Thursday, June 11, 2015

5 Ways to Avoid the “Huh?” Factor in Writing

Writers, my point is simple: anytime you cause a reader to say, “Huh?” you’ve got a problem.

Proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure all contribute to clear, effective written communication, but “connecting the dots” is important too. By “dots,” I don’t mean an ellipsis, often referred to as a “dot dot dot” (…), which is okay; I don’t mind. No, I’m referring to details. And when details don’t connect, the gaps and mismatches can stop an astute, swept-along-in-your-story reader cold.

·         It’s Thursday? But yesterday was Monday.
·         How can Emily have an uncle on page 127 when page 39 said her parents were both only children?
·         If Mrs. Smith was sitting in a chair, how did she get to the couch without moving?
·         Hey, Harvey’s eyes are bright blue, not chocolate brown. What gives?
·         Junior is three and he is in kindergarten already?

Don’t feel bad. When we write and revise—and revise some more—details can get scrambled or take off in their own direction. That, by the way, makes for some job security for editors, and I still recommend their involvement no matter what! But you can look for rowdy dots in your own work too. Here are a few ideas:

1.       List people and places with their attributes: Document your cast of characters and places for spellings and physical characteristics as you create or reveal them, then refer to that list every time you want to repeat a description.  
2.       Make a time line: If you can stand it even as you write your first draft, document your time line as you go. It might be easier to get your time line close to right early on than later when you have to force corrections.  
3.       Piecemeal it: During one of your revision passes, read one section or one scene at a time with only dots in mind. Pay attention to staging and movement and descriptions. Refer to your time line and people and place list if necessary to keep details straight.
4.       Get some distance: Even an email can read better if you set it aside for a time (five minutes!) and then read it again. Confusing inconsistencies are more likely to stand out so you can fix them.
5.       Mind your changes: When you make a change, try searching your entire work for an applicable key word or phrase to allow you to easily make that change everywhere you need to right away. You can't assume you will catch all those places later. 


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