How to Reach More Readers with Your Writing

15 Tips for Clear, Concise, Powerful Writing

by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

Today’s tips, a last-minute fill-in here, come from the handout for a talk I gave to a local writing group whose members were very divergent in their writing projects. These succinct pointers apply to blog posts, magazine articles, and nonfiction writing, as well as fiction writing.

When revising your work, keep these 15 tips handy to help you clarify and strengthen your message and keep your readers engaged.

1. Write in a clear, casual, friendly accessible style. Avoid formal or stiff writing. Pretend you are talking to people you know and like. Let your personality and warmth show through.

2. Grab the reader’s attention at the beginning with a compelling statement, question, scene, or example.

3. Avoid formal sentences and pretentious language. Rather than impressing your readers, ornate, fancy words can just end up alienating them. Don’t send your readers away from your story to look up a word. Fancy, erudite, or pompous words are show-offy and frustrating. Besides, immediately recognizable words make for instant comprehension and keep the pace going and the reader turning the pages. But look for the strongest, most evocative word for the situation.

4. Don’t confuse, annoy, or bore your readers with unclear or vague writing. Avoid generalities and vague terms like “things,” “food,” “people” and “animals.” Use specific examples and sensory imagery to paint a clear picture and bring your ideas to life.

5. Vary your sentence structure and the lengths of your sentences. Avoid starting several sentences in a row with He or She or the person’s name. Break up long, convoluted sentences.

6. Write lean. Make every word count. Take out all unnecessary and repetitive words and sentences and go for an easy flow of ideas. Avoid repeating ideas and watch for those little words that just clutter up your sentences. Take out “It was,” “There was,” and “that” wherever they’re not needed.

7. Take out wishy-washy qualifiers like quite, sort of, almost, kind of, a bit, pretty, somewhat, rather, usually, basically, generally, probably, mostly, really, etc. Forget “He was quite brave,” or “She was pretty intelligent” or “It was almost scary.” These qualifiers dilute your message, reduce the impact, and make the imagery weaker. Take them out. Even very is to be avoided – it’s like you’re saying the word after it needs reinforcing. “She was beautiful” packs more punch than “She was very beautiful.”

8. Keep adverbs to a minimum. Instead of propping up a boring, anemic verb with an adverb, look for strong, descriptive, powerful verbs. Instead of “He walked slowly” go for “He plodded” or “He trudged” or “He dawdled.” Instead of “She ate hungrily” say “She devoured the bag of chips,” or “She wolfed down the pizza.” Instead of “They talked quickly,” say “They babbled.”

9. Avoid colorless, overused verbs like walked, ran, went, saw, talked, ate, did, got, put, took. Get out your thesaurus (or use the MS Word one. Hint: look up the present tense: walk, run, eat, say, etc.) to find more expressive, powerful verbs instead, like crept, loped, stumbled, stomped, glimpsed, noticed, observed, witnessed, spied, grunted, whimpered, devoured, consumed, gobbled, wolfed, munched, or bolted.

10. Avoid –ing verbs wherever possible. Use -ed verbs instead – they’re stronger and more immediate. “He was racing” is weaker than “He raced.” “They searched the house” is more immediate than “They were searching the house.” Rewrite -ing verbs whenever you can, and you’ll strengthen your writing and increase its power. But keep -ing verbs for ongoing action that was going on while something else occurred: The phone rang while he was washing his car.

11. Use adjectives sparingly and consciously. Instead of stringing a bunch of adjectives in front of an ordinary, overused noun, find a more precise, expressive noun to show rather than tell. Overuse of adjectives can also turn your writing into “purple prose” that is melodramatic and overly “flowery.”

12. Avoid the passive voice. For greater impact, when describing an action, start with the doer, then describe what he did, rather than the other way around. Use the more direct active voice wherever possible. Instead of “The house was taped off by the police,” write “The police taped off the house.” Also, avoid empty phrases like “There is”, “There was,” “It’s,” and “It was.” Jump right in with what you’re actually talking about.

13. Avoid negative constructions wherever possible – they can be confusing to the reader. Instead of “I didn’t disagree with him,” say “I agreed with him.”

14. Read your pages out loud to make sure the ideas flow naturally. Wherever you stumble or have to reread, your readers will, too.

15. Pay attention to white space. A solid wall of words for a whole page can make readers anxious, especially reluctant readers. Use frequent paragraphing. For nonfiction and blog posts, use bolded subheadings and lists wherever appropriate.

Do you have any other good tips to keep in mind for the revision stage, especially for blog posts and magazine articles? If so, please share them in the comments below. Thanks!

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

Captivate_full_w_decalFirst, a quick reminder about Steven James’ one-day writers’ conference in Nashville on January 17, 2015, Troubleshooting Your Novel. I’ll be presenting a workshop on revision and self-editing, called “Revise for Success,” and I’ll also be conducting one-on-one manuscript evaluations. ~ Jodie Renner
——————

Inspired by Kathryn Lilley’s question here Friday, I decided that rather than post one of my craft-of-writing articles so close to Christmas and the Holiday Season, I’d just share some excellent inspirational and practical advice for fiction writers, most from well-known authors. Which ones resonate most with you? Do you have any good ones to add?

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~ Elmore Leonard

When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing. ~ Enrique Jardiel Poncela

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. ~ James Michener

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. ~ Michael Crichton

The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend. ~ Isaac Bashevis Singer

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~ Anton Chekhov

Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything. ~ Stephen King

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.
~ Elmore Leonard

Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money. ~ J.P. Donleavy
Fire up Your Fiction_ebook_2 silversEvery writer I know has trouble writing. ~ Joseph Heller

Writing is Rewriting. ~ ???

Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit. ~ Richard Bach

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page. ~ Jodie Picoult

Amateurs fall in love with every word they write. ~ William Bernhardt

Keep working. Don’t wait for inspiration. Work inspires inspiration. Keep working. ~ Michael Crichton

I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. ~ James Michener

I always do the first line well, but I have trouble doing the others. ~ Moliere

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. ~ Jack London

When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time.” ~ Stephen King

Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure. ~ Oliver Herford

I write fiction because it’s a way of making statements I can disown. ~ Tom Stoppard

Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon. ~ E.L. Doctorow

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~ Gene Fowler

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. ~ Sholem Asch

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~ Arthur Polotnik

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. ~ Stephen King

A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident. ~ W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up, 1938

Writing a Killer Thriller_May '13There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily. ~ Anthony Trollope

If I’m trying to sleep, the ideas won’t stop. If I’m trying to write, there appears a barren nothingness. ~ Carrie Latet

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live. ~ Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 19 August 1851

Write your first draft with your heart. Rewrite with your head. ~ From the movie Finding Forrester

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~ Gustave Flaubert

The scariest moment is always just before you start. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published. ~ Russell Lynes

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal; let it sleep in your drawer a twelvemonth; never venture a whisper about it to your friend, if he be an author especially. ~ A. Bronson Alcott

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. ~ Colette

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. ~ G.K. Chesterton

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s. ~ Stephen King (On Writing)

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. ~ Ernest Hemingway

The best style is the style you don’t notice. ~ Somerset Maugham

The road to hell is paved with adverbs. ~ Stephen King, On Writing

Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man’s life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible. ~ Leo Tolstoy

Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed. ~ Ray Bradbury

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

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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Basic Formatting of Your Manuscript (Formatting 101)

by Jodie Renner, editor & author @JodieRennerEd

Often, the first thing I have to do when I receive a manuscript for potential editing, before starting my sample edit, is to reformat it, so it’s easier for me to read. Here are some guidelines for formatting your manuscript before submitting it to a freelance editor, a formatter, a contest, an agent, or a publisher. Most of these instructions are for Microsoft Word, 2007 or later.

1. For editing, your manuscript needs to be in Microsoft Word (Microsoft Office). This is a must, as almost all editors use Word’s Track Changes.

2. Send the manuscript as a .doc or .docx, unless instructed otherwise. Some contests prefer or require rich text format (.rtf) or even plain text (.txt), but most submissions want .doc or .docx documents.

3. The preferred font is Times New Roman or something similar. It’s easier to read than many other fonts. The font size should be 12-point.

4. To change the font and size for the whole manuscript instantly, click Control + A (for All) at the same time, which highlights the entire manuscript, then change the font and size by using the toolbar on “Home,” and then click “Enter.”

5. Left-justify the text, rather than justifying both sides. That way, it’s easier for the editor to spot spacing errors. That means the text is lined up straight down the left side (except for indents), but the right side is jagged, depending on the length of the last word in the line. To do that, click Control + A, then click the left-justify icon on the toolbar along the top (Click tab for Home first). You can also do that by clicking on the little arrow to the bottom and right of “Paragraph,” then click on the down arrow beside “Alignment” and click on “Left.”

6. Use only one space between sentences, not two. Two spaces between the period and capital went out with manual typewriters.

Captivate_full_w_decal7. Do not press “Enter” at the ends of the lines to add an extra line-space between the lines! This is a HUGE no-no! It causes major headaches and a lot of frustration. As soon as a few words are added or deleted (which is what editing’s all about), everything screws up. So make sure that when you’re typing and you come to the end of a line, do not press “Enter” unless it’s for a new paragraph. Let the text “wrap” around on its own.

8. A quick and easy way to double-space your whole manuscript: Control + A (for “all”), then Control + 2 (Click on Ctrl and on 2 at the same time). Voilà! It’s done! To change the whole manuscript back to single spacing later, click on Ctrl + A, then Ctrl + 1.

9. To see at a glance all kinds of formatting errors, click on the paragraph symbol on the toolbar along the top. It’s called a “Pilcrow” and it looks like a backward “P”. Here it is: ¶. You’ll see dots where spaces are and a ¶ for every hard return (Enter), at the end of a paragraph or for an empty line space between paragraphs.

10. Correct spacing between sentences. Click on that ¶ symbol again to see a dot for every space (click of the space bar). If you have two (or 3 or 4) dots instead of one between sentences (between the period and the next capital), you need to take out the extra spaces and just have one space between sentences. You can fix that for the whole manuscript in a second or two by using Find and Replace. Click on “Replace,” then after “Find what” hit the space bar twice (if you have 2 spaces). Then after “Replace with” click the space bar once. Then click on “Replace all” and Voilà again! All fixed! (Unless of course you sometimes have 3 or even 4 spaces between random sentences, as I occasionally see in my editing – a heavy or over-enthusiastic thumb, I guess.)

11. Correct line-spacing and paragraphing: Click on that ¶ symbol in the toolbar again. You’ll see the pilcrow symbol ¶ at the end of every paragraph, to indicate a hard return (“Enter”), and then again at the beginning of a line-space. If you see the ¶ at the end of every line, all down the right margin, that’s a real problem – the biggest formatting mistake of all! You need to remove those pilcrows (returns) at the end of every line, either by using your “Delete” or “Backspace” keys before or after them, or by doing a “Find and Replace.” After “Find” you type in this: ^p (for the pilcrow or paragraph mark). After “Replace” you just hit the space bar once, to replace the carriage return with a space.

When you click on that pilcrow sign ¶, also look for extra dots at the beginnings of paragraphs, before the first indented word, and take them all out. There should just be the indents, with no extra dots in front of them. (I see that quite a lot in manuscripts I edit.)

Note that you should only see the pilcrow ¶ in two places – at the end of a paragraph, and on any blank line. If you see a ¶ anywhere other than those two locations, it’s misplaced and will probably cause some type of inadvertent mischief.

12. Paragraphing for fiction: For fiction manuscripts, don’t add an extra line-space between paragraphs. Just leave it at your normal double-spacing. Press “Enter” at the end of the last paragraph, then indent the new paragraph (0.3 to 0.5 inch) using the built-in paragraph styles, rather than tabs or spaces. (See #15 below for instructions on how to indent the right way.)

13. Paragraphing for nonfiction: Nonfiction usually uses block formatting, with no indents for new paragraphs but instead an extra space between paragraphs.

14. General rule for indenting and spacing paragraphs: If you indent your paragraphs, don’t leave an extra space between paragraphs; if you don’t indent, insert the extra space between paragraphs.

15. How to indent the first line of each paragraph:

Do not click repeatedly on the space bar to indent! Click on that pilcrow again ¶ and if you see 2-6 dots at the beginning of the paragraph, you’ve used the space bar to indent. That’s another big no-no, and a bit of a headache to fix, especially if you don’t always use the exact same number of spaces. Using the “Tab” key to indent paragraphs is also not the best. By far the best way to indent for the first line of a new paragraph is to use Word’s formatting. To do this for the whole manuscript at once, use Control + A (for All), then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the little arrow to the bottom right of “Paragraph” (in Word 2010), then under “Special” click on “First line,” then 0.5″ or 0.4″ or 0.3″. Don’t go for less than .3″ or more than .5″.

And by the way, by popular current convention, the first line of a new chapter or scene is not usually indented – don’t ask me why!

16. To center your title and chapter headings, do not repeatedly click on the space bar. Again, if you click on the pilcrow (¶) and you can see a bunch of dots in front of the title, you’ve used the space bar to get it over there in the middle. And don’t use the Tab key for that, either. Instead, highlight the title with your cursor, then click on the centering in the toolbar along the top, under the “Home” tab. Or go to “Paragraph” below that, and click on the arrow in the lower right corner, then go to “Alignment,” then click the down arrow and choose “Centering.” A quick trick for centering a word or phrase is to click your cursor in the middle of it, then click Ctrl + E. (Thanks to Hitch for this one!)

17. For extra line spaces between chapters, do not repeatedly click on Enter or Return. To force a page break at the end of a chapter (in Word 2010), place your cursor at the end of the chapter, usually on the line below the last sentence, then, in the toolbar along the top, click on the tab “Insert” then click on “Page Break.” In Word 2007, click on “Page Layout” in the toolbar, then click on “Breaks”, then on “Page.” Another quick trick? Press CTRL+Enter. This will give you a forced page break for the end of each chapter. Do not do this at the end of a normal page, only for the end of a chapter. (Thanks, Hitch, for another trick!)

18. Your next chapter heading (chapter name or number) should start at least 3 line-spaces down from the top of the page.

19. For more advanced, specific formatting, read the guidelines set out by the agent or publisher. Or stay tuned for “Formatting 102,” to appear here at some future time. And of course, formatting for publication, for example on Kindle, involves a lot more that’s not discussed here! Especially if you’re writing nonfiction like I do, with subheadings and lists.

20. And a few quick notes about formatting for dialogue:

~ Make a new paragraph for each new person talking. Also a new paragraph for someone else reacting to the previous speaker.

~ Comma after “said”: He said, “How are you?”

~ Comma at the end of the spoken sentence, where a period would normally go, inside the last quotation mark: “Come with me,” she said.

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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To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

… that is the question

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

[Check out my two handy, clickable, time-saving resources for writers, editors, students, and anyone else with writing projects: Quick Clicks: Word Usage – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips and Quick Clicks: Spelling List – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips. With all kinds of internal links, they’re both super quick and easy to use!]

Today I’m wearing my “Grammar Geek” hat to talk about using hyphens in fiction, nonfiction, blog posts, articles, etc. Hyphens, properly used, can actually eliminate confusion and clarify meaning. And chances are that even if you’re a really good speller, some or a lot of you, like me, often forget whether a term is hyphenated or not, so here are a few handy guidelines.

~ Is it one word, two words, or hyphenated?

According to Chicago Manual of Style (that and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary are considered the go-to resources for copyeditors and proofreaders), “Far and away the most common spelling questions for writers and editors concern compound terms—whether to spell as two words, hyphenate, or close up as a single word.”

When we’re busy writing, it’s easy to forget, for even the easiest words, whether it’s one word, two words, or hyphenated. Often, it can be all three, depending on the part of speech.

For example, it’s “lookout” for the noun –“Let’s head to the lookout” – but “look-out” for the adjective – a look-out tower – and “look out” for the verb – “Look out for snakes.” Similarly, castoff is a noun – “It’s a castoff”; cast-off is an adjective – “She wore cast-off clothes”; and cast off is a verb – “He cast off the boat and we headed downriver.” Many others follow the same pattern: cooldown (noun) – “We did a 10-minute cooldown”, cool-down (adj) – cool-down exercises, and cool down (verb) – “Time to cool down”. Same thing with login (noun), log-in (adj), and log in (verb). And finally, takeout (noun, M-W), take-out (adj., M-W), and take out (v, M-W).

See a pattern here? Very often, the noun form is one word, no hyphen, the adjective form is hyphenated, and the verb is two words. (Although English being English, of course there are always exceptions!)

~ Hyphen between prefix and root word?

And what about all those words with prefixes like re, un, de, pre, bi, mid, over, under, semi, sub, etc.? Is it re-read or reread?  over-conscientious or overconscientious? extramarital or extra-marital? under-employed or underemployed? semicircle or semi-circle? sub-category or subcategory?

Merriam-Webster and Chicago Manual of Style both favor not hyphenating after a prefix, so according to these two recognized authorities, none of the above should be spelled with the hyphen. But British and Canadian dictionaries seem to hyphenate them more often.

However, for some reason, Merriam-Webster puts a hyphen after the prefixes self and well, as in self-defense, self-discipline, well-mannered, well-endowed, etc.

And sometimes you need the hyphen to clarify meaning. For example, you recover a lost wallet, but you re-cover a sofa. Similarly with re-creation of the scene of a crime, to avoid confusion with recreation as leisure-time activities.

~ Hyphenate compound modifiers before a noun?

Today’s post is mainly on using hyphens (or not) for compound terms (phrasal adjectives) that describe a noun, as I get asked about this a lot. For example, is it …?

A general guideline is to hyphenate two or more modifiers before a noun (so an adjectival phrase), especially if to leave as two words could cause confusion; but to leave as two separate words when they come after the noun or verb (often functioning as an adverb).

For example, “He’s a high-profile actor” but “He maintains a high profile.”

“It’s a middle-class neighborhood,” but “The neighborhood is middle class.”

“He asked an open-ended question,” but “The question was open ended.”

“It was a hands-down win,” but “They won hands down.”

“It was a computer-literate group,” but “The group was computer literate.”

“The school has a hands-off policy,” but “Keep your hands off.”

“They had a hand-to-mouth existence,” but “They lived hand to mouth.”

“The witness was an off-duty police officer,” but “He was off duty at the time.”

“I bought a flat-screen TV,” but “The TV has a flat screen.”

“My to-do list,” but “My list of things to do.”

“We strolled past side-by-side boutiques on the street,” but “Two clothing boutiques stood side by side on that street.”

“This thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat,” but “It’s an edge-of-your-seat suspense.”

~ Hyphenate to avoid confusion.

To avoid confusion or ambiguity, it’s often best to hyphenate.

For example, there’s a big difference in meaning between a small animal hospital (an animal hospital that’s small) and a small-animal hospital (a hospital for small animals). Same with a small business owner and a small-business owner. And the hyphen in “three-ring binders” tells us that three is the number of rings, not the number of binders, as might be assumed with “three ring binders.” Similarly, the hyphen in “much-needed advice” connects the much with the needed, so we know the advice is greatly needed, not that there’s a lot of needed advice. And the hyphen in “fast decision-making” shows us that decisions must be made soon, not that they’re quick decisions.

Sometimes, to clarify, you also need to separate a word into two. For example, a used-book store is different from a used bookstore. And high school-age children could imply something different from what was meant.

~ Hyphenate where numbers are involved.

Chicago Manual of Style says to also hyphenate adjective-noun modifiers, especially where the adjective is a number:

For example, a twelve-step program, a five-year-old child, a five-dollar bill, a ten-mile hike, a six-foot-tall man, a ten-pound fish, a 16-foot square room.

Notice how when hyphenated before a noun, the plural is dropped: for example, a woman is five feet tall, but she’s a five-foot-tall woman. Pregnancy lasts nine months but it’s a nine-month pregnancy,

~ Multiple hyphens in a phrase.

Hyphenate when three or more words form an adjective (or rephrase the sentence to avoid it):

high-school-age children (to avoid confusion with “high school-age children” (not a good thing!), a sixty-foot-long boat, an over-the-counter drug, a winner-take-all contest, a one-on-one game.

~ But don’t hyphenate after –ly adverbs:

Since the ly ending with adverbs signals to the reader that the next word will be another modifier, not a noun. For example, a sharply worded reprimand, a smartly dressed woman, a hastily written email.

~ The trend toward closed compounds (one word, no hyphen):

Common usage has a tendency to simplify terms. “Web site” gradually became “website”; “e-mail” is increasingly “email”; “on line” changed to “on-line” to “online”. (Also, “Internet” became “internet,” which makes perfect sense to me – why capitalize it, since we don’t capitalize other means of communication, like telephone, newspapers, television, etc.)

If you want even more detail and examples on hyphenation, you can register at Chicago Manual of Style online and do a search for “hyphens” or “hyphenation” or go to these numbers: 5.91 and 7.77 to 7.85.

Also, see my blog post, How and When to Use Hyphens, Dashes, and Ellipses.

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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POV 101: Get into Your Protagonist’s Head and Stay There (for most of your story)

 by Jodie Renner, editor & author  @JodieRennerEd

This is the first of a three-part series on point of view (POV) in fiction.

I’ve been editing fiction for years, and the most difficult concept for many of my aspiring author clients who write in third-person point of view (the most common POV in novels) is to portray their story world through the viewpoint / eyes / head of one character at a time, rather than hovering above them (omniscient POV) or ping-ponging back and forth between different characters’ viewpoints (head-hopping).

Except for omniscient POV (the author talking directly to the readers), point of view or POV simply refers to the character through whose perspective the story events are told. Most of today’s novels are written in third-person POV, with the main character referred to as “he” or
“she,” even though we’re seeing their world through their eyes. First-person POV, where the main character is telling their own story, using “I” and “me” seems to be gaining popularity, and is very common in YA (young adult) fiction.

This post is about using close third person or deep point of view to bring your main character to life for the readers. Ideally, we should only see, hear, smell, feel, and experience events as that character would – with no additional information provided “from above” by the author. This closeness helps your readers get to know your viewpoint character intimately, which makes them start worrying about him or her – and that keeps them turning the pages!

A hundred years ago, novels were often told from a distant authorial point of view, hovering over everything. That omniscient POV is no longer popular today (except for historical sagas), and for good reason: Readers want to experience the events of the story vicariously through the viewpoint character, to immerse themselves in her world, and they can only do that if they’re “inside her skin,” so to speak. They know/feel her inner thoughts, insecurities, hopes, and fears, so they bond with her quickly and are eager to find out what’s going to happen to her next and how she’s going to handle it.

As the late, great Jack M. Bickham said, “You’ll never have problems with the technique of viewpoint again if you simply follow this advice:

“Figure out whose story it is. Get inside that character—and stay there.”

It’s especially important to open your book in your protagonist’s point of view, and stay there for at least the first chapter. This gives the reader a chance to figure out quickly whose story this is, and get to know him fast and start identifying with him and rooting for him.

Years ago I edited a novel in which a 15-year-old girl is riding in a car with her mother, who’s driving, and her 11-year-old brother in the backseat. (I’ve changed the details a bit.) The book starts out in the point of view of the mom, who is worried about uprooting her two kids and moving across the country, away from their friends. So we start empathizing with the mother, thinking it’s her story.

Then suddenly we’re in the head of the teenage girl beside her, who is deeply resentful at her mom for tearing her away from her friends and is agonizing over what lies ahead. Then, all within the first page, we switch to the head of the 11-year-old boy, who’s excited about the new adventure and wishes his sister would lighten up and quit hassling the mom. We’re also in his visual POV – he looks at his sister’s ponytail and considers yanking it. Now we’re confused. Whose story is this, anyway? Who are we supposed to be most identifying with and bonding with? Readers want to know this right away, so they can sit back and relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s essential to start out the story in your protagonist’s POV, but it’s also smart to tell most of your story from your main character’s viewpoint – at least 70 percent of it. That gets the reader deeper and deeper into that person’s psyche, so they get more and more invested in what’s happening to her.

As Bickham explains, “I’m sure you realize why fiction is told from a viewpoint, a character inside the story. It’s because each of us lives our real life from a single viewpoint – our own – and none other, ever.”

Successful fiction writers want their story to be as convincing and lifelike as possible, so they write it like we experience real life: from one viewpoint (at a time) inside the action.

So if you want your lead character to come alive and matter to the reader, and your story to be compelling, it’s best to show most of the action from inside the head and heart of your protagonist. Of course, thrillers often jump to the POV of the villain, to add suspense, worry, intrigue and dimension. But give the bad guy his own scene, and make sure he’s not onstage more than the protagonist is! And many romances have two main protagonists, the hero and heroine, but one usually predominates – most often the heroine, so the largely female readership can identify with her. Just don’t be inside the head of both characters in one scene – too jarring and confusing!

Also, if there’s a scene with your protagonist and a minor character, don’t show the scene from the POV of the minor character, unless there’s a very good reason for it – it’s just too unnatural and jarring.

In POV 102, I discuss “head-hopping,” a sure sign of amateurish writing, with a trick for spotting this in your writing; and in POV 103, I’ll get into more detail on deep point of view, or close third-person POV.

By the way, I presented two writing craft workshops at a conference two weeks ago, “Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View” and “Spark up Your Stories – Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue.” Here’s the HANDOUT for the Deep POV one. The handout for the other one is there, too, as well as a list of writers’ conferences and book festivals through July 2015.

Captivate_full_w_decalJodie 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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15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions

by Jodie Renner, editor & author; @JodieRennerEd

 

So you’ve completed the first draft of your novel? Congratulations! Now it’s time to start the all-important revision process. Be sure not to shoot yourself in the foot by sending it off or self-publishing it too soon. That’s the biggest mistake of unsuccessful novelists – being in too much of a hurry to get their book out, when it still needs (major or minor) revisions and final polishing.

To start, put it aside for a week or more, then change the font and print it up and read it in a different location, where you don’t write. Or, to save paper, put it on your tablet and take it outside to a park or a (different) coffee shop to read. That way, you can approach it with fresh eyes and a bit of distance, as a reader, rather than in too close as the writer. Using the questions below to guide you, go through the whole manuscript for big-picture issues: logistics, characterization, plot, writing style, flow. Try to put some tension on every page, even if it’s just minor internal disagreement. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward. As you read, correct minor errors and typos that jump out at you and make notes in the margins and on the backs of the pages. Then go back to the computer and type in your changes.

Now it’s time to seek out about 3 to 6 avid readers to give you some feedback. It’s best not to ask your parent, child, significant other, sibling, or bff to do this “beta” reading, as they probably won’t want to tell you what they really think, for fear of jeopardizing your relationship. Or they may be so critical it actually will hurt your relationship! Your volunteer readers don’t need to be writers, but they should be smart, discerning readers who enjoy and read your genre, and are willing to give you honest feedback.

So how do you find your beta readers? Perhaps through a critique group, writing class, workshop, book club, writers’ organization, or online networking such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. In the case of a YA novel or children’s book, look around for be age-appropriate relatives, neighborhood kids, or the children of your friends – or perhaps you know a teacher or librarian who would be willing to read some or all of it aloud to students and collect feedback.

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?

2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?

3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?

4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?

5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?

6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?

7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?

8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?

9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?

10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?

12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?

13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?

14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?

15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

Captivate_full_w_decal– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Once you’ve received feedback from all your beta readers, it’s time to consider their comments carefully. Ignore any you really don’t agree with, but if two or more people say the same thing, be sure to seriously consider that comment or suggestion. Now go through and revise your story, based on the comments you felt were insightful and helpful.

What about you writers out there? Do you use beta readers? If so, how do you guide their reading? Do you have any questions or suggestions to add that have helped you focus their reading, so you can get a good handle on the strengths and weaknesses of your novel? And beta readers – do you have any questions you’d like authors to ask? I’d love to hear from all of you!

Also, see my post, “12 Essential Steps from Idea to Published Novel” here on TKZ.

And for a lengthy list of WRITERS’ CONFERENCES & BOOK FESTIVALS in North America in 2015, with links, click HERE.

 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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Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago.

Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic. 

While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck speed all the way through – that would be exhausting for the reader – you do want the pace to be generally brisk enough to keep the readers’ interest. As Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” 

Here are some concrete techniques for accelerating your narrative style at strategic spots to create those tense, fast-paced scenes.

~ Condense setup and backstory.

To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting way back on setup and backstory. Instead, open with your protagonist in an intriguing scene with someone important in his life or to the story, with action, dialogue, and tension. Then marble in only the juiciest bits of the character’s background in tantalizing hints as you go along, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages to fill us in on the character’s life — which effectively eliminates a lot of great opportunities to incite reader curiosity and add intrigue with little hints and enticing innuendos. 

~ Include hints at questions, secrets, worries, fears, indecision, or inner turmoil to every scene.

This will keep readers curious and worried, so emotionally engaged and compelled to keep turning the pages.

~ In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.


Be ruthless with the delete button so your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover lots of specific techniques with examples for cutting down on wordiness in my book,  Fire up Your Fiction.

~ Rewrite, condense, or delete chapters and scenes that drag. 

Do you have slow-moving “filler” scenes, with little or no tension or change? Reduce any essentials from the scene to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences, and include it in another scene.

~ Keep chapters and scenes short. 

This will help sustain the readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages. James Patterson is a master at short chapters, and his followers seem to really like that. Especially effective for reluctant or busy readers.

~ Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, and end it as early as possible.

Don’t open your chapters with a lengthy lead-up. Every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict, or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them compelled to keep reading. And don’t tie up the events in a nice, neat little bow at the end – that will just encourage the reader to close the book rather than to keep reading in anticipation. Instead, end in uncertainty or a new challenge.

~ Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell.

Keep descriptive passages, expository passages, and ruminations, reflections and analyses to a minimum. Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. Use lots of action, dialogue, reactions, and thoughts. And keep the narration firmly in the viewpoint character’s voice – it’s really his/her thoughts, observations, and reactions to what’s going on.

~ Use summary to get past the boring bits, or skip ahead for effect.

Summarize in a sentence or two a passage of time where nothing much happens, to transition quickly from one critical scene to the next: “Three days later, he was no further ahead.” Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene. 

~ Make sure every scene has enough conflict. 

In fact, every page should have some tension, even if it’s questioning, mild disagreement, doubts, or resentments simmering under the surface. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward and keep readers turning the pages. 

~ Every scene needs a change of some kind. 

No scene should be static. Throw a wrench in the works, make something unexpected happen. Add new characters, new information, new challenges, new dangers. And the events of the scenes should be changing your protagonist in some way. Change produces questions, anticipation, or anxiety — just what you need to keep reader interest. 

~ Use cliff-hangers. 

For fast pacing and more tension and intrigue, end most scenes and chapters with unresolved issues, with some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat. Prolonging the outcome, putting the resolution off to another chapter piques the readers’ curiosity and makes them worry, which keeps them turning the pages.

~ Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.

Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical moment and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place, with different characters – perhaps picking up from a scene you cut short earlier. Switch chapters or scenes quickly back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist(s), or from one dicey, uncertain situation to another. And of course, don’t resolve the conflict/problem before you switch to the next one.

~ Use shorter paragraphs and more white space.

Short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing create more white space. The eye moves down the page faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction. 

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue, with conflict, confrontations, power struggles, suspicion. 

For tense scenes, use short questions, abrupt, oblique or evasive answers, incomplete sentences, one or two-word questions and responses, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection. 

~ Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke emotional responses. 

Utilize the strongest, most concrete word you can find for the situation. Avoid vague, wishy-washy or abstract words, and unfamiliar terms the reader may have to look up. Concentrate on evocative, to-the-point verbs and nouns, and cut way back on adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. 

Also, take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and those wishy-washy, humdrum “filler” words and phrases. And use plenty of sensory details, emotional and physical reactions, and attitude. (For more on this, see Fire up Your Fiction.)

A well-disguised example from my editing:

Before:

Kristen fired him a dirty look, probably because he was doing this in piecemeal and not getting straight to the point as she would have liked him to. Her voice was terse. “Why not?” 

After:

Kristen fired him a dirty look as if to say, Cut to the chase. Her voice was terse. “Why not?” 

Or just:

Kristen fired him a dirty look. “Why not?”

~ Vary the sentence structure, and shorten sentences for effect at tense moments. 

Shorter sentences give a pause, which catches the attention of the reader. At a critical moment, don’t run a bunch of significant ideas together in one long sentence, as they each will be diminished a bit, lost in among all the other ideas presented. You can also go to a new line for the same effect. 

For a fast-paced, scary scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Sentence fragments are very effective for increasing the tension and pace. Like this. It really works. Especially in dialogue.

For more tips with examples for picking up the pace, check out my editor’s guides to writing compelling fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller and Fire up Your Fiction and the upcoming Captivate Your Readers.

Jodie’s editing website. Jodie’s author website. Jodie’s Amazon Author Page. Friend Jodie on Facebook. Follow Jodie on Twitter. Google+.  Jodie’s blog.

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Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago.

Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic.

While you don’t want your story barreling along at a break-neck speed all the way through – that would be exhausting for the reader – you do want the pace to be generally brisk enough to keep the readers’ interest. As Elmore Leonard said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Here are some concrete techniques for accelerating your narrative style at strategic spots to create those tense, fast-paced scenes.

~ Condense setup and backstory.

To increase the pace and overall tension of your story, start by cutting way back on setup and backstory. Instead, open with your protagonist in an intriguing scene with someone important in his life or to the story, with action, dialogue, and tension. Then marble in only the juiciest bits of the character’s background in tantalizing hints as you go along, rather than interrupting the story for paragraphs or pages to fill us in on the character’s life — which effectively eliminates a lot of great opportunities to incite reader curiosity and add intrigue with little hints and enticing innuendos.

~ Include hints at questions, secrets, worries, fears, indecision, or inner turmoil to every scene.

This will keep readers curious and worried, so emotionally engaged and compelled to keep turning the pages.

~ In general, develop a more direct, lean writing style.


Be ruthless with the delete button so your message and the impact of your story won’t get lost in all the clutter of superfluous words and repetitive sentences. I cover lots of specific techniques with examples for cutting down on wordiness in my book,  Fire up Your Fiction.

~ Rewrite, condense, or delete chapters and scenes that drag. 

Do you have slow-moving “filler” scenes, with little or no tension or change? Reduce any essentials from the scene to a paragraph or two, or even just a few sentences, and include it in another scene.

~ Keep chapters and scenes short.

This will help sustain the readers’ interest and keep them turning the pages. James Patterson is a master at short chapters, and his followers seem to really like that. Especially effective for reluctant or busy readers.

~ Start each scene or chapter as late as possible, and end it as early as possible.

Don’t open your chapters with a lengthy lead-up. Every scene and chapter should start with some kind of question, conflict, or intrigue, to arouse the curiosity of the reader and make them compelled to keep reading. And don’t tie up the events in a nice, neat little bow at the end – that will just encourage the reader to close the book rather than to keep reading in anticipation. Instead, end in uncertainty or a new challenge.

~ Limit explaining – Show, don’t tell.

Keep descriptive passages, expository passages, and ruminations, reflections and analyses to a minimum. Critical scenes need to be “shown” in real time, to make them more immediate and compelling, rather than “telling” about them after the fact. Use lots of action, dialogue, reactions, and thoughts. And keep the narration firmly in the viewpoint character’s voice – it’s really his/her thoughts, observations, and reactions to what’s going on.

~ Use summary to get past the boring bits, or skip ahead for effect.

Summarize in a sentence or two a passage of time where nothing much happens, to transition quickly from one critical scene to the next: “Three days later, he was no further ahead.” Skip past all the humdrum details and transition info, like getting from one place to another, and jump straight to the next action scene.

~ Make sure every scene has enough conflict.

In fact, every page should have some tension, even if it’s questioning, mild disagreement, doubts, or resentments simmering under the surface. Remember that conflict and tension are what drive fiction forward and keep readers turning the pages.

~ Every scene needs a change of some kind.

No scene should be static. Throw a wrench in the works, make something unexpected happen. Add new characters, new information, new challenges, new dangers. And the events of the scenes should be changing your protagonist in some way. Change produces questions, anticipation, or anxiety — just what you need to keep reader interest.

~ Use cliff-hangers.

For fast pacing and more tension and intrigue, end most scenes and chapters with unresolved issues, with some kind of twist, revelation, story question, intrigue, challenge, setback or threat. Prolonging the outcome, putting the resolution off to another chapter piques the readers’ curiosity and makes them worry, which keeps them turning the pages.

~ Employ scene cuts or jump cuts.

Create a series of short, unresolved incidents that occur in rapid succession. Stop at a critical moment and jump to a different scene, often at a different time and place, with different characters – perhaps picking up from a scene you cut short earlier. Switch chapters or scenes quickly back and forth between your protagonist and antagonist(s), or from one dicey, uncertain situation to another. And of course, don’t resolve the conflict/problem before you switch to the next one.

~ Use shorter paragraphs and more white space.

Short paragraphs and frequent paragraphing create more white space. The eye moves down the page faster, so the mind does, too. This also increases the tension, which is always a good thing in fiction.

~ Use rapid-fire dialogue, with conflict, confrontations, power struggles, suspicion.

For tense scenes, use short questions, abrupt, oblique or evasive answers, incomplete sentences, one or two-word questions and responses, and little or no description, deliberation or reflection.

~ Use powerful sentences with concrete, sensory words that evoke emotional responses.

Utilize the strongest, most concrete word you can find for the situation. Avoid vague, wishy-washy or abstract words, and unfamiliar terms the reader may have to look up. Concentrate on evocative, to-the-point verbs and nouns, and cut way back on adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.

Also, take out all unnecessary, repetitive words and those wishy-washy, humdrum “filler” words and phrases. And use plenty of sensory details, emotional and physical reactions, and attitude. (For more on this, see Fire up Your Fiction.)

A well-disguised example from my editing:

Before:

Kristen fired him a dirty look, probably because he was doing this in piecemeal and not getting straight to the point as she would have liked him to. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

After:

Kristen fired him a dirty look as if to say, Cut to the chase. Her voice was terse. “Why not?”

Or just:

Kristen fired him a dirty look. “Why not?”

~ Vary the sentence structure, and shorten sentences for effect at tense moments.

Shorter sentences give a pause, which catches the attention of the reader. At a critical moment, don’t run a bunch of significant ideas together in one long sentence, as they each will be diminished a bit, lost in among all the other ideas presented. You can also go to a new line for the same effect.

For a fast-paced, scary scene, use short, clipped sentences, as opposed to long, meandering, leisurely ones. Sentence fragments are very effective for increasing the tension and pace. Like this. It really works. Especially in dialogue.

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 Captivate_full_w_decalpublished 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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