6 Questions to Ask to Take Your Paragraphs from Blah to Ah

“I huff and puff and struggle with every sentence, paragraph and page – sometimes every word as well.— Aidan Chambers

image by Openicons
image by Openicons

Ask these 6 questions about your paragraphs. I’ll use the following paragraph as an example.

1Before the fateful telephone call, Ella put cut up peaches on a baking sheet. 2She thought Cal would be glad she’d made dried peaches this winter when he ate them. 3She opened the oven door, after the she checked that the oven was up to the low heat needed, and put the baking sheet in. 4She heard her cell on the counter go off. 5She thought it was Cal calling. 6He was probably ready for her to drive over to the school and pick him up. 7She answered her cell.

image by szjeno09190
image by szjeno09190

Question 1: Will the reader feel as if she’s inside the character’s point-of-view?

  • When the author mentions the future fateful call (sentence 1), he takes us out of Ella’s point of view and lessens our later surprise.
  • He also intrudes and tells us that Ella thinks (2 & 5) and hears (4). In her point-of-view, Ella would simply think and hear.

Question 2: Have you varied opening-sentence words, and do you end sentences with words that give readers a sense of the sentences’ meaning?

  • Five sentences start with she. Repetitive.
  • Each ending word in sentences 2, 3, 4, and 6 leave the reader with no gist of the sentences’ meanings (them, in, off, up).

Question 3: Are actions ordered as Ella experiences them?

  • In Ella’s point of view, she couldn’t know yet that a fateful phone call would soon occur (1).
  • We learn Ella checked whether the oven was up to heat, after she opened the oven door (3).
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkeFreeVectorImages

Question 4: Does too much action description slow the pace?

  • Do we need to know Ella checked the heat and opened the door (3)? These actions say too much about putting peaches in the oven and slow the story.

Question 5: Can you find better descriptive words and reduce wordy phrases?

  • Drab verbs: be, ate (2); put (4); and go (4)
  • Wordiness: would be glad, when he ate them (2); up to the low heat needed, go off (4); and to drive over to the school (6).

Question 6: Are sentences confusing?

  • Does sentence 2 mean Cal will be glad this winter, or did Ella make the dried fruit this winter?

A Better Rewrite:

image by domeckopol
image by domeckopol

Ella arranged peach slices on a baking sheet. Cal would appreciate her efforts when he snacked on the sweet dried fruit during cold winter days. As she slid the sheet into the oven, her cell on the counter played its jazzy tune. Maybe that was Cal, ready to come home from football practice. She wiped sticky juice from her hands and grabbed the phone.


  • Arranged, appreciate, slid, played, and grabbed are strong verbs.
  • Opening-sentence words are varied.
  • Baking sheet, winter days, jazzy tune, football practice, and phone all leave us with an aspect of what the sentences are about.
  • The author never intrudes, and we’re in the “now” in Ella’s thoughts and actions.
  • The upbeat actions and descriptions will increase the impact of the “fateful call.”
  • The unedited paragraph is 90 words. The second is 64 with more colorful description.

Use these 6 questions to polish dull paragraphs. Click to tweet.

Can you improve the rewrite?

16 Words You May Avoid Because You Can’t Recall 8 Rules

“[Word usage is] something teachers generally expect you to pick up on your own, and it’s the thing you’re most likely to get skewered for if you screw up.— Mignon Fogarty

image by geralt
image by geralt

Below are common word-usage errors. My resources are Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and Kathy Ide’s Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors.

8 Common Word-Usage Errors

  1. Awhile / a while – Stay for a while (or awhile)?

“Stay for a while” is correct.

In a while, while is a noun.

Awhile is an adverb

An adverb can’t be the object of a preposition, so here are the correct ways to use awhile and a while.

“Stay for a while.”

“Stay awhile.”


  1. Bad / badly – I feel bad (or badly)?

“I feel bad” is correct.

Badly follows action verbs. He wrote badly.

The adjective bad follows linking verbs, such as feel, smell, and am.

From Fogarty:

“When you say, ‘I feel badly,’ the adverb badly relates to the action verb feel. Since the action verb feel can mean “to touch things,” feeling badly can mean you’re having trouble touching things.”


  1. image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
    image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
    Blond / blonde – The blond (or blonde) shook his fist.

“The blond shook his fist” is correct.

According to Ide, blond is the adjective and noun used when referring to a man or boy. The blond boy followed the blond named Bill.

Blonde is the adjective and noun used for females. The blonde policewoman cuffed the voluptuous blonde.

Exception: In writing articles, the adjective blond is used for both genders.


  1. Clench / clinch – He clinched (or clenched) his jaw.

“He clenched his jaw” is correct.

Think closing for clench and securing an agreement for clinch.

Ide’s examples:

“Melissa clenched her teeth when Myra clenched her fist.”

“Jeanette’s evidence clinched the argument.”


  1. Might / may – I may (or might) win an Oscar when I grow up.

“I might win an Oscar…” is correct.

From Fogarty:

“If something is likely to happen, use may.”

“If something is a mighty stretch, use might.”


image by mammela
image by mammela

6.  Passed / past – They passed (or past) the house.

“They passed the house” is correct.

Passed is a verb.

Past can be:               

An adjective. My acting career is past.

A preposition. She walked past the couple.

A noun. All her memories centered on the recent past.


  1. Like / as – I ran like (or as if) a monster pursued me.

“I ran as if a monster pursued me” is correct.

 Fogarty: “The proper way to differentiate between like and as is to use like when no verbs follow.”

Or equally as good:

Ide: “Use as when comparing phrases and clauses that contain a verb. … Use like to compare nouns and pronouns.”

So, “I ran like the wind.”


  1. Raise / rise – I always raise (or rise) from my chair when ladies enter.

“I always rise…” is correct.

The verb raise needs an object; rise doesn’t. Johnny raised his hand. Johnny rose.

You can master correcting these 8 common word-usage errors. Click to tweet.

What words do you misuse? Does your publisher disagree with any of the above?

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