Friday, June 24, 2011

Minor Adjustments for Major Impact

The ball whooshed through the air toward my son who waited with a wide stance and a baseball bat near his shoulder. He swung...and missed. The next time he was up to bat, the same thing happened and, again, he struck out.

What happened? His form looked great. His swing? On time and powerful.

At the next practice, the coach came up to him and said, "You're pulling back a fraction of a second on your swing." Then he showed him the minor adjustment to make, and my son's strike-out streak ended. The next game, he made it on base every time.

It occurred to me that writing is the same way. We study craft books, articles, and workshops to fix the big problems, but often, minor adjustments can have major impact. Often we understand how to create a fascinating plot and we have dynamic characters in our head, but little things in our manuscripts prevent us from making it to base with an agent or editor. We're a fraction away from hitting the ball, and we don't even know it.

Minor Adjustments Worth Evaluating in Your Manuscript:

* Have I varied sentence structure? Read a page out loud to verify the writing doesn't sound sing-song-ish or choppy.
* Am I repeating phrases and words? This is where critique partners come in handy. They'll pick up on any offenders.
* Do my modifiers modify the right word? Take half an hour to brush up on basic grammar.
* Have I used sharp, unique words? Avoid vague, generic descriptions.

Beginning of Each Scene:
* Have I given enough information to ground the reader in setting? (Who, what, where, when?)
* Does the reader have a clear reason for reading this scene? (Why? or Scene goal?)
* Does the reader know whose point of view the scene is in?

* Have I shown the main character through a mixture of dialogue, action, and thoughts? All three are necessary.

Showing vs. Telling:
* Do any passages take me out of the character's head? If yes, could I be telling instead of showing? Find a way to get the information across through the character.

* Am I slowing down dialogue with too many character thoughts, descriptions, or action tags? Pare down.
* Could the dialogue benefit with more thoughts from the character, descriptions, or action tags? We're aiming for a full-bodied read. Dialogue alone is necessary in some scenes but too bare-bones for others.
* In any scene with only one character (usually a sequel), have I included actions to ground the reader? If the character sits on the couch and ruminates over a fight, have her physically doing something every few paragraphs as she broods.
* Is the tension mounting at the right times in the book? Tension should ebb and flow, growing stronger as the book progresses.

* Is this manuscript formatted to basic standards (1" margins, easy-to-read 12 pt. font such as Times New Roman, double-spaced, proper header, chapters begun on new page)?

I know I've left out many other areas we can evaluate the strengths of our books. Will you need to adjust every detail I listed? Of course not! Chances are, you're agile at most of them. But one or two might have you wondering, and those are the ones worth looking into.

With thousands, if not millions, of writers trying to get published, and many writers deciding to self-publish, it's worth spending time on minor adjustments. Clean, powerful writing can only help us stand out from the crowd!

What minor adjustment has made a major impact on your writing?

Have a fantastic Friday!!


  1. All great reminders!

  2. This is a fantastic checklist, Jill!

  3. Awesome post! I may print this one out as a checklist to keep nearby. I'm sure you I've done them all wrong at one point in time. :)

  4. Good morning!

    Thank you! You all could teach me a thing or two about minor adjustments, though! :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  5. Excellent, Jill! I think when we start out as newbies, we're all guilty of a few of these. :)

  6. All fantastic reminders.

    I read a chapter out loud when I'm finished with it. You can really hear the flow.

  7. Normally I would protest, "Not a sports metaphor!" But this one actually feels so right, especially because I always was a baseball player like that. Missed it by that much!! Great article.

  8. I love the sports comparison. I tell my students all the time that learning to write is just like learning anything else (such as a sport). You have to work at it and get better with practice. You have to be willing to make those minor adjustments, as you said.

    I might have to share this with my current class! =) Thanks.

    -Miss GOP

  9. Those are great tips. And I love the sports metaphor.

  10. What a great list! Awesome post. It's hard to see when we're so close. That's why we should never give up! :D

  11. Thank you all for stopping by and chiming in. I really appreciate it!

    (Cythia--I've been writing full-time for years and I STILL am guilty of some of these!)

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  12. Excellent tips, Jill. Thanks for this check list.

    Reading aloud helps me discover troublesome spots and lack of flow.

  13. I'm going to start revising my WIP next week, so this checklist will come in handy. Thanks, Jill! Have a great weekend :-)

  14. It's so true. We have to play our A game to even get a turn at bat.

  15. GREAT checklist! Having a purpose for every scene is SO crucial.

  16. I can be choppy more that I care to admit. I like the tension of a short sentence, but I have to be careful not to get carried away.

  17. It's reassuring to hear I'm not alone on the needing to use this checklist! Thanks!

    (Congrats, again, Linda on your new job--agent at Hartline!!)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Incredible post, Jill! You obviously put a lot of time into this. Thank you for the excellent pointers. Very informative.

    One writing adjustment I've made is limiting dialogue tags. They become a distraction to the reader (if over-used.)

    Recently, I couldn't finish reading a story because it was riddled with a multitude of 'he saids' and 'she saids' on each page. It drove me nuts. LOL

    Thank you for the good luck wishes you posted on my blog, (and for your vote!) YAY! The winner of the 1PFR contest will be announced on Wednesday. My fingers (and everything else) are crossed.


  19. Hi Jill,

    I really like this post--it's excellent and helpful, particularly for newer writers. I'm going to share it on my Word Chicks Facebook page! Thank you!

  20. Hi Jill -

    This is great! I'll be linking to this post in late July.

    Susan :)

  21. Jill, this is A-MAZING. Too often I read my own work and think the whole thing is a mess and needs to be deleted. In fact, minor tweaks to the plot thread might do the trick.

  22. I was ansting and angsting over this one chapter and was about to trash the whole dang chapter when all of a sudden something hit me upside my pea-head -- I moved up a section to the top and suddently the entire thing made sense! it worked! ELATION! *laughing*

  23. Oh, thanks, everyone! I'm constantly adjusting small details--and I'm convinced it makes my novels shine!

    (Julie and Susan--I appreciate the links--very kind of you!)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!


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