Archive for July, 2009

Descriptive Paragraph #2

Friday, July 31st, 2009

Visitors to beaumonthardy.com often want to learn about writing more interesting and effective descriptive paragraphs. As any writer knows, descriptive paragraphs are important in both fiction and nonfiction, and a well-crafted paragraph can make the difference between mediocre and outstanding writing. Although writing coaches often suggest that the best descriptive paragraphs appeal to each of the five senses, I believe that successful description need not adhere to a sensory checklist.

The following is an unedited descriptive paragraph about a place. Below the unedited version is my edit of the same text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

The pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a narrow stone walkway that looked dark and damp in the moonlight. There were dim lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lap against the stone walls of the pool. The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around.

After editing, the descriptive paragraph reads as follows:

The two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them.  The narrow stone walkway separating the pools looked damp in the moonlight, and the dim pool lights made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which gently lapped against the stone walls of the pools. The air felt warm and damp, held in place as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the steamy water.

Below is the paragraph with my editing marks. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.)

The two pools were hot and steamy, and the jungle loomed darkly around them. [I added “two” so that I could simplify the sentence that follows.] There were actually two separate pools, separated from each other by a The narrow stone walkway separating the polls that looked dark and damp in the moonlight., [The imagery in this sentence is good, but it gets lost among too many words. I’ve pared down the sentence. In general, I think it’s best to avoid beginning a sentence—especially a descriptive one—with “There were.” In this sentence and the one that follows, I’ve altered the sentences so that they begin more actively and colorfully.] and tThere were dim pool lights in the pools, which made the swimmers look like shadows in the water. [I eliminated "in the pools" to get rid of the repetition of "in the."] Little drifts of steam wafted above the surface of the water, which seemed to gently lapped against the stone walls of the pool. [“Seemed to” weakens the description. In this case, the water probably does, in fact, lap against the walls of the pools, right?] The air felt warm and damp, and it seemed held in place  as it was by the black jungle surrounding them. Cora could feel felt a thrill of danger as she removed her towel and stepped into the hot and steamy water with the jungle all around. [This is a good, solid description. Eliminating a few extraneous words helps it read more powerfully.]

Let me know what you think of this edit. I would love to hear from you.

Do You Really Need a Freelance Editor?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

glass2I say “yes,” and here’s why.

Writers often tell themselves that hiring a freelance editor is a needless expense. Most editors charge between $20 and $30 per hour, and editing can take several hours. Many writers think they ought to be able to edit their own work and feel that they are undeserving of publication if they need the help of an outside editor. Writers also know that publishing houses edit–for free–the work they acquire for publication. These writers prefer the free editing an in-house editor provides over the pre-acquisition expense of a freelance editor. Still other writers argue that their friends and family read their work and give them editing help at no charge.

These arguments are valid in some cases, but most writers really can benefit from the help of a freelancer.

Self-editing is certainly a valuable skill and one that all writers should develop. However, self-editing is not always enough. Writers often describe the feeling of being “too close” to a manuscript—reading it over and over so many times that they lose their objectivity. Once a writer reaches this point, he or she can easily skim over errors that an outside reader would spot. Plot choices and content might also make sense only to the writer; an outside editor can find logical inconsistencies that the writer can no longer see. There is a limit to the efficacy of self-editing, and a good freelance editor can step in when a writer reaches this limit.

The argument that publishers provide free in-house editing fails to take into account the cutthroat nature of book publishing. An unsolicited manuscript rarely reaches the free-editing stage. For the most part, editorial assistants are the ones who read unsolicited manuscripts, and they look for every reason to reject a manuscript. Only a select few manuscripts ever reach the eyes of the acquisitions editor. Thus, a writer counting on the free editing of an acquisitions editor might never move past the gatekeeping editorial assistants. Because rejections are so likely at the gatekeeping stage, I argue that writers should present their cleanest, best-edited manuscripts when making unsolicited submissions. A freelance editor is an invaluable aid at this stage of the submission process.

Friends and family are wonderful, supportive readers, but they are not necessarily the most critical. Unless friends and family members are very familiar with the publishing industry, they can rarely make the kinds of editing suggestions that a well-informed editor will make. And of course, friends and family put their relationships with the writer before their literary comments, as they should. An objective outside editor is in the best position to make the kinds of comments most helpful to an author, because the editor and author have a strictly professional relationship.

Although a freelance editor can, at first, seem a daunting expense, a freelance editor can also be your best ally in the battle for publication.

Write to me, and let me know what you think.

Writing Prompts: Using Them In the Introduction

Monday, July 6th, 2009

sunsetWriting instructors—and some clever websites—often provide prompts to motivate writers in need of a creative push. Although stories generated by writing prompts can read like exactly what they are (a story that must include the words “pig,” “rocket” and “deed of restrictions,” for example), they can also be excellent pieces of writing. When used creatively, writing prompts can lead to interesting, original stories.

Arguably, some of the most successful prompt-generated writing happens when the author uses the prompt as a trigger for his or her own ideas—ideas that are unrelated to the prompts themselves. Writers who take a moment to free associate based on the prompt often write something that is unconnected to the original prompt but that is filled with meaning for the author. Taking full ownership of the prompt can make the difference between a mere writing exercise and a well-crafted piece of writing.

One way to break free of the writing-exercise feel of a prompt is to use the prompt, or prompts, at the beginning of a story, in its introductory material. A prompt can, thus, motivate an author in the opening of a story without forcing the author to develop a plot that connects, for example, a penguin, a clown and a cigar.

The following is the unedited opening of a story based on three prompts—chicken, quilt and fake mustache. Below the unedited version is my edit of the text. My editorial comments are at the bottom of this post.

It was my turn to make dinner, and I was mad about that fact. I didn’t feel like cooking at all. All I really wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch TV. I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store—two for one. I pulled them quickly out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, sleeping and snoring in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching on the TV. I found a made for TV romance movie starring a washed up actress who seemed to have developed a facial tick since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a scared looking cowboy. The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume somewhat. Suddenly, Bruce was wide awake and gawking at me. I felt startled and looked away from the TV. “What?,” I asked in a frightened voice.

“I have something to tell you,” he said.

“What is it?” I asked softly.

“You know that convenience store I was telling you about?” he asked nervously.

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

The final edited opening reads as follows:

It was my turn to make dinner, and I didn’t feel like cooking. All I really wanted to do was watch TV. I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store. I pulled them out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, snoring in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching. I found a made-for-TV romance starring a washed-up actress who seemed to have developed a facial tic since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a cowboy. The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume. Suddenly, he was wide awake and staring at me. “What?” I asked.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. “You know that convenience store I was telling you about?”

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

Here is the story opening with my editing marks visible. My comments to the author are in brackets and italicized. The portions I cut appear with a strike-through, and the portions I added are underlined. (In a normal Word document with “Track Changes,” my editing marks are in red, and my comments are in their own separate section, not inserted into the text.):

It was my turn to make dinner, and I was mad about that fact. [Linking this sentence to the next conveys the narrator's feelings about making dinner.]  I didn’t feel like cooking at all. ["At all" doesn't add to the meaning of the sentence.] All I really wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch TV. [I cut "plop down on the couch" for two reasons. First, "plop down...," as an expression, tends to feel clichéd. Cutting it keeps your writing fresh. Second, you later talk about plopping down. I didn't think you should use this same term twice within two paragraphs.] I remembered the frozen dinners I had bought earlier that week, on special at the grocery store—two for one. [The detail about the special tends to pull the reader away from the story, so I suggest cutting it.] I pulled them quickly out of the freezer and put them on the counter. We’d be having chicken again.

Bruce was wrapped in my grandmother’s old quilt, sleeping and snoring ["Snoring" sufficiently conveys the idea of sleeping.] in front of the TV. I plopped down next to him and flipped away from the wrestling program he had been watching on the TV. I found a made-for-TV romance movie starring a washed-up actress who seemed to have developed a facial tick since the last time I had seen her. Her love interest was a scared -looking cowboy. [I recommend cutting "scared-looking." The cowboy isn't scared-looking, but the actor playing him is. Your idea will be clearer if you don't mention the actor's frightened looks until the next sentence.] The actor playing him looked terrified of his own horse. Or maybe he was terrified his obviously fake mustache would fall off.

Bruce groaned in his sleep, and I turned down the volume somewhat. Suddenly, Bruce he was wide awake and gawking staring at me. ["Gawking" feels like too strong a word here. Wouldn't Bruce merely be staring?] I felt startled and looked away from the TV. [The fact that Bruce is wide awake and staring at the narrator is sufficient to indicate to the reader that she is startled.] “What?,” I asked in a frightened voice.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. “You know that convenience store I was telling you about?”

“What is it?” I asked softly. [Although the narrator may have asked this question, it's unnecessary to the dialogue.]

“You know that convenience store I was telling you about?” he asked nervously.

I nodded. Bruce slowly unwrapped the quilt from around his body, revealing several stacks of twenty-dollar bills on his lap.

[Please send me your comments about this Sample Edit. To submit your own work for a free edit--and inclusion in a posting on this blog--please write to me at jane@beaumonthardy.com.]