Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

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.

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

Thing of the week: Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners, by Ellen Kushner.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: How do you improve the prose, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph? Did the readers say they were bored? Present the information faster. Avoid tell, then show. Cut redundancies. Maximize the delivery of a block of prose — funniest word last, turn it upside down. Try writing one sentence per concept. Look at parallelism. Did the readers say confusing or unbelievable? Order of information, internal state? Clean up the blocking. Check the adverbs, and replace with descriptions? Add sensory details. Make sure you follow the character’s attention. Tweak your paragraphing, your chapter breaks? Watch for $5 words, and make change. Replace vague words with concrete. Turn negative information into positive. Change the font, and read it again. Then cut 10%.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 46.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Do I Make This Prettier?
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that pretty!
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m that pretty.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Brandon] Once again, we are on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Whoo! Applause.]

[Brandon] We have spoken about how to go about kind of the large-scale revision process, how to fix the big problems. But equally important is making the prose better. In fact, this is one of the things I needed to practice a lot as a new writer, and I still feel like I need to practice. How to make your line-by-line better, your paragraph-by-paragraph better. How do you make this a story that people enjoy reading, page by page? So, let’s talk revision strategies. First off, what are you guys looking to cut during this process?
[Mary] One of the things that I look for is as I’m going through, I pay attention to where my readers have said that they’re bored, because that is a signal that I am rambling, that things are taking too long. A lot of times it’s not that I need to cut information, it’s just that I need to present it faster.
[Brandon] One thing that I do a lot, and I notice my students do a lot, is the tell, then show.
[Mary] Yep.
[Brandon] Very common with a writer… New writer to be like, “She felt this way.” Then showing how she felt. As if they don’t quite trust, and I do this myself, as if I don’t quite trust my writing. Or if I didn’t understand what the emotional state was, so I was talking my way through it, and then the good writing comes in and I go into the kind of shows and all of these important things. You repeat concepts quite a bit in the same way.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s one of the things that I look for is redundancies. Like you say, I will often just repeat myself over and over again. I’ll say the same thing again and again.
[Brandon] And again. In slightly different ways, you will say stuff that you’ve just said before.
[Mary] Yes. Then I might say it again using some different words.
[Dan] Oh, come on.

[Howard] Editing for pacing then will often… Oh, my goodness.
[Brandon] Howard, you’re a master of this.
[Howard] Well… Thank you. Part of that… Part of any mastery I may or may not have achieved come from editing things for humor. In which I know, because of what I’m writing, I know what the objective of this short snippet is. I know I’m trying to make somebody laugh, and I’m trying to make a particular point. Once you know the objective of a particular block of prose, you can start fine-tuning the prose to maximize your delivery of that. I have a number of strategies there. One of them, I think I may have mentioned on air recently, is find the funniest word and put it as late as possible. Because that’s part of the delivery of the punchline. Another, and this one I’ve applied to prose time and again, is try turning it upside down. I will take a paragraph which may be very much like the ones you’ve described where you will state a thing and then you will give supporting evidence for the thing in the paragraph? I’ll just turn it upside down, by taking that first line putting it last, not changing anything else. What I find is the statement of evidence leads the reader to the point that the statement of the thing at the end is actually kind of punchy and delivers a conclusion and drives the story home a little faster. That happens without actually pruning any words. Once I’ve done that, I can dive in and say, “Oh, and these words are unnecessary because now the paragraph goes 123 boom,” and says what needed to be said.

[Mary] One thing that I’ll do with my students is that I’ll have them… in the process of doing, that I’ll have them go through and identify what the specific concepts are that they’re trying to get across in that section of prose that is going on too long. Then I… And this is an exercise, you should not do this with every piece of writing ever because you can totally kill text this way. But I’ll have them as an exercise go through and write one sentence per concept. That’s all they’re allowed. So if they have a big chunk of prose that is trying to get across the fact that she’s depressed, but they’re in fact using three paragraphs to do that, you cut it down to one. A lot of times… Sometimes that’s cutting it back too far, but sometimes you find that just one line, if you can make that a very significant line, that it carries more weight than something that’s really, really long. Because you… It loses tension a lot of times.

[Dan] When I start getting into the wordsmithing stage of revision like this… Maybe this is my marketing background, when I was working in advertising and things like that. I paid very close attention to parallelism in word choice. Because there are some times, and I fight with copy editors a lot over this, there are some times, in fact, most times, when you don’t want to over use a specific word. So it’s easy to go through and read a page and go, “Oh, I just use the word envelope like 87 times in three pages.” But sometimes you do, and for a specific effect, you might want that. Because it’s powerful if you can hit that over and over again. If you look at great speech writers, they will use this as a tactic to kind of… It’s called parallelism. To use the same word or phrase for impact, to reuse it. So copy editors don’t always like that, because that’s something they look out for specifically, but sometimes you want to do it.
[Brandon] Wait, wait. I gotta, I gotta, I gotta ask. You said your background in marketing. What were you marketing for?
[Dan] [chuckle] Shampoo.
[Brandon] Oh. Okay. I thought the scrapbooking company was what I was looking for.
[Dan] I did work for a couple of years at a scrapbooking company.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Dan] If anyone needs to talk about rubberstamps, I got your back.
[Brandon] I wanted to mention one other thing, though. You mentioned this parallelism when it’s bad. I wanted to point out why that’s bad. This is actually a larger rule of what you’re looking to wordsmith here. Any time the prose calls attention to itself in a way you didn’t want… There are certain types of writing and certain people who want that. Like the parallelism that you’re doing that you like, it’s like, “Oh, I’m…” It’s okay, if the reader stops and pays attention to that. But if something pulls them out of the narrative unintentionally, that’s bad. Everyone listening to this, and every writer in this room, will start over using words. It’s a natural affect of… Or effect of writing a lot and coming to understand your style. This becomes a problem only when the readers start to notice it. They’re like, “Wait a minute. You can’t… Most people don’t use the word maladroitly four times in a book.”
[Chuckle, laughter]
[Brandon] Then readers come to me and they’re like, “You really like the word maladroitly.” I’m like, “I do?” But I do. It’s a word that I started using because it fulfills a… It’s a tool.
[Dan] Well…
[Howard] Concatenate. I love the word concatenate.
[Dan] It’s a very specific… Actually a neurological phenomenon. Like if somebody teaches you the name of a specific model of car, you will start seeing that car everywhere.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Dan] As soon as you learn a new word that fits a situation, your brain will start finding situations to use it. So you need to watch out for that. A case where you will want to use parallelism on purpose would be mostly in dialogue or first-person narration, where you’re trying to drive home a specific point or call attention to a specific idea.
[Mary] Yeah. I say the two things are when you’re trying for emphasis or to remove ambiguity. That’s when you want to reuse things. Let me just give an example of this in… This parallelism is really good writing, which is Ray Bradbury’s The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl.
[Dan] Oh, yeah.
[Mary] I use this when I’m teaching people to read aloud. There’s this one line in it. He looked at his hand and he looked at… Oh, wait. He looked at the room, he looked at his hand, and he looked at the man lying on the floor. He repeats that structure each time, but each time, it gets a little more significant. That repetition drives home the fact that this is a guy who’s in shock because he’s just killed somebody. So that’s a place where the emphasis is there.
[Howard] It should also be noted in that example that there is a similarity between the word hand and the word man that phonetically helps this along. If I were to write an essay about parallelism, at some point I would use the word parallelism and the word paragraph in close proximity that they reinforce each other. Because there is a similar sound, and if I can support that with other things that complement or that offset, it becomes more effective. That’s really, really deep drilling.
[Howard] And you can’t afford to do this for every paragraph.
[Dan] Since we’re talking specifically about kind of wordsmithing and revision, the other… It occurs to me the other instance where I will use this kind of parallel structure is if I’m trying to give extra weight to a reveal. Then I find sometimes it can be valuable to repeat a certain structure two or three times and then break it at the end, which adds extra oomph to it.

[Brandon] I do think we need to move on from the cutting aspect and start talking about the adding aspect. When you’re doing a revision here, what do you add on the line-by-line?
[Mary] So again, when I’m looking at my reader reactions… I train my readers to tell me four basic reactions, something is awesome so I don’t accidentally cut it, something is boring which we’ve already talked about. Something is confusing and something that they didn’t believe. I find that with confusing and didn’t believe, that those are usually where I need to go back in and add information. With didn’t… With confusion, it’s that my order of information is probably wrong. I haven’t given them enough details about place and setting and physical things. With didn’t believe, it usually relates to the character’s internal state.
[Brandon] Their motives.
[Mary] Yes. I need to go back in and make sure I add in some internal motivation. Which is also sometimes called free indirect speech, which is the thing where you… You can look that term up, but it’s the thing where you report someone’s thought as if it’s part of the narration instead of breaking it into italics.

[Brandon] When I’m adding, the number one thing I have to do is make the blocking clearer, particularly in fight scenes. When I’m writing my first drafts, I’m usually all over the place in those fight scenes. It’s very common that all the readers are like, “This was really exciting, but I didn’t know where anyone was.” That’s very normal, because we’re trying to get down like the tone almost in the first draft, rather than the point by point. Because we don’t even know what of the point by point we’re going to end up keeping as we do revisions.
[Howard] It’s also important to remember as you’re adding text that adverbs are a compression algorithm that is inherently lossy. When you say angrily, you are describing angry behavior. Sometimes, if you really want to show the angry behavior, you rip that word out and you add lines that show what this person did across their three steps, their three steps as they walked angrily. What defined that? Surreptitiously, sneakily, these are the kinds of words that are compressing a very complex description into one word, and as compression algorithms go, it’s lossy. You lose a whole bunch of information that you may need to include to bring the reader along.
[Mary] But just to remind you that there’s some times that you do need to compress. So it’s not that you’re never allowed to use these.
[Dan] Yeah. Exactly.
[Brandon] People like to make absolutes, and adverbs is one of them. Find your style, find what works for your readers and the stories you’re trying to tell, and then get better at that.

[Mary] The other thing that I will find that I need to add is, particularly in intense scenes, so I’ll go back in and add sensory detail.
[Brandon] Oh, good point. Very good point.
[Mary] I do this for two reasons. One is that sensory details obviously make things more vivid. Sometimes I find that I have overused one sense, that the sense… I’m a visually oriented person. So I frequently have used a lot of sight, and not had any sound or texture or smell in the scene. So I’ll go back in and try to make sure that I am working those in. In fact, the exercise Nalo gave about highlighting is a really good way to spot when you’re overusing a sense or not using or under using a sense.
[Brandon] I have my characters frequently just go lick everything.
[Brandon] So I can make sure…
[Mary] I do that all the time. It’s really important. The taste of the wall… If you’re leaving that out of your story…
[Mary] But the other thing about sensory details is that this can control pacing. So if someone says, “I feel like something happened fast,” and it’s something that you actually want to… You want to get deeper into it, a lot of times adding in some sensory details… If you go back to my first appearance on Writing Excuses, where I talk about the principles of puppetry and the idea of focus and breath, how long someone lingers on something, is how long they are… Is how much attention they’re giving to it. So giving more attention to a specific aspect in terms of description and sensory details can give more importance and weight to something.

[Brandon] In student writing, I write a lot about you’re not following the character’s attention. You’re writing the wrong thing. The character notices something, but you don’t tell us what it is for three sentences or what not. This is a very good point. I would point people at… We’ve done podcasts on description. Go back and listen to those. Also, wherever I talk about the pyramid of abstraction… I do it in my writing lectures. A good place to look if you’re having trouble with this. Dan, you looked like you wanted to say something?
[Dan] Yeah. I… Based on what Mary was saying, one of the things that I have done with all the John Cleaver books is to go back through… Any time he is describing another person’s emotions, part of the revision pass is to put in physical cues. Because he can’t tell what you’re feeling, he can only guess based on what your face looks like. That adds a really cool bit of sociopathic distance between him and the reader. So I always put that in. But really, any book that I’m writing, “there’s always one or two things that I will pick for that book and say, “okay, I’m going to go look for all of this.” In the new cyberpunk series, it was clothing. I will go back through and make sure any time anybody appears in a scene, I will describe their clothing.
[Mary] I noticed that, actually, and really enjoyed it.
[Dan] Oh, good.

[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. We are going to promo the book Swordspoint.
[Mary] Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner is one of my favorite books. The audiobook of it is fantastic because it’s multiple narrators. So you’ve got Ellen Kushner, Dion Graham, Simon Jones, Katherine Kellgren, who’s a fantastic narrator, Robert Fass, Nick Sullivan, all of these people come together to create this fantastic world. It feels real. It feels absolutely real, and it’s a great story about… I mean, I can say that Swordspoint is a coming of age, and that’s totally underselling it. It’s about an older swordsman teaching a younger one, and just the… The thing that I love about Ellen’s work is her attention to sensory details and the fabric of the society. So if you’re looking at a way to make a world feel absolutely real, this book is… It’s just phenomenal.
[Brandon] Well. If you want to pick up a copy of Swordspoint, you can go to, start a 30-day free trial, pick up a copy of the book for free, listen to it. Ellen is one of our favorite people. She’s here on the cruise with us and she’s been a fantastic teacher. She’s an excellent writer.

[Brandon] We don’t have a lot of time left in this podcast, but I want to talk about one more topic. We’ve talked about what you cut, and what you add. What do you change? We’ve touched on it a little bit in the other ones, but are there tweaks you make? To kind of give you an example, all start off. I change my paragraphing a lot during revision. This is where I’m looking to use my paragraph to set the tone, or using the longer paragraphs for more contemplative scenes or chopping them up and going shorter or trying to point at the single-line paragraphs and build to them, and things like this. I do a lot of rearranging of the size of paragraphs as I’m doing my revisions.
[Mary] I do that as well. Just to give you a tool to think about how to do that? As an audiobook narrator, typically speaking, we say you pause for a count of one when there’s a comma, pause for a count of two when there’s a period, and you pause for a count of three when there’s a paragraph. What this is actually doing, and this is a mechanical thing, you don’t actually do that when you’re narrating, it’s a training thing. But what it’s doing is it’s mimicking the way we tend to group thoughts together when we’re naturally speaking. So the paragraph breaks, what they do is those bigger pauses cause you to linger on that, it puts more emphasis on it. You don’t want to do too many of them. Those single-line sentences, because then you have someone… Who talks… With great pauses…
[Dan] So you have William Shatner.
[Mary] After every sentence. You have Shatner.
[Mary] Exactly. So you want to look at those as Brandon says, as ways to control your pacing and emphasis. But you also, [as…] earlier, can overuse it. The other thing that I do is I have a list of tics that I tend to overuse in my own writing. My characters tend to express themselves a lot with breathing and looking.
[Brandon] Yeah, I do that a lot, too. Mine raise their eyebrows all the time.
[Mary] Yeah.

[Howard] I drill down on the five dollar words, and if I see the same one twice, then I need to make a change. Literally carve it apart and use less expensive words.
[Dan] 5 $1 words?
[Howard] Exactly.
[Brandon] I tried to take words that are not as concrete and replace them with words that are. As long as I don’t have to add more words. If I have to add more words, it depends on the scene. But anytime I can just take out… Harriet did this to my writing a lot when I was working on the Wheel of Time. She take out the word “wood” and say, “What kind of wood?” Because it… Mahogany and cedar and pine all give a slightly different image, so why not use the more specific word?
[Mary] I also look for what Nancy Kress calls negative information. This is where I say things like, “He said nothing.” Well, that’s obvious, because I haven’t given him a line of dialogue. What is he doing while he’s not saying anything? He… She stood completely still. Okay. Great. Or, actually… She didn’t move. Okay, well, that’s negative. What is she doing while she’s not moving? He looked away… What is he looking at? So I try to find negative information and give a positive, instead.
[Dan] Both Brandon and Mary said that they work on changing paragraph length and I know a lot of writers will change where the chapter breaks are to control pacing. I think it’s worth pointing out that I don’t think I have ever done that. Ever. With chapters or paragraphs. But I do change punctuation constantly. In fact, Brandon, do you remember the nickname you gave me in our college writing group?
[Brandon] Yes. You were the egregious colon.
[Dan] The egregious colon.
[Dan] This is because I love punctuation, and I love long sentences. So I will always go back and more or less use exactly the same words, but put the semicolon in a different place and turn one long sentence into three and shake it up that way.
[Howard] Ibuprofen gives me an egregious colon.
[Brandon] All right. We are out of time for this. Oh, Mary I’ll… Go ahead.
[Mary] Okay. This is one last trick that I do, which is a stupid one, but it is really, really useful. I write in Times New Roman, and when I’m in the final pass editing of lines, I change it to Courier. Because it forces me to see the text differently. It causes things to line up differently. It makes… It’s this weird thing that your brain does. One of the other reasons I change to Courier is because I’ve learned that copy editors are paid by the page, and the page rate is based on when everything was required to be turned in in Courier, and there are fewer words on a page. So when I turn it in in Times New Roman, my copy editor is not paid as much.
[Brandon] Well. All right. So we should all change to Courier. I write in Courier, so…
[Dan] So do I.

[Brandon] We are out of time. But I want to give you a bit of homework here. This is actually my exercise that started with my editor teaching me to do it on my very first book, which was to cut 10% line-by-line. This is after you’ve already cut the scenes you don’t need, and even the paragraphs you don’t need. He said then go and take a page, find out how many words are on that page, and cut exactly 10% of those words. Do it for every page in your book. I don’t usually do this like now in the same way. Then I got out a spreadsheet, and I just did it. I did it chapter by chapter rather than page by page. But it was so useful to me that I did it on my first three or four books, exactly 10%. Now I’ve got by instinct that I’ll look through a revision, and I’ll have cut seven or 8%, just naturally doing a polish. So I want you to do that on one of your pieces. Force yourself to cut 10%. I’ll add the caveat that there are the rare writers who don’t add too much in their orig… Initial draft and need to add. A lot of short story writers… Eric James Stone is this way. He actually is too sparse, and trimming 10% actually makes his writing worse. He needs to go and add 10%. But give this a try and see if it works out for you. This has been Writing Excuses. Thank you, Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Whoo! Applause!]
[Brandon] You are out of excuses, now go write.