be showing with only as much explanation or telling as is needed to keep the action sensible and moving. A skillful writer blends showing and telling in a way that keeps the whole story moving.
Mary stood at the gate to Sam’s patio. She was a shy young woman who looked like a mouse, short, skinny, small, dark eyes and a pointed face. She always peeked in at parties first, giving herself a chance to flee if she saw no one she knew. When Sam looked at her, she entered the yard, gave him a polite smile, and headed for the punch bowl to get a drink that she could hide behind while she mixed in.
Mary brooded at the gate to Sam’s patio, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered in at the party through the slats, sniffing things out with her pointed face. Her small, black eyes darted back and forth. She always gave herself a chance to scurry away if she saw no one she knew. Sam met her gaze. She lunged through the gate, her lips curled up in a tight grin, and darted for the cover of the punch bowl. A drink always helped her mix in.
Mary brooded like a mouse on tiptoe at the gate to Sam’s patio, peering in at the party with her pointed face. Her small, black eyes darted back and forth. She always gave herself a chance to scurry away if she saw no one she knew. Sam met her gaze. She grinned and darted for the cover of the punch bowl. A drink always helped her mix in.
The combination gave us vivid imagery and conveyed a sense of action, yet it took the fewest words. You need to determine when pure showing is the best form or when a combination is needed.
Telling is a good transitional tool because it is direct, while showing is indirect.
Mary, timid as she was, peeked like a mouse over the backyard gate at Sam’s patio. She avoided parties where she knew no one. When she saw Sam, she joined the party, hiding behind a drink, and began to mix in.
By nature, non-fiction will have more telling than fiction but should still be rich with showing.
Avoid description and avoid explanation.
There is no greater action stopper than a chunk of description or explanation. Instead, use a technique called the telling detail. Telling details are revealing, vivid images given in a few words amidst other action. They eliminate the need for description or explanation. Let the reader gradually learn about the characters, their settings, and their problems in a natural way. Use all the senses in your telling details.
Bob entered the room. He was a foot taller than Karen with brown hair and penetrating blue eyes. A hard factory worker, he had rough hands, and was well muscled behind his flannel shirt. He smelled of smoke, like the factory, as he stood motionless staring at her. She looked into his eyes and took his hands in hers. She wasn’t sure how to tell him, but the news had to be broken.
Let’s look at the same info given by imagery and telling details amidst the action.
Bob entered the room, swept his brown hair aside, and stood motionless, eyes fixed on her. Feeling small next to his broad, muscular frame, Karen took his rough workmen’s hands into hers and looked up into his penetrating blue eyes. The smell of factory smoke still lingered in his flannel shirt. She had to break the news, but how?
When description is needed, it must be integral to the story, and it must be short and pertinent.
Beginning writers often try to write like the great writers of the past instead of the great writers of the present. Readers don’t want description, they want action. Show, don’t tell.
2. Write with precise nouns and verbs to eliminate the need for an overabundance of modifiers. Don’t describe, use imagery and telling details.
a. Eliminate countless “-ly” words and other adverbs by using specific power verbs. When your character slams the door, there is no need to add, “loudly.” Doors don’t slam softly. The “slam” is the power action. Don’t weaken it.
b. Eliminate excessive adjectives that add nothing to the noun. For instance, “a hard, clear, sparkling diamond.” A normal diamond is hard, clear, and sparkling. Just saying “diamond” is enough. If a diamond is black, dull or worthless, then by all means use those adjectives to modify the concept of the typical diamond.
Imagery uses strong, specific nouns and active verbs. Notice how much more vivid the imagery is than just description in the examples below.
They walked slowly out into the hot, wet garden. [D = description]
They wandered into the sopping garden. [I = imagery]
Sue aggressively gathered oysters into her bucket from the exposed sea bed at low tide. [D]
Sue attacked the oysters at low tide, plunking them into her bucket. [I]
John walked across the customer waiting area with purpose. [D]
John strode across the lobby. [I]
He quickly turned his slack, reddened face into the white-hot, noon-day sun. [D]
He jerked his face into the white-hot sun. [I]
Instead of using endless modifiers to describe, use strong, specific nouns and active verbs to give the reader vivid images. Vivid images interspersed throughout a story or narrative are far more effective than descriptions. Also, use imagery for all your telling details.
Get inventive with color, instead of deep blue how about cerulean, instead of sky blue how about azure, instead of reddish-brown, how about russet. Our language is rich with specific, descriptive words.
Examples incorporating the techniques of point 1 and 2:
Mrs. Henry went into Jason’s classroom. It was silent and dark in the moon glow. She could barely see the hamster cage. [Leans toward telling, not very strong images.]
Mrs. Henry sneaked into Jason’s darkened classroom, silent in the moon glow. She spied the hamster cage. [Stronger verbs, sneaked/spied, more imagery, we get the sense she shouldn’t be there.]
Mrs. Henry sneaked down the hall and lurched into Jason’s darkened classroom, breathless. She caught a fleeting glimpse of the hamster cage in the moon glow. [Strong verbs, images, we picked up the pace, suspense.]
Mrs. Henry sneaked down the hall and lurched into Jason’s darkened classroom, her breath stalled in her throat. A slender thread of moonlight defined the wire rungs of the hamster cage. [Now we have a good pace, both the idea that she shouldn’t be there and suspense. The imagery is even more vivid– we see what she sees.]
Avoid endless -ly words. Usually called adverbs, these words rarely carry a story line authoritatively. The amateur author severely taxes his brain, striving earnestly to write professionally, only to find himself crying softly to himself, “One rejection after another.” Avoid the -ly construction by finding a precise verb that expresses your meaning. Instead of “crying softly to himself,” try “whimpering.” This will strengthen your writing and precisely focus your intended meaning.
Okay, the paragraph above is what needs fixing. Here are the fixes.
Eliminate / Replace with
usually / [nothing]
rarely / do not
authoritatively / with authority
severely taxes / presses or drives
earnestly / [nothing]
crying softly to himself / whimpering
precisely focus / pinpoint
Leave professionally alone, it is necessary.
Revised Non-Fiction Example
Avoid endless -ly words. Called adverbs, these words do not carry a story line with authority. The amateur author presses his brain, striving to write professionally, only to find himself whimpering, “One rejection after another.” Avoid the -ly construction by finding a precise verb that expresses your meaning. Instead of “crying softly to himself,” try “whimpering.” This will strengthen your writing and pinpoint your intended meaning.
See how much more powerful that was than the first example?
3. Avoid the passive voice. Write in the active voice. Be direct, aggressive, positive, and clear. Use the passive voice only when necessary to convey a particular mood or attitude. If you are writing in the active voice throughout your work, the passive voice will stand out and impact your reader as intended when used.
Passive: The ball was thrown by Ralph.
Active: Ralph threw the ball.
Passive: He was irritated by the constant ticking of the clock.
Active: The constant ticking of the clock irritated him.
Notice also that we eliminated the verb of being (am, is, are, was, were). Limiting use of this verb adds punch to the action. Instead of a “state of being” there is movement, action.
4. Limit the use of uncommon words– inexorable, obfuscate, expunge, etc., which tend to be showy. Instead use simple, common, direct language.
When reading, there’s nothing quite as upsetting as cruising along in the midst of some intense action or exciting information only to come to a screeching halt over a word we are not sure we understand. We may pause to ponder the word or even stop to look it up in the dictionary. But the flow of the text has been broken and cannot be restored. The pace has been destroyed. When we interrupt the reader in this way, we interrupt the flow of our own story or non-fiction narrative.
5. Avoid weak (indefinite) words– almost, about, appears, approximately, probably, nearly, virtually, seems, etc. Avoid all “-ish” words– greenish, palish, roughish, etc. Be precise. Your reader wants clear, definite, precise images, not nebulous, vague abstractions. If abstractions are necessary to the artistic quality or mood of the piece, they must be used carefully and precisely themselves.
Imprecise: He almost exploded with anger.
Precise: He seethed.
Imprecise: The constant ticking almost made him angry. He was virtually ready to throw the ball at the clock to shut the dumb thing up. [Was he, annoyed, irritated, irked, riled, irate, upset?]
Precise: The constant ticking annoyed him. He squeezed the ball. Should he hurl it at the clock? That would shut the dumb thing up.
We’ve got a plethora of synonyms in English, each with its own precision– use them.
6. Avoid office or business language– “At this point in time.” “At this juncture.” “Upon notice of this situation.” Replace with simple direct language such as now, when, then, etc.
7. Avoid common clichés– white as snow, quiet as a mouse, sweat like a dog, slept like a baby. Characters can speak this way if that is part of their persona.
8. Avoid endless synonyms for said, such as he chuckled, she retorted, Alice grumbled, and on.
We should be able to tell by the words in the dialogue and gestures used that he chuckled or she retorted or that Alice's dissatisfaction was expressed in the way she spoke. Effective writers know said is invisible and craft the dialogue to express the emotions.
9. Also avoid using adverbs to modify how something is said (see 2.a. above).
If you have to tell us that Andy said something angrily, then the words in the dialogue and the scene are not working. We should know by the scene and the spoken words themselves that Andy is angry. If the reader has already imagined a different emotion portrayed in the dialogue, when he gets to he said angrily it cuts against the scene, makes him go back and reread the dialogue with proper intent, and interrupts the flow of the story. The reader doesn’t know ahead what the tag line is going to say. Craft the words and the action to express the emotion.
10. Avoid having characters speak with a sneer, grin, laugh, chuckle, growl, etc. We may sneer, or grin or chuckle before or after we speak.
Avoid: He looked at his prisoner. “Tie him up,” he sneered.
Instead: He sneered at his prisoner, “ Tie him up.”
11. Avoid excessive dialect in dialogue. Use just enough to get the point across– don’t try to invent a whole new manner of spelling to mimic an accent.
Excessive dialectical spelling cuts pace by causing the reader to have to decipher what you have written. Peppering dialogue with a few dialectical words sets the tone and background for the reader’s imagination and carries the dialogue with proper intent.
She spoke in a thick southern drawl, “Y’all come hare nah, y’hear.” [Laborious]
She spoke in a thick southern drawl, “Y’all come here now, ya hear.” [Smooth - keeps things moving.]
12. Avoid entering the story from behind the narrative with funny comments, or statements like: “If she only knew what was waiting for her at home,” or “little did she know.”
Intruding into the story destroys its credibility. Unless of course your intrusions are an intentional artistic approach to the entire story and your presence in it is needed for what you are trying to accomplish.
13. Avoid exclamation points! A well placed exclamation point adds emphasis! Continual use of exclamation points makes them generic! And renders them void of impact! Okay!!
Many professional writers consider exclamation points to be a crutch for poor writing. If the writing itself does not convey the intended emphasis or excitement, propping it up with an exclamation point doesn’t change the quality of the writing that comes before it.
14. Avoid using the ellipsis (three dots in a row...) to indicate a pause or interruption in dialogue. Use the emdash– instead. Three dots in a row are traditionally used for missing or unspoken words. [Please note that this convention is changing as more and more writers are using the ellipsis as a pause or interruption. Check with your publisher to see which convention is followed to avoid extra work.]
He shook his head, “That’s not what I meant, I mere– ”
“Don’t try to change what you said now,” she wagged her finger in his face, “just own up to it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I– , I– ,” he dropped his eyes, “never mind.”
He shook his head, “That’s not what I meant, I mere . . . ”
“Don’t try to change what you said now,” she wagged her finger in his face, “just own up to it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I...I...,” he dropped his eyes, “never mind.”
15. Keep sentences and paragraphs short. This makes for easier and more direct reading.
We don’t do this because we think readers are dumb. We do this because long, drawn out explanations and descriptions can drag the action in the story or non-fiction narrative down and drown it in endless prose. Readers aren’t there to admire your witty and fluid prose, they want the story, the action, or the information. The truly great writer is invisible and leaves his reader in awe of what he wrote, not how he wrote it.
[This is the end of Part I. To continue to Part II, please click on "Invalid Item" .]
* * *
Adams, Caroline Joy, The Power to Write: Seven Keys to Discover Your Writer Within, Conari Press, Boston, 2003.
Bickham, Jack M., Scene & Structure, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1993.
Bickham, Jack M., Writing and Selling Your Novel, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1996.
Block, Lawrence, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1979.
Brooks, Terry, Lessons From A Writing Life, Del Rey Ballantine Books, NY, 2003.
Burnett, Hallie and Whit, Fiction Writers Handbook, Harper and Row, NY, 1975.
Card, Orson Scott, How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1990.
Chittenden, Margaret, How To Write Your Novel, The Writer Inc. Publishers, Boston, 1995.
Collier and Leighton, Oscar and Frances Spatz, How To Write and Sell Your First Novel, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1997.
Davis, J. Madison, Novelist's Essential Guide to Creating Plot, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2000.
De Camp, L. Sprague & Catherine, Crook, Science Fiction Handbook, Revised,McGraw-Hill, NY, 1975.
Denney, Jim, Quit Your Day Job, Quill Driver Books, Sanger, CA, 2004.
Fredette, Jean M., ed., Handbook of Magazine and Article Writing, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1988.
Gerrold, David, Worlds of Wonder: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2001.
Joseph, Albert, Put It In Writing, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1998.
Kercheval, Jesse Lee, Building Fiction, Story Press, Cincinnati, 1997.
Kilian, Crawford, Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, Self-Counsel Press, Canada, 1998.
Leland, Christopher T., The Creative Writer's Style Guide, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2002.
Marshall, Evan, The Marshall Plan for Getting Your Novel Published, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2003.
Masello, Robert, Writer Tells All, Henry Holt and Company, NY, 2001.
Meanwell, Michael, The Wealthy Writer, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2004.
Meredith, Robert C. and Fitzgerald, John D., Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, HarperPerennial, NY, 1993.
Nickell, Kelly, ed., The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2003.
Novakovich, Josip, Writing Fiction: Step By Step, Story Press, Cincinnati, 1998.
Novakovich, Josip, Fiction Writer's Workshop, Story Press, Cincinnati, 1995.
Oberlin, Loriann Hoff, Writing For Money, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1994.
Parker, Lucy V., How To Open And Operate A Home-based Writing Business, The Globe Pequot Press, 1994.
Ray, Robert J., The Weekend Novelist, Dell Publishing, NY, 1994.
Rubie, Peter, and Provost, Gary, How To Tell A Story, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1998.
Seidman, Michael, The Complete Guide to Editing Your Fiction, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2000.
Smith, James V., You Can Write A Novel, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1998.
Stanek, Lou Willett, Ph.D., So You Want To Write A Novel, Avon Books, NY, 1994.
Stein, Sol, How To Grow A Novel, St Martins Press, NY, 1999.
Thomas, Frank P., How To Write The Story of Your Life, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1984.
Tuttle, Lisa, Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, A & C Black, London, 2001.
Whitney, Phyllis A., Guide to Fiction Writing, The Writer Inc. Publishers, Boston, 1982.
Wood, Monica, Elements of Fiction Writing: Description, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1995.
Yates, Elizabeth, Someday You'll Write, E.P. Dutton & Co., NY, 1962.