You’ve finished your first draft. For a while, you bask in the glow of your creative high wire act. But then, as you share the manuscript with others, their reactions aren’t what you expected. Perhaps they are confused or bored with the story. Or, worse, they make excuses for not finishing it. So, you decide to read your draft again. Doubts rush in. Perhaps the writing isn’t as strong as you thought. But you aren’t sure exactly how to fix it. You grab your favorite book, the one you wish you wrote. You feverishly re-read it and wonder how the author wrote so flawlessly. In comparison, your writing seems shabby and amateurish. Right now, you want to give up writing and take up a hobby like hydroponic gardening.
But wait. It’s easy to be overwhelmed. Believe me, I’ve been there. Let’s start by taking a long, careful look at the opening and closing pages of the book and each successive chapter. This is the book’s architecture and it can tell you a lot.
Let’s imagine that the structure of the book is sound. Each chapter builds on the next and moves steadily towards the climax. But, the problem is the writing itself. It falls flat. As you were drafting the book, each sentence, each paragraph was thrilling, but the words now seem lifeless and flabby. Some sentences are too long. Others are vague and confusing. How should you fix it? Here’s my suggestion: don’t study only the masters. You can learn a lot from writers who are learning their craft. Perhaps, there’s a local writer’s group you can join or you can take a class online or at a local college. You can also join an online writing community like Zoetrope where you can meet other writers and exchange drafts. I learned so much from the writers on that site. But, there’s also something you can do right now.
Let’s start by taking a look at the first prize winner from the 2014 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where writers compete to create the worst opening sentences of a book. Yes, the worst. Here it is:
When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA
Now, let’s take a minute to dissect (no pun intended) this intentionally terrible first sentence. What’s wrong with it?
- The writer uses too many adjectives. I counted 8: dead, famished, flinty-eyed, clear-headed, fateful, original, second, and confirming.
- The writer packs too much information into one sentence. In fact, this sentence should be broken into several sentences.
- The writer has competing points of view. Is the reader supposed to focus on the crew or the captain? Or the dead moose? Or, the fact that they are starving? Or, that they were in a ship wreck? Or, that the captain wants them to wait for the second moose? It’s not clear.
Now, let’s look at another “winner” from the contest:
He was waiting for the call seated behind his desk, his right knee bouncing up and down like the piston of a one-cylinder steam engine – the kind old guys restore and stand proudly next to at the county fair hoping someone will stop and ask about it but they never do as the engine thumps and sputters in rhythm like an anxious guy seated behind his desk bouncing his knee up and down. — Damian Alabakoff, Vancouver, WA
What’s wrong here?
- The writer includes too much extraneous information. Do we really need to include “the piston of a one-cylinder steam engine– the kind old guys restore and stand proudly next to at the county fair hoping someone will stop and ask about it but they never do as the engine thumps and sputters in rhythm…”? Definitely not. I’m sure you’ll agree.
- The writer overuses similes/metaphors. He compares the man’s knee to a one-cylinder steam engine and repeats the image of the man’s knee bouncing up and down not once, but twice.
- The description of the person doesn’t reveal character or motivation. We know little about the character beyond the fact he is waiting for a call and he is nervous. Who is he? What’s his name? What does he look like? What is unique about him? Why should we care about him?
Now, let’s take a look at another terrible opener. (You’ve got to admit, this is fun, isn’t it?) This sentence could have come from an action-thriller pot boiler from the 1930’s.
“Listen, Control!” snarled Captain Dan McMurdo across the ether, “I’ve got one engine shut down, the other running on fumes, a seriously wounded co-pilot who won’t last the hour, fifty-three refugee orphans down the back, and a nun for a radio operator, so turn the goddam landing lights on goddam pronto – sorry, Sister.”— Gavin Dobson
Too many details? Absolutely! Do we need to know everyone who’s on the plane or that a nun is the radio operator right away? Probably not. Can we save some of this information for later as needed? Definitely. Do we need to include all this information in one sentence? No. This leads us to the conclusion that:
- The writer packs too information into one sentence and reveals too much too soon. In other words, you should reveal only the key information that is essential at that moment. Save the rest for later if you can. It’s always a good idea to withhold some key information for as long as possible. This creates tension in the story and in the reader. In this case, tension is a very good thing. It keeps the reader reading.
Here is another example from a Nordic adventure tale:
As the foeman’s axe descended, Ragnar Thorvaldsson thought – quickly, but with uncannily prescient anachronism – that his paltry contribution to this raid would not be recorded in the great sagas, or even a minor tale, but at best he might be remembered centuries hence only as “third oarsman” in the Boys’ Own Book of Viking Adventure Stories. — Paul Dawson, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Are you as lost as I am? So, what does this sentence tell us?
- The writer doesn’t use concrete and specific language. This can confuse the reader and muddle your storytelling. He also uses “vaulted” prose–i.e., “prescient anachronism,” “paltry contribution”–which is better suited to academic prose or writing that is designed to impress the reader with our intelligence. However, your aim is to tell a story as cleanly and effectively as possible. It isn’t to convince your readers that your IQ is in the gifted range. The words you choose should be based on their visual and emotional impact, not the number of syllables.
The next opening sentence will leave you scratching your head:
When the CSI investigator lifted the sheet revealing the mutilated body with the Ginsu Knife still protruding from the bloody chest, Detective Miller wondered why anybody would ever need two of them, even if he only had to pay extra shipping and handling. — Brian Brandt, Lansdale, PA
What’s wrong here? There are several pronouns without clear antecedents. Who is “he?” Is it Detective Miller or the anonymous TV viewer? The number “two” refers to what? Knives? Bloody chests? Even when we realize that the author is referring to knives, why does he include the “extra shipping and handling fee” in this sentence? Is it important information? No, it’s definitely extraneous. This leads to the next point on our list:
- The writer’s language isn’t grammatically correct and therefore the author’s meaning isn’t absolutely clear to the reader.
And finally, here’s our last example:
Justin was happy, like a clam at high tide, but abruptly ending his musings he recalled that he had every reason to be happy (in his own small way) because he was a quahog and it was the highest of tides, and he squirted with delight. — Mike Mayfield, Austin, TX
Are you squirming like me at the thought of a talking quahog named Justin? Does the tired metaphor– “happy like a clam?”–make you wince? You are not alone. Therefore, we can conclude:
- The writer uses stale metaphors, overworked verbs, and clichés instead of avoiding them like the plague. (Pun intended.)
All these “mistakes” can be used to evaluate your own writing. Pay particular attention to the first few pages of your book and all the successive first and last pages in every chapter. The writing often gets stronger as we get deeper into the chapter. But the reader may not have the patience to wade through those weak opening pages. You also want to end your chapters on a “high” note, by raising an issue or questions which you will answer in later chapters.
And finally, recognize that all first drafts are inherently messy and need revision. That is a given. But as you rework and edit your prose, your sentences will start to shine. If you’d like to learn more about crafting sentences, you can also check out the Building Great Sentences course available on The Teaching Company site. I’ve taken it and highly recommend it. People often ask me how many drafts I write before I’m happy with the work. Honestly, I revise so much I lose track of the number. But in the end, the results are worth it. Take heart and have courage! You can do it.
Now, it’s your turn. Share an example of a great or terrible sentence or two. Tell us why you think so. Then, I’ll compile a list of the “best” and the “worst” and share them with you.
For other posts on the craft of writing, click the links below: