“I huff and puff and struggle with every sentence, paragraph and page – sometimes every word as well.” — Aidan Chambers
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.
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).
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:
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.
“I never leave a sentence or paragraph until I’m satisfied with it.” —Clifford Geertz
Have you reread paragraphs to understand what they said?
Most authors write confusing paragraphs in their drafts. If left in books, these paragraphs cause readers to shift into Reverse. Some shifts are small, and readers accept them. But when readers shift gears often, they become weary and might put the book down. Possibly not knowing why.
Can you spot the shifts in these sentences and paragraphs?
Janice cried all day when she read the letter of biting words from Mark.
Why did Janice cry all day? Shift. Oh, because of Mark’s biting words.
When Janice read Mark’s biting words in his letter, she cried all day. (stimulus then reaction – flows without a hitch)
The waiters hoped the customers wouldn’t order dessert. They’d heard that Karl wouldn’t deliver his famous cream puffs by lunchtime. Karl had called the maître d’ and said he’d lost his van keys. Unfortunately, all customers streamed to the ice cream shop after they finished their lunches and ordered cream puffs.
The sentences are ordered so reactions come before their stimuli. Having to mentally reorder stimuli and reactions to capture the picture is tiring.
The maître d’ informed the waiters Karl had lost his van keys. None of Karl’s famous cream puffs would be available for the lunch crowd. The waiters hoped the customers wouldn’t order dessert. Unfortunately, all the customers finished their lunches and ordered cream puffs. When they learned they’d enjoy none, they streamed to the ice cream shop.
Sonya hid Angela’s birthday presents. She hoped she’d see her expression.
I assume the first “she” is Sonya. But did Sonya hope to see Angela’s hurt expression? Or did Sonya hope Angela would see her smug expression?
Sonya hid Angela’s birthday presents. Hopefully, Angela would believe her friends had forgotten her on her birthday. Sonya pictured Angela turning to her and seeing her smug expression. (context and names replacing pronouns keep the who-did-what flowing)
• Snatching the flower from his lapel, she leaped onto the trolley.
• How did she snatch the flower while she leaped onto the trolley?
• She snatched the flower from his lapel and leaped onto the trolley. (“and” is sufficient to show the latter action followed the first)
Edgar cut the vines and carried them to Alice, whose blond ringlets cascaded down each side of her lovely face. He wound them around her slim waist.
Did Edgar wind Alice’s ringlets or the vines around her waist?
Edgar cut the vines and carried them to Alice, whose blond ringlets cascaded down each side of her lovely face. He wound the vines around her waist. (knowing what pronouns refer to keeps the story flowing)
These writing problems cause readers to reread paragraphs to understand them.Click to tweet.
What writing problems cause you to shift gears while reading?