If you can get these things right you will get at least 3 stars from me every time.
|On a site with so many users with so many different levels of experience, we all see the same mistakes time and time again. While I can’t guarantee that the following guidance will get you at least a 3 star rating from every reviewer, this is a list of what it takes to get the first three stars from me.
See also "How To Write A Good Paragraph" [E]
The first thing anyone sees when they open an item is the paragraphing. They see black lettering and blank space before they see any words. So this is the first thing I comment on when it isn’t right.
WDC uses a centred division with text wrap to display your item. What this means is that if you change the shape and size of your web browser, the text moves around to fit the window. What that means, is that different people using different computer screens and different text sizes will see a different number of words per line and a different number of lines.
It’s not like presenting an A5 piece of paper in Times New Roman 12 to everyone who reads your item. There is no end of page to frame the text and help the eye track its place in the text.
This is why, on computers, we use paragraph breaks instead of indented paragraphs. It might not be the format you want to print the piece in, but it is the easiest way for people to read your WDC item.
The second common problem with paragraphing is knowing when to start a new paragraph.
“Character speech should always be a new paragraph,” we say. “Unless that character resumes speaking, in which case you can continue on the same line.”
You should never have two characters or more speaking in the same paragraph.
As a rule of thumb, you should also think about starting a new paragraph whenever the subject changes. Specifically the person or item which is performing actions, rather than the topic.
If Batman is perched over an alley on a dark night in Gotham, then the sentences describing what the goons in the alley are doing could probably be a new paragraph.
But it’s not a hard rule. If you are describing a vista with many things happening at once – the stars blinking through Gotham’s smog while cars scuttle in the streets and the bitter wind of foreshadowing pulls at the Dark Knight’s cape - that should probably be one paragraph.
All in all, a paragraph should be probably not be more than 6 sentences long.
I really do mean ‘basic’ in this instance. The things we are taught in junior school when learning how to handle a pen.
Names should be capitalised.
The first word in a sentence should be capitalised.
Sentences should end with a full-stop or period.
Speech should be marked with speech marks.
Words should be spelled correctly.
Everyone will slip up here and there with a typo or homophone. These things always sneak in and will get corrected one by one. What will lose you a star is if the text has fewer examples of correct punctuation than bad punctuation.
If the brain doesn’t see what it expects to see, it will stop to analyse what is there. It only takes a fraction of a second to realise that “alfred” was supposed to be “Alfred”, but that interruption is still an interruption. If your reader is doing that for every sentence, they are spending more energy translating your text than reading it.
Apostrophes may well have been invented purely for the purpose of confusing people. It certainly seems that way sometimes. They are less of a problem than the punctuation rules above, but it is worth double-checking them after you have typed up.
Mary’s shopping (the shopping belongs to Mary)
Marcus’ case (the case belongs to Marcus)
Its legs (the legs belong to another object)
Girls’ washroom (the washroom belongs to a group of girls).
Mary’s shopping (Mary is shopping)
Mary’d shopped (Mary had shopped)
Mary should’ve (Mary should have)
It’s leaving (it is leaving).
Apostrophes should never be used only to make a plural: "the row of TVs" not "the row of TV's".
Repetition and Stalling
The first time you start putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) you will repeat yourself. You will write the occasional redundant sentence like “the light lit the room with a gold light”. You will use “but” in three consecutive sentences. You will write “sentence” three sentences in a row .
So find those repeats and fix them. Use a highlighter pen or a program’s search function. If you have to rewrite a phrase completely or break it into two sentences to get what you need, do that.
Again, one or two repeats is a minor error. Repeats will only cost you if you keep doing it all the way down the text. The worst culprit for this is “was”. When you’re describing the set in past tense, you will end up with “was” everywhere. Go back, change the verb, change the subject and object around if that’s what it takes, and cut down on your “was”. It’s not the end of the world if you have to use one, just make sure it isn’t your most used verb.
Stalling is what happens when you stop to describe too much at once. This is not a reference to exposition (explaining), just to description.
When your hero is in the middle of a car chase, we do not need to stop and list every minute trait of the car he is chasing or the one he is driving, or the one he nearly hit coming around the corner, or the burrito stand the villan just drove over. Nouns and verbs are enough.
When your hero is in a coffee shop, you don’t especially need to describe the guy on the other side of the counter. For all intents and purposes, he is scenery and so is the coffee.
What you can spend more time describing, is the attractive woman in the business suit who just walked in and is about to start up a conversation with the hero.
What’s the difference in these three scenarios? Focus. When you stop to describe something, the plot and action stop. The story stops. So describe things briefly in passing unless the character has actively stopped to consider the object you are describing.
In the chase, your hero is focused on chasing. Not analysing, not commenting, not reminiscing. He is in a high stress activity which requires almost all of his attention. He cares what colour and make the car is. He doesn’t have the time to spare to spot the scrape of paint on the left rear wing which resembles a cat if you cover one eye.
In the second scenario, unless your character is scoping the place out or a food column critic, he really just wants coffee. He’s aware of the objects and people around him, but beyond the mood of the place and the décor theme, it’s a coffee shop. Probably his mind is elsewhere, trying to understand why he was in a car chase or who he needs to call.
When the woman comes into the coffee shop, she has his whole attention. He takes the time to stop and study her so you can take the time to describe her in detail.
There is a magic rule of 3 when it comes to descriptions. Quite how you apply it depends on you and the situation you create. The guide I use is 3 things in 3 sentences (total of 9) at the most, if the character has stopped to study it. Otherwise I use only 3 things about a significant object.
9: The river entered the valley at in a roaring waterfall, filling the basin with spray and throwing glittering dew onto leaves. Trees crowded the banks, black with water and green with moss. Occasionally, he could make out the shrieks of vibrant parakeets concealed in the boughs as they ravaged the peculiarly shaped fruits unique to the valley.
3: The blonde’s perfectly manicured fingers flitted over the keys with all the agility of an Olympic ski finalist
Remember: after the item has been introduced, you can sprinkle further descriptors as you go along. You don’t have to put all of the description in the same place and you don’t have to specify every detail.
If you get these things right – and it’s not hard to do – then you will get at least 3 stars from me. After that it’s all about the actual storytelling: character, world building, plot, and style.