Writing Excuses 10.46: How Do I Make This Pretty?

The microphones again find us aboard the Independence of the Seas*, to talk about how terribly ugly this manuscript is, and what we can do to make it pretty. In this episode we drill down on line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph revisions. This stage of the revision process is where our prose gets wordsmithed. This episode runs long, touching on:

  • Punching up the pacing
  • Turning things upside down
  • Parallelisms
  • Adverbial compression,
  • The pyramid of abstraction
  • Free and direct thought
  • Replacing negative-information descriptions
  • extreme editing exercises like “one sentence per concept.”

Obviously if you want more than just the bullet points you’ll need to have a listen…

*NOTE: Registration is now open for the 2016 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat!

This episode was engineered aboard The Independence of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered ashore in a volcanic caldera by Alex Jackson.


Here’s a tough one: Make an editing pass in which you cut 10% of the words on each page.

11 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.46: How Do I Make This Pretty?”

  1. I love that line: “Adverbs are a compression algorithm that is inherently lossy”
    It’s a particularly powerful concept when combined with Dan’s sociopathic perception of other’s emotional states.

  2. I would love to recommend the book Elements of Eloquence. It briefly covers a variety of techniques used to capture attention or make writing pretty.

  3. IMHO, this episode has an excellent flow, driven by the chemistry and dynamics of the full main cast. It shows how important it is to come back to that format from time to time, even if having guest podcasters is a hallmark of Writing Excuses, and essential to broaden scope and perspective.

  4. Great advice as always. I’m one of those rare under-writers Brandon mentions, so have to flesh out dialogue, action etc. Even so, I’ll still cut out large swathes of ramblings and do a final pass to tighten every possible bit. So no one really gets away with it, but it’s so incredibly satisfying to see the improvement that line-by-line is now one of my favourite stages.

    One of the best pieces of advice for streamlining text is something Howard said in an earlier podcast: start with what stands out to the character, end with what they linger on. Even taken as a guide rather than a hard rule has raised my consciousness of character perception and makes the text read much more smoothly, even though the swap is a really minor adjustment.

  5. ”Don’t tell, then show” vs paragraph structure?

    I have a question – you warned for the redundancy of first telling, THEN showing. I wonder if this really always is bad?
    I also read somewhere that every paragraph could/should be designed as a unit with the first sentence as a kind of heading about what this paragraph is about (a thought, a feeling, a reaction etc).

    I guess what we’re talking about is something like this:

    Suddenly Jane was afraid. The receiver in her hand slipped under her icy-wet hand, in her ears she heard her own puls pounding. She tried to speak but no sound would come out of her dry throat.

    I just jotted this down, so please bear with the somewhat clichee pictures. But as to the structure – is this really all bad??

    You also recommended to try to turn the order of a paragraph upside-down.

    Suddenly the receiver in Jane’s hand slipped under her icy-wet hand, in her ears she heard her own puls pounding. She tried to speak but no sound would come out of her dry throat. She was afraid.
    (I also swapped ”Jane/she” and left ”suddenly” at the beginning.)

    To me it doesn’t sound so bad? I guess that it also is a matter of tone and your (the writer’s) intention – but apart from that, I wonder if there is anybody here who can fill out the meaning of theses ”guidelines” with more specifics so that they make more sense to me?

    Any wise reflections?

    1. The thesis-statement construction of paragraphs is usually taught at a stage in school where students don’t yet know how to communicate via the written word. It helps them organize their thoughts, and it helps instructors by standardizing the things they’re going to have to read.

      It’s baby-food.

      Your paragraph is so much better without the thesis statement:

      “The receiver slipped from Jane’s icy-wet hand, and her pulse pounded in her ears. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came from her dry throat.”

      We don’t need to be told that she’s afraid. We’ve been shown. In the context of the rest of the story we would know exactly what’s going on.

  6. Note also: Fiction and creative non-fiction are very different from essay-writing. When you are writing an essay you begin with summary statements, and then you support them. If fiction is written the way essays are written, the first line of book gives away the ending.

  7. Thank you so much Howard, I couldn’t have hoped for a clearer answer! And thank you for your great show!
    All the best from Sweden!

  8. Really interesting episode. There’s a lot to chew over here.

    What was referred to as ‘parallelism’ is I think close to what Le Guin calls ‘repetition’ in Steering the Craft, and is a thing I’ve always thought of as ‘echoing’ in my own head. An important thing about it is that echoing (or parallelism, or repetition), can work the whole way through a story, at all levels. Echoing at a word level, either repeatedly using the same word, or assonance or rhyming, can draw strong attention and emphasis. Repetition of a single sentence (like Snowden dying in the back of the plane*) can add an almost supernatural power to the meaning underlying it. Echoing major plot points, turnings and events with other, more minor seeming plot events earlier in the story can also work well, though needs to be done with subtlety. Fairy tales do this in a clumsy way with the sets of threes… a thing happens three times, or is the same, the same, different (older sibling fails, older sibling fails, younger sibling succeeds).

    Anyway, there is a set of repetition exercises in Steering the Craft, which are well worth doing.

    In terms of editing at a fine level, another place where careful close-detail editing can be applied is the removal of longer, multi-syllabled words for replacement by older, more gutsy Anglo-Saxon words. I think the tone and setting of the piece can make a huge difference in terms of how much you want to do this, but often it is the case that the shorter word is the better word.

    I’ve also tried changing type-face on the final edit, as well as the usual advice around printing it out and reading the story aloud. All of these are very helpful for catching the bits and pieces of scrap wordage that always slip through.

    Finally, in terms of actually making your writing ‘pretty’, I think the best advice I’ve ever seen was from Bradbury, which was simply, ‘read poetry’. His advice was to read one poem and one short story a day. We don’t all have time for that perhaps, but reading some poetry is vital for a prose writer. If that doesn’t tickle you, then at the very least you need to read some poetic writers. Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, the Bronte sisters and G.K. Chesterton all come to mind. Or, for a more current writer, try Tobias Wolff. Of course, you might not actually want your writing to be poetic, but it is one of the ways in which the writing can give back some short-term payoff for a reader, which is important especially in the middles of stories. There are other things of course: action, excitement, humour, romantic tension, visceral horror and a sense of menace or foreboding are also short term payoffs that some readers will love and others will be unmoved by. Poetry of language is similar. Some readers will love you for it, others will wonder if you really are as pretentious as you seem on the page and give up.

    I should stop rambling now. Really interesting episode.


    * Catch 22.

  9. @Damon

    Howard has already answered this succinctly, but I thought I’d chime in as well. An immediate warning sign that the first bit…

    Suddenly Jane was afraid.

    …may not be needed is the word ‘suddenly’. This often flags a ‘springboard sentence’ or ‘springboard clause’, which as the writer you may have needed to sort things out squarely in your own head, but in the end can be cut because the second part of the paragraph…

    The receiver in her hand slipped under her icy-wet hand, in her ears she heard her own pulse pounding. She tried to speak but no sound would come out of her dry throat.

    …now captures what you initially were thinking about in the first part of the sentence anyway.

    Academic writing advice doesn’t really gel across to fiction writing very well. To be honest, it doesn’t even gel across to writing actual research papers for publication… good writing is more dynamic and more sophisticated than idea / body / conclusion repeated ad nauseam.

    I also wanted to add something more to the discussion about show / don’t tell and tell-then-show discussion. The mixing and mingling of showing and telling doesn’t just play with pacing, but plays around with focus and what the reader will notice and remember as important. Here’s three show/tell ‘levels’ of the same scene.

    Jim was walking along Fleet Street, snow all around. He passed a bakery and paused to look in the window. He was hungry.

    Jim was walking along Fleet Street, snow all around. He passed a bakery and paused to look in the window. There were glazed cakes and big loaves of bread under the gaslight glow. The door chimed as some other, luckier person left. For a moment his body forgot the cold and remembered hunger.

    Jim was walking along Fleet Street, snow all around. He passed a bakery and paused to look in the window. Piles of cakes. Steam from a oven whitening the glass. Bread like toasted gold and remembrances of childhood. Buns with lovingly dabbed pink frosting. He felt the hollowness inside. He felt the slight dizziness of blood too unfed, too thin. He moved his face a little closer to the glass as a customer stepped out of the bakery and into the freezing night. Briefly, they met eyes, and the gentleman turned and was gone in the swirling fall of dusk and pale snowflakes. Jim rattled his fingers around inside his pockets. Not a farthing, not a penny to be found. He knew that already, but he couldn’t help himself from checking.

    I just typed those out, so they may or may not be riddled with errors. Might also be terrible. First draft is first draft. Anyway, in the first instance we are told everything, but we also know from this that the bakery and the hunger are incidental. It’s not very important to the plot. In the second and third, we are getting a deeper feeling that the bakery may actually be important, and in the third, the hunger seems like it might actually be the plot. The degree to which you go in and out of detail depends on the sort of story you are writing. It’s sort of like riding crests of waves. Some stories, and some writers, work in a sparse way that means the level of detail never really climbs up into full blown poetics, and never needs to. If handled deftly, a small amount of really sharp detail in amidst a lot of plainer telling can be a powerful tool. The reverse can also be true. There is a story by Paul Bowles, usually a fairly rich ‘shower’, in which the main character, a woman, becomes offended at a cattlehand. But instead of showing us how angry she was using the elegant description Bowles was so apt with, he gives us one line:

    She was angry.

    The short, brevity of this line in amongst all the carefully rendered descriptions of life on a South American ranch casts the anger outside of the rest of the story… it makes the anger stand out and become something bigger than anything else in the story. It is telling at its plainest, and in fact, it is the exact line that is often used to demonstrate how unsatisfying telling can be, yet in that Bowels story it makes the anger incandescent.

    Alright. Now I think I’m at risk of wandering off topic, but what I was initially trying to get at is that is that showing can work well, and telling can work well, but it’s the contrast between showing and telling, the ups and downs in the detail that create the unconscious roller coaster ride of the story. By using a sentence to ‘show’ then the rest of the paragraph to ‘tell’ you’re diluting both the power of the telling and the showing, and thus undermining your ability to use this tool to craft a dramatic ebb and flow at a sentence level.

    I hope that makes sense and is maybe useful. I think I may have wandered off the path a little there.

    Alright, time to get on with other things.



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