This marshy field teems with life. When our car speeds by it, though, we don’t notice or experience the wildlife hidden in the grasses, wading in the mud, singing from the reeds. One day we stopped our car, rolled down windows; looked through binoculars; listened, felt, smelled; tasted the breezes. Myriads of bird life, colors, textures of fauna and flora brought the place alive to us. Good writing does that also: draws in the reader, reveals hidden things, opens possibilities.
I taught from the following list at a recent writers workshop. Afterwards, a couple of wide-eyed writers said to me, “You really want good writing.”
Well, yes, I do! The better-written a manuscript comes to me, the more I like it. Here at Cladach we may resonate with the premise and material of a nonfiction manuscript—we may like a novel’s characters and plot—so much that we are willing to devote the editing time needed to bring the writing quality and style up to these standards. We may ask an author to go back and re-write/revise/re-work a manuscript. Then we also do in-house macro editing, line editing, and copy editing. The following list gives most of the elements of style and “good writing” that we look for in a manuscript and strive for in the books we publish.
Here’s how to give your writing pizzazz so readers will want to invest in it, engage with it—be entertained, convinced, and inspired by what you say. Check your writing against this list to make sure it communicates as clearly and persuasively as possible.
1. Have you written from your heart as well as your mind? (If not, read this post. If yes, go on to the rest of the list.)
2. Write in the active voice. Choose strong, active verbs.
3. Write concretely, rather than abstractly. Show, don’t just tell. Appeal to all the senses.
4. In nonfiction as well as fiction, use storytelling as much as possible.
5. Stay in a definite, consistent POV. Through whose eyes is the reader seeing?
6. Hook the reader on the first page/ first paragraph/ first sentence/ first word.
7. Keep the reader’s attention as each word, each sentence, each paragraph, each chapter leads to the next.
8. Maintain a logical or chronological flow of thought or action. Use transitions when needed.
9. Strive for precision and conciseness. Cut extraneous/ repetitious words and phrases. Less is more.
10. Give thought to word choices—consider subtleties, connotations, nuances; find the zing and zest of the right word.
How does the writer effectively pull in the reader, take hold of his hand, and keep him reading? How does a writer achieve her goal of changing her reader’s thinking, of painting pictures in his mind that give pleasure, insight, and hope? The writer’s success depends largely on how she arranges her words in sentences.
In my previous post I mentioned periodic sentences. This sentence-writing technique places the most important, impactful words at the end. This arrangement is effective for two reasons: 1) The last words you read or hear are the ones you remember best. 2) When the entire sentence leads up to those final words, the reader doesn’t want to stop reading. He anticipates; his mind and emotions engage; he wants to find out where this is leading.
In each of the following pairs of sentences, the first sentence gives you the punch words at the beginning, and the second sentence saves until last the juicy words.
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Did he notice the teeming wildlife—snapdragons, butterflies, cottontails, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds—when he looked out across the meadow?
When he looked out across the meadow, did he notice the teeming wildlife: snapdragons, butterflies, cottontails, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds?
Eating is his favorite activity and snickerdoodles are his favorite food.
He says his favorite activity is eating, and he especially enjoys snickerdoodles.
We got big, pink snow cones and we rode the merry-go-round when Grandma took us to town.
Grandma took us to town to get big, pink snow cones and ride the merry-go-round.
Driving a fire truck is what I’ve always wanted to do.
All my life I’ve wanted to drive a fire truck.
We heard the computer keys clicking so we knew she was working in the next room.
We knew she was working in the next room because we could hear the computer keys clicking.
We drank our last ounce of water before we had climbed up the mountain halfway.
Halfway up the mountain we drank our last ounce of water.
Come to the Father when life makes no sense, and you don’t know what to do.
When life makes no sense, and you don’t know what to do, come to the Father.
I assume you mean “Suggested Retail Price” when you say “SRP.”
I assume “SRP” means “Suggested Retail Price.”
Feeling his arm around me gives me more consolation than anything else.
Nothing gives me more consolation than feeling his arm around me.
I’d spend a week in Paris with you if I could have anything I wanted in the whole world.
If I could have anything I wanted in the whole world, I’d spend a week in Paris with you.
I love you, Lord, for who you are and for all you’ve done for me.
For who you are—and for all you’ve done for me—I love you, Lord.
Listen with the ears of your heart when you listen.
When you listen, listen with the ears of your heart.
Keep an open heart when you say your prayers.
When you say your prayers, keep an open heart.
Are you already consciously using periodic sentences? Do you think your writing would improve if you consider each sentence with your reader in mind, and rearrange words?
“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement.” ~ Mark Twain
The most apt word you can find put into the place that it will work best.
Picking the right word and putting it in the best place in the sentence.
The right word in the best place.
The right word in the right place.
I’ve been wearing the editor’s hat lately, deeply engrossed with words and the placement of words. How does a writer or editor know they’ve got the “right word” and that they’ve got it “in the right place”?
To answer the first half of the question, you need to have an intimate acquaintance with words: use them, study them, get to know them in various contexts and come to recognize the many facets of their personalities (so to speak). I often recall my freshman college English prof lecturing about “denotation and connotation” of words. She also drilled into us the concepts of “concrete vs abstract” words. This teaching gave me a good foundation in choosing and using of words.
Read a lot. Keep a dictionary, thesaurus and style book close at hand on your desk. And use them!
Generally look for a word that is accurate, specific, strong, active, and that isn’t already used in that sentence or paragraph, or used too many times on that page.
So you’ve snagged the right word? Now, what is the right place for it? Here are a few placement issues to watch for:
1. Are the words placed in a sentence in the order in which you want the reader to process the information? Usually that’s chronological order, especially in fiction. Don’t say, “She disappeared into the shadows after she kissed him good-bye.” But say, “She kissed him good-bye then disappeared into the shadows.” Show cause first, then effect. Keep moving the action forward, not back and forth, back and forth, which gives the reader whip lash.
2. Place modifiers next to the words they are modifying. Inexperienced is what writers are who write sentences so disjointed. 😉 But show that you are an experienced, capable writer who composes well-ordered sentences. We want fluidity; we don’t want anything to stop the reader, nothing to cause him to go back and read again to get the sense of the sentence.
3. Often the most effective sentences place the most important words—the ones with punch that you want to create emotion or response in the reader—at the end of the sentence. This is called a periodic sentence. Try it—and give your writing pizazz!
4. Place words in a pleasing pattern. Read your sentences out loud and listen to them. Is the rhythm natural? If you’re writing dialogue, is this how people talk?
Those are a few little tips that can make a big difference in getting published, and in reaching and influencing readers.
If you’re a word person, as I am, then perhaps you also have “a love affair with words.” You use words, but take care not to abuse them. You like to play with words, but you also take them seriously. You cherish them, listen to them, pray over them, respect them, have faith in them, and you know when to release them.
Words are a writer’s tools, the building blocks of our stories, articles, blog posts, tweets and books. Words have power. With words we instruct, entertain, woo, influence, write and speak.
God spoke the world into being. Jesus is the Word become flesh. Spoken words matter. Written words matter. Every word matters. They matter because they enable us to see the unseen, to know the unknowable, to grasp the undreamed of.
The well-chosen correctly-used, creatively-connected, ingeniously-employed word has power. If your words fit that description, and they are prayed over, respected, understood—then these words may form a piece of writing that is Christ-infused, Christ-honoring, and Christ-giving to a person and a world that needs the living Word.