When, Where, Why, and How To Use Block Quotes and Ellipses

By SUE COLETTA

An interesting discussion arose while working on copy edits for Pretty Evil New England. The conversation dealt with using block quotes—when, where, why, and how I used them in the (nonfiction) manuscript.

If at all possible, I tend to use quoted material as dialogue to create scenes. But there were times where I chose to block quote the text instead. For example, if the quote was mainly backstory and not part of the actual scene but still important for the reader to understand, then I used block quotes. You’ll see what I mean in one of the examples below.

Block quotes can’t be avoided at times. They can even enhance the scene, thereby adding to the overall reading experience. In fiction, two examples of where to use block quotes would be a diary entry or a note/letter/message. Please excuse my using one of my thrillers; it’s easier than searching through a gazillion books on my Kindle.

In Silent Mayhem, the antagonist and hero communicate through an Onion site (untraceable) on the deep web. Because these messages are neither dialogue, nor narrative, using block quotes set them apart.

Example:

Dearest Cautious Cat,

If we shut our eyes to dangers beyond our comprehension, we become powerless to fight. My offer still stands. Should you choose not to accept it, remember this . . .

When it’s your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

Hugs & kisses,
Mr. M

Block quotes also break up the text and enhance white space. We’ve discussed white space many times on TKZ. For more on why white space is a good thing, check out this post or this one.

BLOCK QUOTES IN WORD

To include block quotes in Word, highlight the text and right click. This screen will pop up…
Choose “paragraph” and this screen will pop up…

Reset your left margin to .5 and click OK. Leave the right margin alone.

Quick note about margins.

A good rule of thumb for block quotes is to not indent the first paragraph. If your passage contains more than one paragraph, check with the publisher. Most supply a style guide. For instance, my thriller publisher keeps all paragraphs justified. My true crime publisher prefers that the first paragraph be justified and subsequent paragraphs be indented.

To do that, the easiest thing is to click “Special” then “first line” (as indicated in pic below) and set it to .25. Then simply backspace to erase the indent on the first paragraph.

If you’re self-publishing, then obviously it’s your call on whether to indent or not to indent subsequent paragraphs.

BLOGGING BLOCK QUOTE

Bloggers who include passages from a resource, whether that be a book or wording from a reputable source, use block quotes to signal the reader that the passage is a direct quote (most commonly, all justified margins). You could style the post in Word, then copy/paste, but sometimes the style doesn’t paste over. Simple fix. Highlight the text and click this symbol…
And that’s it. Easy peasy, right?

ELLIPSIS

An ellipsis consists of either three or four dots. A single dot is called an ellipsis point. Some writers may find using ellipses a little tricky, but once you know the definitions of where, why, and how to use them, determining the right ellipses is fairly straightforward.

According to the Chicago Manual of Style, never use ellipses at the beginning or end of a block quote. CMOS also recommends using equal spacing between dots. Some style guides say to use three equally spaced periods rather than creating an ellipsis in Word, which you can do by pressing CTRL + ALT + Period. Always go by the style guide furnished by the publisher (or editor, if self-publishing).

WHERE AND WHY TO USE ELLIPSES

There are many reasons why you might want to use an ellipsis. An ellipsis can indicate omitted words within the middle of a quote, or faltering dialogue, or an unfinished sentence or thought where the speaker’s words trail off.

For faltering dialogue, you have two choices, depending on your style guide.

Style #1: Equally spaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.
Style #2: Unspaced dots with one space before and after ellipsis.

Example #1 (uses three periods): “I . . . I . . . would never break the law.”
Example #2 (uses ellipsis created with Word shortcut): “I … I … would never break the law.”

For words that trail off, insert punctuation at end of ellipses. If the dialogue continues to another sentence, leave a space.

Example #1: “Why would he . . .? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”
Alternate style (Word shortcut): “Why would he …? I mean, I can’t believe he got caught with that bimbo.”

Example #2: “My weight? I’m about one hundred and . . . So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

Alternate style (Word shortcut): “My weight? I’m about one hundred and … So, how ’bout them Bears. Did you watch the game?”

THREE DOTS VERSE FOUR

Here’s where some writers may find ellipses a little tricky.

Sometimes we need to omit words from the end of one sentence but still continue the quoted passage. This type of ellipsis is called a terminal ellipsis. In this instance, the CMOS recommends using four dots, or periods. The fourth dot indicates the period at the end of the sentence that we haven’t quoted in its entirety. By including that fourth dot it lets the reader know that the quotation borrows from more than one sentence of the original text.

Example from Pretty Evil New England:

Then I made up my mind to kill Mrs. Gordon. Poor thing, she was grieving herself to death over her sickly child. So life wasn’t worth living anyway. I was sorry, though, for the poor, unfortunate child, Genevieve. I love the little one very much. . . . I thought with Mrs. Gordon out of the way I could be a mother to her child and get [her husband] Harry Gordon to marry me.

Notice how I didn’t omit any necessary words? That’s key. We have a responsibility to other writers—in this case, the female serial killer—to not mislead the reader by leaving out words that change the meaning of the quote.

Three most important takeaways for ellipses in dialogue.

  • Avoid ellipses overload—too many can diminish their impact.
  • Reserve ellipses for middle and end of dialogue. If the character fumbles around to spit out their first word, use a body cue or other description instead.
  • Maintain consistent ellipses spacing throughout the manuscript.

Now, like most things in writing, there are exceptions to these rules. Always follow the publisher or editor’s recommendations. If you don’t have any recommendations to follow, feel free to use this post as a guide.

For discussion: Do you use block quotes in your writing? If so, why did you choose to do that? Care to share one of the exceptions to any of these guidelines?

10+

Banished Words 2020

Banished Words 2020

Terry Odell

Banished WordsOne of my final editing tasks is removing overused words. I have my list of offenders, and I run the manuscript through SmartEdit, which will find more I was unaware of.

But “overused” can’t be decided based solely on number of uses. It depends on the word.

We all have words and phrases we like to use, often to the point of overuse. Maybe we’re not even aware we’re using them. When we’re writ­ing, they seem to sneak into our man­u­scripts via our fin­gers, as if the brain isn’t involved at all.

Lit­tle words, like “just” and “really” and “well” are com­monly listed among words that don’t add any­thing to the man­u­script other than giv­ing our brains time to catch up with what we’re try­ing to write. They’re the equiv­a­lent of the “um” in speak­ing.

Big “fancy” words, or “unusual” words are in another cat­e­gory. Miasma? Efful­gent? Par­si­mony? They’re going to jump out at a reader, and should be used spar­ingly, per­haps only once or twice in an entire man­u­script. I recall an author using halcyon repeatedly, and it made me stop after the second time.

Recently, one of my critique partners asked about my use of libation, bringing up an important point. How many characters used the term? Often, it’s good to have specific vocabulary words used by specific characters.

While I’m looking at my repeated words, I will check for con­text. Is it dia­logue? Does it enhance the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion? Then, I look to see how long it’s been since the last time I used the word. (There’s that “you’re on page XXX” thing at the bot­tom of Word.)

If it’s a com­mon word, my goal is at least 10 pages between uses. “Medium” words, maybe 30–50 pages. And those big fancy ones? If they’re truly the char­ac­ter speak­ing, and not autho­r­ial intru­sion, once is enough. Not a rule, just something I consider.

And, of course, the caveat that any “fancy” words are appro­pri­ate to the char­ac­ter, the genre, and the time­frame of the book. If you’re read­ing a Regency romance, the lan­guage is going to be totally dif­fer­ent from a contemporary.

There are other words one might want to avoid. Every year, Lake Superior State University publishes its “Banished Words List” of words based on misuse, overuse, and general uselessness. Their list for 2020 contains the following.

Most nominated

  • quid pro quo

Words that attempt to make something more than it is

  • Artisanal
  • Curated
  • Influencer

Words banished for pretentiousness or imprecision

  • Literally
  • I mean
  • Living my best life
  • Mouthfeel

Those darn millennials!

  • Chirp
  • Jelly (Abbreviation of jealous)
  • Totes (Abbreviation of totally)
  • Vibe/vibe check

To see why these were selected, go here.

What about you? Any words that jump out at you when you’re reading, either mundane or unusual?



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

10+

The Ears Have It

The Ears Have It
By Terry Odell

Deer EarAs authors, we want to provide the best possible experience for our readers. That means providing a well-edited book, and the more reliable eyes on the manuscript, the better. But I’ve learned you need ears on the manuscript as well.

Skipping the ‘read it out loud’ editing pass means you’re going to miss things. Heck, even when you do read it out loud, you still miss things, because you’re too familiar with what you’ve written. Your eye sees what’s supposed to be on the page. That’s what you’ll read; that’s what you’ll hear.

Since I can’t afford a narrator to read the book aloud twice, and I don’t know anyone who’d be crazy enough spend the time to read the book to me, I investigated having my computer do the job. I’d tried it a long time ago, and the robotic voice was impossible to listen to. However, there have been improvements in the system, so I decided to give things another shot. Here’s what I discovered.

Disclaimer. I use Microsoft Word.

Word has two ways to have the computer read your manuscript to you, and since they’re part of Word, you don’t need to install (or pay for) another program. One is the Speak Selected Text option which I blogged about here.

The other option is Read Aloud, and here’s a peek at how it works. Note: “Read Aloud” offers a choice of narrators, which is nice to break things up. I chose the female voice for this section.

You can find more here.

Depending on your version of Word, you may be able to use one or both.

Whereas my audiobook narrators are performers, the Word guy who’s reading my text to me (I call him Fred) simply recites the words on the page. Unlike the audiobook narrators who sometimes leave out words, or substitute others, “Fred” is going to read exactly what’s on the page. For example, I’d read this paragraph countless times, as had my editor and crit partners.

She drove the up the dirt lane. A beam of sunlight shone through a break in the gray winter sky, reflecting off a sprawling white two-story house, as if to say, This is your light in the darkness.

No one saw the typo on any of their passes. Did you notice it? On the first read? Or were you paying close attention because I told you there was a typo? When “Fred” read it, the extra “the” jumped right out.

Listening forces you to go slowly. Depending on which option you use, you might be able to speed the read a bit, but you can’t ‘skim-listen.’ While “Fred” reads, I have the manuscript open. I look for wrong punctuation, improper spacing, and the like. If I catch repeated words that evaded my eyes but not my ears, I’ll fix those as well.

If Fred doesn’t know a word, he’ll spell it. Usually, these are acronyms, but sometimes it’s a word he’s not programmed for. Other time, his programming doesn’t work exactly right. In one instance, he read, “The paramedic inserted an four.” Can you figure out what I’d written? Answer at the end of the post.

There will be pronunciation errors. “Fred” doesn’t read in context. He doesn’t emphasize words in italics. He speeds up for dashes and hyphens. Our language is filled with heteronyms—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. The computer doesn’t read context, so you’ll get the occasional jolt for words like live, read, wind, dove, close, bow, complex, and presents, but that’s good, because it makes you pay attention.

Other “fun” jolts come from Fred’s programming regarding abbreviations, as in “Joe came into the room and sat.” Fred read this as “Joe came into the room and Saturday.” Or, when the character said, “Wait a sec,” Fred read “Wait a section.”

No matter which method you choose, hearing a computer read exactly what you’ve written is a critical—and ear-opening—step in the editing process. By the time “Fred” and I are through the manuscript, I’m hoping to have a better product for my readers.

Is it worth it? I’d say yes, especially when you get a review like this one: “After reading so many books with poor editing, I was very happy to finally read a book without the distracting errors and I was able to enjoy the story.”

As for what I’d written: “The paramedic inserted an IV.”



Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

8+

The Edit Has Landed

(photo via GoDaddy stock)

 

The edit has landed. I repeat: The edit has landed. This is not a drill.

This refrain runs through my head every time I get an initial editorial letter from my editor after I’ve sold a manuscript. For the uninitiated, the editorial letter contains detailed comments and suggestions for changes the editor would like to see in the next version of a contracted manuscript.

On Sunday evening, the editorial letter for One Last Secret, my next suspense novel, arrived in my inbox.

I’m going to gloss over the agonizing hour or so I spent actually analyzing my letter. Imagine cheers or tears or cringing or reallys?! or ack–how did that get through? or yays! It’s a private moment that you are already familiar with if you’ve workshopped your own writing, or have had editors or truthful friends comment on it.

There’s a fine line when it comes to accepting or rejecting an editor’s suggestions. Ego can get in the way. Unless we’re collaborating with another writer, our stories have incubated in our own heads for months or years. Perhaps the initial drafts have been read by friends or spouses, etc, but they’re still essentially ours. It can be hard to let go, to be willing to let the manuscript change. But while an editor is also a reader, and often a fan, they are not just any reader/friend offering suggestions. They’re professionals who have a financial interest in seeing that the story appeals to a large number of readers.

An editor or reader is attracted to a novel or story as a result of the writer’s ability to successfully communicate a vision of the story that exists in the writer’s head.

But as we know, no two visions of a story are even close to identical. The best writing speaks loudly to people for myriad reasons, and tugs at the chords deeply anchored to our souls. And no two souls are alike. It’s a huge compliment for a writer to have a reader say a writer’s work resonates with them, whether it’s something as simple as a character with whom they identify, or a whole new world into which they can escape for an afternoon  and beyond.

An editor is an agent of the re-visioning process. (I’ve probably mentioned re-visioning before as a concept mentioned by Joyce Carol Oates.) In a re-vision, the vision of the story becomes something totally new for the writer. This new vision will change with each new addition or deletion or deepening of the story. It can be brought about with mechanical precision by making sure the story has all the necessary beats, or meets and even enhances the conventions of the genre. Or it will change when the writer combines characters, kicks the hero(ine) into higher gear, or tweaks the emotional impact of a scene. It’s a birth process that goes on and on until both the editor and the writer agree that their mutual visions meet on the page and are compatible enough to be presented to the world. They’re both happy. (Or they run out of time!)

For me it’s both wrenching and exciting to work with an editor. In theory—and it’s a theory I extoll frequently—I want to write and edit in service of the story. I write toward that Platonic ideal that exists for every story. The ideal we can only ever express as a shadow. But I want to at least make it a shadow that lives and makes other people see it as an ideal thing in their heads. It should have no visible seams, no dull moments, no unnecessary details, clear ideas, smart dialogue, and compelling images. In other words, as close to an ideal as possible.

Occasionally though, the old ego wants to dig in its heels when the suggestions come. My story! it cries. Mine! Mine! Mine! It begs me to leave it alone. Very occasionally there are story elements that I feel are integral and necessary to the story, and I try to negotiate their continued existence. Now that I think about it, the very few times that has happened, various editors have been very supportive. But I generally keep my ego in check. It really is all about the story. And a good editor knows how to balance the writer’s need for respect/story integrity with her own need to make the story more appealing to the marketing department and readers.

Not everyone likes the revision process. As I said, it’s both wrenchingly difficult and exciting for me at the same time. Change is hard, and changing our stories can be particularly tough because edits often feel like judgments. I just keep telling myself that an edited story is something shiny and brand new in the world. A new creation. And who doesn’t like the feeling of having created something new?

 

How do you approach the editing process—whether suggestions are from reader friends or paid editors? Do you love it, hate it, or see it as just one more step to be endured?

Or tell us about an editor you’ve loved working with…

4+

Sculpting That Manuscript

Terry Odell

When we first moved to Colorado, we rented a tiny studio apartment while looking for a permanent home. One evening, our landlords invited us up for a glass of wine and some conversation. She is a sculptor who works primarily in stone. She mentioned it was interesting we were both artists.

Frankly, I’d never considered myself an artist, but we discussed our creative processes. There’s an old saying that in order to carve a block of stone into an elephant, you simply chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. In writing, you keep adding until you get the elephant.

If writing were like sculpting, it would mean being able to change what comes next, but not what came before. Scary. Really scary. When the sculptor asked how I created a book, what my preparation process was, did I outline the plot, or develop the characters, I answered that I knew very little when I first started writing.

She said she worked the same way. She might have a very simple sketch—no more than a line drawing, when she started, and a vague idea of the finished product—but the actual sculpture was dictated by the stone. She starts working and lets the stone show her the way.

That sounds very much like my own writing style. I joked about how my characters were always surprising me, and that the discovery was as much fun as the final product. On that, we were in total agreement.

But imagine if you started writing your book and couldn’t go back to fix things. Once you chip away that piece of marble, it’s gone and you can’t reattach it to the sculpture. I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘first draft’ for her. Some artists might make models first, using a different, “less valuable” kind of medium, but she likes to get right to it.

I remember going to a RWA chapter meeting, and as we shared where we were with our writing since the last meeting, one woman said, “I’m on Chapter 30 and have only 5 chapters left to go.” I was flabbergasted. How did she know what was going to go into each chapter, and that much in advance? How did she know her book was going to be 35 chapters long? A recent book ended up going on for about 4 chapters more after I thought I was writing the final chapter. And my editor asked me to expand even more. Glad I wasn’t a sculptor!

But when you do finally reach the end, if you’re like me, your book is full of “extra stuff”. It’s time to play sculptor and chisel away the words, paragraphs, scenes that aren’t helping your book look like the elephant it’s supposed to be. My first attempt at writing a novel came in at 143,000 words. The agents and editors I spoke with said 100,000 was the absolute top limit they’d even look at for a debut author.

Time to cut. You start with the jack hammer, removing any scenes that aren’t moving the story forward (even though they’re probably your favorites). “Does it advance the plot?” becomes your mantra. This is where you’re probably letting everyone know how much research you did. What constellations are visible in the night sky at 10 PM in Salem, Oregon? What’s the story behind Orion? What are the landmarks visible from the passenger seat while driving north on I-25 between Denver and Cripple Creek? What kind of cattle are grazing in the pastureland? How many coal trains chug by each day, carrying how much coal? Ask yourself two questions. 1: Does the reader need to know this. 2: Does the reader need to know this now? That 143,000 word book, Finding Sarah, was published at about 85K.

Finding Sarah

Another question to ask is “Does it come back?” In my book, Deadly Secrets, I had a scene where my heroine comes into her diner and tells the cop hero that she thinks someone’s in her upstairs apartment. The cop tells her to get down behind the counter. There’s mention of a pistol kept near the register. However, we never actually see the gun, other than a few thoughts about who it belongs to, and that almost everyone in the small Colorado town probably has one. Since the gun was never needed and never showed up again … SNIP. “Get behind the counter” is all that’s needed. Readers, especially mystery readers, don’t like a parade of red flags that have no place in the story.

Deadly Secrets

After you’ve tossed those big chunks of stone, you can get out the chisel and look at your narrative. Have you told what you’ve already shown? Trust your readers—they’ll get it. Are you repeating yourself even when you’re showing?

Once you’ve got the story essentials, you can get out the little grinders and brushes to get rid of those sneaky crutch words—the ones that creep into your manuscript when you close your file. (A handy writer’s tool for this is Smart Edit, which will find overused words you never saw coming.) Check for ‘filler’ words. Just, really, well, very, some (and all its variations). When we speak, we use ‘filler words’ to give our brain time to think. Most of the time, they’re not needed on the page and merely slow the read.

Once you’ve got your elephant cleaned and polished, it’s time to get it out there on exhibit, whether to an agent, editor, or beta reader.

What’s your writing style? I’m an ‘edit as I go’ writer, but even then, I have to go back and get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

<><><>
Thanks so much to Nancy for inviting me to be a guest at The Kill Zone. I’m thrilled to be here.
<><><>

TerryOdellFrom childhood, Terry Odell wanted to “fix” stories so the characters would behave properly. Once she began writing, she found this wasn’t always possible, as evidenced when the mystery she intended to write turned into a romance, despite the fact that she’d never read one. Odell prefers to think of her books as “Mysteries With Relationships.” She writes the Blackthorne, Inc. series, the Pine Hills Police series, and the Mapleton Mystery series. You can find her high (that’s altitude, of course—she lives at 9100 feet!) in the Colorado Rockies—or at her website.

7+

My Rolling Edit Process

800px-Reader48

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I expect to get a few push backs on this post. Many writers use the “draft” process of editing their book after they get it written. They push to get a first draft done before they edit in several more drafts, but for me, I’ve never been able to do this. There’s a compulsive part of my nature that can’t let my own imperfections remain on the page until the end. If I know my book is riddled with my idiosyncrasies, it would haunt me too much, but that’s just me.

I do what I call “rolling edits” because I want to stay close to the action and character motivation at hand. I still get my daily word count in, but I read and reread my daily new material until I have nothing more to edit. In other words, if I write a chapter on one day, I edit it as I continue to move forward until I consider moving on.

Here’s my edit process:

1.) DELETE WITH A VENGEANCE – My first pass is always to delete and tighten each sentence. To help this process, I usually read aloud. Anything I stumble over gets a redo. I have a tendency to use compound sentences, so I make sure not to have dangling participles or long sentences that are hard to follow. I have a two comma rule. Any sentence that needs more than two commas, should probably be broken apart.

2.) LOOK FOR REPETITION (MORE DELETES) – I look for overused words, redundant wording, repeated phrases or “crutch” words that I fall back on too often. This can change from book to book and each author will have their own verbal handicaps.

3.) ADD EMOTIONAL LAYERING – Every scene has an emotional component to it. I push to add more emotion, even if it seems over the top. In fiction, this works because stories are about triggering emotions that the reader can relate to. If the scene is action packed, I’m looking for those delectable word choices to support the action or short viscerally descriptive sentences that will make the thrill palpable to the reader.

4.) REVISE THE DIALOGUE – I read the scene dialogue (without the narratives) to see if I can imagine the characters in my head and hear their voices. If there is humor in the scene, I work to punch it up or improve the timing (usually by deleting). If there is menace in the exchange, I ramp up the threat.

5.) EDIT THE BODY LANGUAGE – I often add body language in each scene as if I am watching a movie, but books aren’t that visual and I can sometimes overdo certain “crutch” reactions, like too many shrugs or nods. Again this is another opportunity to delete usually and it’s worth having a step to look for this.

6.) SPOT CHECK CHARACTER MOTIVATION – Do the characters’ reactions ring true? What if one of them reacted differently, how would that change my scene. I test my character motivation while I am “in” the scene to make sure it feels authentic. As I go through the book and stay close to each character’s story arc, I want the ability to “feel” a different outcome or twist as it is occurring, rather than waiting until the end to realize I like a different turn to happen and have to rewrite major sections.

7.) LAYER IN SETTING – I like to make sure my setting enhances each scene to infuse the action with a setting that is almost like another character. I love writing stories with a strong sense of world building, to make the reader feel as if they can walk the same streets that my characters do, with all their senses.

8.) REMEMBER THE INTIMACY – If my characters have a spark of attraction (that can have it’s own story arc), there is nothing more titillating than mounting intimacy. A glance, a first touch, can be drawn out so the reader feels everything. This can be construed as #3 (adding emotional layering), but for me, a growing romance should carry its own importance. If you can strip out the romance of a story, and the book no longer makes sense, then you have the right balance. This means that the romance is integral. The lovers are “punished” for wanting to be together and they get into more trouble because of it.

ROLLING PROCESS:
As I’ve mentioned, I keep writing my daily word goals, but continue to edit prior scenes (usually a chapter or two previously written) until I’m content to move on. Because I’m old school, I kill a lot of trees by printing out my edit pages and making notes in the margins. Every night I read what I’ve written before I go to bed. My reward is to get my own work done first before I treat myself to reading someone else’s book. The next morning, I make the changes.

By the time I get to the end, my novel is fully edited by me. I usually make one or two more passes through, to read it as a reader might. But most of the major edits are done. When I’m done, I’m done.

I set my daily word count, depending on the contractual due date. The usual range can be 2500-5000 words per day. My advice to other writers, on setting word count goals, is to take into account your priorities and set realistic goals. Even if you can only squeeze in a page a day, that is still progress and you will eventually get done.

DISCUSSION:
1.) How many of you do something similar? Anything you would add to my list?

2.) If you edit in drafts, what tips do you have to make this draft process more effective?

12+

Don’t Muddle Your Message

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie  Renner, editor & author

After your first (or second or third) draft, it’s time to go through your manuscript to cut out any unneeded words that are just cluttering it up.

Wordiness muddles your message, slows down the momentum, and drags an anchor through the forward movement of your story. It also reduces tension, anticipation, and intrigue, all essential for keeping readers glued to your book.

Wordiness gets in the way of a free, easy, natural narrative flow and wrenches your readers out of the fictive dream by subliminally irritating them and making them wonder if there are better ways to use their time.

Here’s an example of minor wordiness that disrupts the flow and slows down the pace. This is a well-disguised passage from my editing of a few years ago. For the “Suggested changes” section, I’ve crossed through all words to be removed and underlined words added, and I changed the font color to red, to imitate Track Changes, which most editors use these days. My notes and comments are in italics.

Genre: crime fiction

Setup: McRae is a homicide detective who’s just arrived to search the home of a murder victim and begin questioning neighbors. He’s speaking to a young man named Rod who lives next door.

Original excerpt:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes involuntarily traveled to the porch lamp by the door.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right hand up and felt a small box of some sort. He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys. He slid the top back and the key was missing from inside.

McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. Rod reached into his jacket pocket and produced a brass key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves,” McRae said, and looked around. “They’re mostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own home, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed.”

If no one saw him leave, they would have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. There was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, but the missing car presented another set of theories.

Suggested changes:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me?  Are you hiding something, Rod?”
Rod’s eyes flicked involuntarily traveledto the porch lamp by the door.
– The tighter wording reflects the quick action.
McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He stretched his right handreached up and felt a small metal box. of some sort.  He pulled it loose and saw it was a magnetic case of the kind used to hide spare keys .  He  slid the top back. No key. and the key was missing from inside.
– No need to say “his right hand” as it doesn’t matter which hand, and we assume if he’s reaching for something that it’s with his hand.
– No need to say “he saw” as we’re in his point of view, so we know it’s what he’s seeing.
– The rest of the changes in the above paragraph just reduce excess wordiness to reflect his inner thought patterns at that moment.
McRae extended his palm out, and Rod seemed to deflate. HeRod reached in his pocket and produced a brass key.
– “out” is redundant. Also, it’s best not to keep repeating names – the new “He” refers to the last male mentioned, so Rod.
McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” HeMcRae said,  looked around.  They’re mMostly retirees in this complex, so they should have been home last night.,” McRae suggested. “If he was killed somewhere besides in his own homeelse, we have to find that place, and finding his car might tell us something about where he was before he was killed give us some clues.”
– Replace “he said” or “she said” with action tags whenever it will work. When “he said” or “she said” is followed by an action, most of the time it’s best to take out the he or she said, as the action indicates who’s speaking.
– No need to add additional speech tags within a short paragraph of someone talking. We know it’s still that person speaking.
– “finding his car might give us some clues” sounds more like a terse, busy detective than the longer original wording, so more in character, especially for a male.
McRae would have to question all the neighbors, because if no one saw him leave, they’dwould have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like itThere was no evidence of a crime having taken place there, and the missing car presented another set of theories.
– In fiction, it’s almost always best to use contractions (we’ve, I’m, she’s, they’d, etc.) in casual dialogue and thoughts.
– The change in the last line to reduce wordiness makes the detective’s inner reasoning sound more natural and casual.

A tighter final version:

McRae asked, “Why would you lie to me? Are you hiding something, Rod?”

Rod’s eyes flicked to the porch lamp.

McRae fought a smile as he realized he hadn’t looked there for a spare house key. He reached up and felt a small metal box. He pulled it loose and slid the top back. No key.

McRae turned to his partner. “Let’s check the nearby neighbors ourselves.” He looked around. “Mostly retirees, so they should have been home last night. If he was killed somewhere else, finding his car might give us some clues.”

If no one saw him leave, they’d have to assume the murder took place inside Norm’s home. It didn’t look like it, and the missing car presented another set of theories.

By cutting back on the wordiness, we’ve not only picked up the pace and made the narrative flow more effortlessly; we’ve also deepened characterization of the detective. The original, more stilted version seemed like the author telling us things, whereas in this final, more relaxed version, the wording keeps us firmly in the point of view and voice of this busy male homicide detective.

So look for all those “little word pile-ups” in your manuscript and see if you can smooth out the sentences by deleting extra words. The end result should be not only faster pacing and more tension, but will be much closer to how that character would actually speak and think.

Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversDo any of you have any before-and-after examples to share of tightening up your writing? Leave them in the comments below!

Books by Jodie Renner:
~ Fire up Your Fiction – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Stories   Amazon.com   Amazon.ca   Amazon.co.uk

~ Captivate Your Readers – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction Amazon.com  Amazon.ca  Amazon.co.uk

~ Writing a Killer Thriller – An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction  Amazon.com    Amazon.ca    Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Amazon.co.uk
~ Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips  Amazon.com,  Amazon.ca,  Amazon.co.uk
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Just the Right Word is Only a Click Away!

by Jodie Renner, editor and author, @JodieRennerEd

How are your word usage and spelling skills? Try this quiz to find out.

Would you say, “Please join Kerry and me” or “Please join Kerry and I”? Do you lay down or lie down for a nap? Should you rein in or reign in your impulses? Did chaos rein or reign in the classroom for the student teacher? The homicide detective arrived at the scene of the grizzly (or is it grisly) murder. How did that effect (or is it affect) you? What was the effect/affect of that show on your kids?

Did the elicit or the illicit lovers have a discrete or discreet rendezvous? Do you insure, ensure, or assure that your seat belt is fastened? Do you hone in or home in on a problem? Do you say “He got his just desserts” or “He got his just deserts”?

Which is correct, “between you and me” or “between you and I”? Do you peak at a mountain peek or vice-versa? And do those juicy bits of gossip peak your curiosity or pique your curiosity? Do you pore over or pour over the details of a document? Did the singer damage her vocal chords or vocal cords? What’s the difference between continual and continuous? allusion and illusion? aural and oral? idyllic and ideal? further and farther? a gourmet and a gourmand? fictional, fictitious, and fictive? jibe and gibe? e.g. and i.e.? bizarre and bazaar?

What are the main differences between American and British spelling? Do Canadians use British or American, spelling, words and expressions? And what the heck is “codswallop”?

And for you fiction writers, what are the word length guidelines for flash fiction, short short stories, short stories, novelettes, novellas, and novels? What’s the difference between an antagonist and an antihero? What’s a crucible in fiction? How about dramatic irony? How is a metaphor different from a simile? What’s a McGuffin?

Scroll down for the answers to most of these questions, and you can find the rest and many more in my handy, clickable, time-saving Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Style and Usage Tips for Busy Writers and Editors.


This e-resource and my Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips are also available as PDFs for $2.99 (or both for $4.99) through me, at info (at) JodieRenner (dot) com.

Both of these e-resources for writers, editors, proofreaders, and anyone with a writing project on the go have an alphabetical “Key” of clickable groups of letters, like ca  ce  ci  ch  cl  cr  etc. at the beginning, to click on to quickly find words starting with those two letters. Then on each page you click on “Home” or “Back” to get back to the KEY to quickly find another word.

Some excerpts from Quick Clicks: Word Usage, mostly in alphabetical order:

affect; effectaffect (verb) means to influence or have an effect on: “The state of the economy affects businesses.” Effect (noun) means a result: “A cooperative, friendly work environment has a positive effect on staff morale.” A good way to remember the difference is that affect starts with an “a” just like “action” and it’s an action verb; whereas effect is usually a noun. (However, effect can also be used as a verb, meaning to cause, to make happen, produce: “The new president will effect many changes.”)

allusion; illusion – an allusion in an indirect reference to something: “The boss made an allusion to Peter’s earlier career during his evaluation.” An illusion is a misconception, unreal image, or false impression: “Peter had no illusions about how tough it was going to be to meet his employer’s expectations.”

“and me” or “and I”? – Is it “Frank and me worked on that project last week” or “Frank and I worked on that project last week?” Is it “Save seats for Carole and I” or “Save seats for Carole and me”? Here’s a little trick that always works for these cases: Take out the other person’s name and the “and.” If what you’re left with makes sense, that’s the word you need in the original sentence, including the other person. Would you say “me worked on that project”? No, so it’s “Frank and I worked…” Would you say “Save a seat for I” or “Save a seat for me”? You’d use the “and me” there, so add back the other name and it’s “Save seats for Carole and me.”

assure; ensure; insureassure means to give confidence to or put someone’s mind at ease, as in to assure your child you’ll be home soon; ensure means to make certain, as in to ensure you take precautions; insure means to guarantee against loss, as in to insure your car. “Brent assured her that insuring her possessions now would ensure she would be reimbursed for lost or stolen items later.”

aural, oralaural means of or relating to the ears or to hearing; oral means of or relating to the mouth or speaking. Not usually an issue, but apparently when “the pill” was first introduced in the early 1960s as the first oral contraceptive, some women reportedly mistook “oral” for “aural” and stuffed pills into their ears! (Thanks to Garner for this little anecdote – whether it’s actually true or not!)

between you and me is correct – never “between you and I.”

bizarre; bazaarbizarre means strange, startlingly odd; bazaar is a market.

chord; cordchord is reserved for music; cord = string, rope; a measure of wood; ribbed fabric; and vocal cords

continual; continuouscontinual = frequently occurring, intermittent, as in continual complaints; continuous = nonstop, occurring without interruption; unceasing, as in a continuous siren

deserts, desserts – deserts = something someone deserved – “He got his just deserts.” desserts = sweet choices for at the end of a meal. (And then there’s deserts, arid regions with very little rain.)

discreet; discretediscreet = unobtrusive, tactful, circumspect, judicious (They had a discreet meeting in the back corner of a small coffeeshop); discrete = separate, distinct, unconnected (several discrete sections)

e.g., or i.e.,i.e., means “that is”; e.g., means “for the sake of example” or “for example.” i.e., specifies or explains; e.g., simply indicates an example. Note that both have two periods and both are followed by a comma. Chicago style is to use these two-character abbreviations only within parentheses or in notes; in regular prose, use “for example,” or “that is,”

elicit; illicitelicit (v) = to draw out an answer, information, etc. (elicit an apology); illicit (adj) = illegal (an illicit scheme)

em dash (—) Longer than an en dash (–), which is longer than a hyphen (-), used within words. To make the em dash, click on Ctrl+Alt+minus (far top right, on the number pad).

en dash (–) Ctrl + minus sign (far top right, on the number pad). Often used in nonfiction, with a space on either side of the dash. Fiction tends to use the longer em dash (—) instead, with no spaces on either side.

farther; furtherfarther is mainly used for physical distances; further is for time or quantity. “He lives about three miles farther down this road.” But “We need to look into this further.”

fictional; fictitious; fictive – CMOS: fictional means “of, relating to, or characteristic of imagination” (a fictional story); fictitious means “imaginary, counterfeit, false” (a fictitious name); fictive means “possessing the talent for imaginative creation” (a fictive gift)

gibe; jibegibe = a biting insult or taunt: “The angry crowd hurled gibes as the handcuffed suspect passed.” jibe = to fit or coincide – “The conclusion didn’t jibe with the facts.”

gourmet; gourmandgourmet = one who knows and appreciates the fine points of food and drink; gourmand = one who is excessively fond of food and drink, glutton

grisly; grizzly; grizzledgrisly = gruesome, horrible, as in “grisly details”; grizzly = species of large bear, also grayish; grizzled = gray hair or beard.

him and me; he and I – Use “him and me” for object (receiver) of the action: They invited him and me to the reception. Use “he and I” for the subject (doer) of the action: “He and I arrived at 7 p.m.” If in doubt, just use one of the two persons to try it out. Would you say “Him arrived”? or “Me arrived”? No, so it’s “He and I arrived.” Would you say “They invited I”? No, so it’s “They invited him and me.” Same applies to she and I vs. her and me.

home; hone – you hone your skills (hone means to sharpen), but you home in on something, like a homing pigeon comes closer and closer to its target. “hone in” is incorrect and to be avoided.

idyllic; idealidyllic = charming, picturesque; ideal = perfect

implicit; explicitimplicit = not specifically stated but suggested; explicit = deliberately spelled out

lay; lieLay requires a direct object – you lay something down: “Lay your pens down.” Lie does not require or take a direct object – You lie down for a nap. Grandma lies down every afternoon for a rest.

The verb tenses of lay are lay, laid, laid, laying. She laid the baby in the cradle this morning. I laid the book there yesterday. These rumors have been laid to rest.

The verb tenses of lie are lie, lay, lain, lying. She was tired in the afternoon so she lay down on the couch for a while. (past) Grandpa hasn’t yet lain down today.

peak; peek; pique – A peak is an apex, as in a mountain peak; a peek is a quick or illicit glance. (To help remember which is which, when you peek at something, you see it (both have “ee”). To pique is to annoy or arouse, so an article or a bit of gossip piques one’s interest. A fit of pique is an episode of peevishness and wounded vanity.

pore over or pour over?pore = to read or study attentively – “poring over the details” (not “pouring,” unless you’re pouring milk over your cereal!)

rein; reign – A rein (usu. plural) controls a horse; it is the right word in idioms such as “take the reins,” “give free rein,” and, as a verb, “rein in.” A reign is a state of or term of dominion, especially that of a monarch but by extension dominance in some field. This is the right word in idioms such as “reign of terror” and “to reign supreme.”

British expression: What a load of codswallop! = That’s baloney! No way!

FICTION TERMS:

Average lengths of literary works:

These are rough guidelines, and there is often a bit of overlap. Individual publishers’ word-count guidelines may vary.

~ Flash fiction: A story that is less than 500 words long.

~ Short short story: A story that is roughly between 500 and 1000 words long.

~ Short story: A story that’s usually between 1,000 and 7,500 words long.

~ Novelette: A story roughly between 7500 and 17,500 words long. (Some consider the term novelette to be outdated.)

~ Novella: Fiction that falls between a short story and a novel; usually between 17,500 and 50,000 words long.

~ Novel: Fiction that is about 50,000 or more words long.

Antagonist: The main character or force in fiction that tries to stop the protagonist (the hero or heroine of the story) from achieving his/her goal.

Antihero: A protagonist who has no (or few) heroic virtues or qualities (such as being morally good, idealistic, courageous, noble), blurring the line between hero and villain. An antihero has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero, at least at the beginning of the novel.

Metaphor: a word or phrase that means one thing and is used to refer to another thing to emphasize their similar qualities, e.g., He used the metaphor of the family to describe the role of the state. Something that is intended to represent another situation or idea: It is easy to see the crumbling building as a metaphor for the society of the time. (Macmillan dictionary) “He was drowning in paperwork” is a metaphor in which having to deal with a lot of paperwork is being compared to drowning in an ocean of water. (M-W)

Simile: a phrase that describes something by comparing it to something else using the word “like” or “as”, for example, “He eats like a pig.” She’s as fierce as a tiger” is a simile, but “She’s a tiger when she’s angry” is a metaphor.

McGuffin: A common plot device used in films and novels, especially mysteries. Basically used to distract the reader from the real issues. It’s an image or object or place that is referred to occasionally to spark interest, but which ultimately turns out not to be significant or relevant to the plot.

How did you do?  Do you have any other often-confused words or terms to add? And suggestions always welcome for these two e-resources as well!

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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First page critique: QUEST FOR HONOR

by Joe Moore

Today’s first-page critique is from a story called QUEST FOR HONOR. My comments follow.

July 2011

Somalia

​Every night, he saw the children. No matter how tired he was, no matter how preoccupied he was from the events of the day, no matter anything, he dreamed. And in his dreams, they came for him. Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.

​On this hot night, he woke up screaming. “No! Save them! Save them!” Bolting upright suddenly, the bedclothes fell away from him, drenched with his sweat. He was panting. The shadow had gotten close to him, as the children milled around, and he felt its cold tendrils snaking around him, drawing him closer…

There was a knock at the door, then a muffled voice.

“Yusuf! Are you all right?”

He didn’t answer, and the door edged open. The face that peered in was that of Amir, his most trusted lieutenant. Did the man never sleep? “Are you ill, Yusuf? May I get you anything?”

​In his bed, the man shook his head, banishing the last wisps of the faces, knowing they would be back, perhaps as soon as he nodded off again. “Thank you, Amir, but I am fine. A bad dream, that is all.”

​“Shall I prepare some hot tea? It often helps me sleep.”

​Yusuf started to object, but said, “That would be good. Please, bring it to the library, and join me.”

He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light. The lone overhead bulb sputtered but stayed on. At least the electricity was running, he thought. Otherwise it would be candles and lanterns, as it was some nights. How could this truly be part of the land of Allah’s people if it could not consistently provide even the bare necessities? Ah, but what necessities are we thinking of, Yusuf reminded himself. The ones you enjoyed back in America, at university? Or the ones the true believers scraped and scavenged for every day, here in the barren countryside, the crowded cities, that made up the lands of the Prophet, blessings be upon him?

I’m not a big fan of opening a book with a dream, but this does set the stage for drama. The writer has a good command of storytelling. I have a suspicion that this is going to be an emotionally charged tale. There’s not much I find to critique here. Some unneeded use of adverbs and extra wording. A bit of cleanup can cure that. But overall, a good start. Here are a few suggested line edits.

Avoid passive voice. Change “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication…” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes…” Change “…and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing…” to “a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them…”

Avoid run-on sentences. “Their eyes were filled with pain and supplication, and behind them was always a shadow, looming in the back, dark and menacing, and sometimes he could hear its wicked laughter, smell its fetid breath.” to “Pain and supplication filled their eyes, and a shadow, dark and menacing, loomed behind them. Sometimes he heard its wicked laughter, smelled its fetid breath.”

Avoid adverbs and unneeded words. For example: “Bolting upright suddenly, the his bedclothes fell away from him…”

Avoid confusion. “Did the man never sleep?” is Yusuf’s interior thought yet the reader might feel it is Amir who thinks it. Place it in italics. Then start a new paragraph with “Are you ill, Yusuf?”

Avoid unneeded words. Change “In his bed, the man shook his…” to “Yusuf shook his head…” We already know he is in bed.

Avoid simultaneous actions that are not simultaneous. Change “He rose and pulled on a dry robe, switching on the light.” to “He rose, pulled on a dry robe, and switched on the light.”

I think this is a good first draft. A little editing would make it tight and crisp. I would definitely keep reading. Thanks to the author for submitting this first-page sample. Good luck.

How about you guys? Would you turn to page 2 or move on?

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When is “Dark” too dark?

Nancy J. Cohen

One of the words I’ve been repeating in my works lately has been “dark”. You know, the man swung his dark gaze her way. He wore a dark suit. He had his dark hair brushed back over a wide forehead. Shadows darkened in a corner as he gave her a dark scowl.

Ouch.

This can be considered lazy writing, except I hadn’t even been aware of this fault until I ran one of the self-edit programs described in my personal blog at http://bit.ly/12iU9nZ. I embarked on a search and find mission to replace as many of these weak terms as possible.

Let’s start with clothes. Face it, men wear dark suits. To get a better idea of colors, I accessed this website: http://lawyerist.com/suit-colors-for-the-clueless/. Ah, now it became clear which colors are popular for men and suited to business. My descriptions of dark suits changed to black, charcoal, slate or navy. That’s a lot better than “dark”, isn’t it?

charcoal blazer

If you want to get even more particular, go online to a department store site like Macys.com and put in the search feature “suits, “blazers”, or “sportcoats” and you’ll get a wide variety of colors.

navy blazer

What about the character who has dark hair? Is it black or dark brown? Check this reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_hair_color. Instead of black hair, give your character raven, ebony, or onyx hair. Varying the descriptions adds spice to your story.

Jen4

Also watch out for redundancies like dark shadows & dark scowl. Both of these work well without the “dark” element.

Despite its ambiguity, this word is popular for movies. Witness Batman’s The Dark Knight; Thor: The Dark World; and Star Trek into Darkness.

The filmmakers can get away with it, but as a writer, you cannot. What other ambiguous words like this might you want to change?

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