Jul 22 2006

Style Checklist

1) Try not to begin sentences with the words there, it, so, and then.

A. There and it create passive sentences. For example, “there are only three cities with many supervillains” can be rewritten as “only three cities have many supervillains.”

B. So usually connects an action awkwardly to a previous statement, like “I hate Italian food, so I’m not a fan of lasagna.” Phrases that begin with so are often obvious and unneeded.

C. Then is problematic when it indicates that a string of actions is continuing. “I went to the door and then I knocked.” Usually, then suggests that the action is individually insignificant. Sentences with then frequently feel like laundry lists of actions that don’t need to be spelled out. “I hit the up button. Then the elevator came. Then I stepped inside and got out on the ninth floor” could be revised to “I took the elevator to the ninth floor.” Unless something interesting happens on the elevator, there’s no reason to draw it out.

2) Passive voice lacks punch and verve. Is passive voice in your piece? Does your piece use passive voice?

3) Have you weeded out unnecessary and unproductive sentences and phrases? Writers don’t stumble upon coherent, compact stories any more than a sculptor accidentally turns a stone into a face. Good writing relies on editing and deletion as much as creation/addition. If a scene, chapter or character adds little to the work as a whole, you’ve got to have the guts to remove or revise it.

A. One common objection is “but I’ve already got 60,000 words! If I cut anything, I won’t have a manuscript long enough to submit.” OK, but if you don’t cut anything, you probably won’t have a manuscript good enough to get accepted anywhere. Wise editing and deletion will increase the publishability of the whole.

B. How does one edit wisely? Well, here are some suggestions. List your chapters and then write a 1-2 sentence synopsis of your book’s plot. Which chapters are tangential to your synopsis? For example, Harry Potter’s Quidditch scenes are useful and enjoyable, but not really related to the main plot. Compared to the rest of the book, how long are your tangential chapters? As a rule, tangents shouldn’t make up more than 10-15% of the book.

C. Deleting scenes and chapters can be emotionally hard. Instead of deleting them, try cutting and pasting them into a separate file. In a few days, if you feel that you really need that scene, then you can retrieve it.

D) Talk to your reviewers. Ask them to nominate scenes that could be reduced. Did they ever use phrases like “this dragged on”?

4) There are many stylistic tics that may cause readers to stumble.  Get out a set of markers and print out a copy of your work. Circle each of the following tics in a different color.

A) Modifiers (a lot, almost, very, extremely, roughly, approximately, quite, nearly, a bit, etc.)

B) Sentences that begin with nouns

C) Words that have 5+ syllables

D) Sentences that have 15+ words

E) Sentences that have 4+ commas and/or semi-colons

F) Sentences that have 3+ clauses

G) Lines of dialogue that are not attributed to a speaker

H) Capitalized words that are not the first word of the sentence. (Why might this be problematic? According to the article “Revision Checklist” by B. Mac and Jacob Mallow, 9 out of 10 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors of America agree that Over-Capitalization Syndrome can be visually disorientating).

I) Fragmented or grammatically incorrect sentences.

J) Paragraphs with 150+ words

K) Italicized words

It’s not a problem that you will have many circles on your page for some of these categories.  There’s nothing wrong with an occasional long sentence, for example.  But when each page has 10-15 long sentences, that might rub readers the wrong way.  Circling each of these items helps you get in the reader’s mindset.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Style Checklist”

  1. Bretton 21 Nov 2008 at 6:22 am

    Question. In chapters 3 and 4 (that’s during the training) the kids are split into groups to learn their powers. The groups are:
    April, Kiturah, Joshua
    Michael, Rachel, Zenobia
    Alex and Karen

    Originally they were in groups of two, but switching between 4 stories was difficult and a poor attempt at suspense. You could tell I was tired because by the time I got to Rachel & Kiturah’s story it was crap on a stick. So I merged some of the groups. The problem now is that I don’t think I can effectively show interaction between three minor characters. They all have defining traits, but it will be difficult. Plus all the stories make the chapter superlong. I ask you, will readers miss those two extra stories if I trash them? The main story is Alex vs Karen. I don’t want readers to be distracted from that but at the same time I don’t want them wondering, “hey, what about the other kids?” Do you think if I make Alex and Karen’s story interesting enough they won’t care what’s going on with the others?

    Your thoughts?

  2. B. Macon 21 Nov 2008 at 7:11 am

    I highly recommend sticking with the Alex-Karen group. This early on, your readers won’t exactly be sure who the main characters are… if you give a chapter about someone else, readers may conclude that those characters are much more important than they actually are. If you’d like to remind us that there are other students here, you could put a third member in the A-K group, ideally someone that makes at least some cameo appearances later.

    You could also allude, from A-K’s perspective, to the other students so that it doesn’t feel like we’re in a vacuum. For example, their teacher might run out of the classroom after two of the other students manage to set each other on fire, or something. Or they hear explosions from another room and the teacher tells them to ignore it and keep training.

  3. Oliviaon 25 Nov 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Is there exceptions for the fragment rule when it comes to dialogue? Because normal people don’t typically talk in fully structured sentences

    Another question along the same line, is there exceptions in dialogue when it comes to starting sentences with like, so, by the way, etc?

  4. B. Macon 26 Nov 2010 at 2:49 am

    Even in dialogue, I would recommend against starting sentences with empty interjections unless you have a good reason. Fictional dialogue is usually tighter and wastes fewer words than real-life dialogue and empty interjections are one example of words that can usually be cut. (Unless, for example, you’re trying to create a brief pause).

    MAD SCIENTIST’S GIRLFRIEND: You’re plotting to destroy the world again.

    MAD SCIENTIST: Absolutely not! What would give you that impression?

    (A massive explosion booms from the basement lab).

    MAD SCIENTIST, embarrassed: So… How about them Lakers?



    “Is there exceptions for the fragment rule when it comes to dialogue? Because normal people don’t typically talk in fully structured sentences.” I’d recommend doing what feels natural, but not overdoing it. As long as the author is aware of the fragments, I doubt they’ll pose much of a problem.

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