Jeanne: 5 Writing Tips from a Cranky Judge

crayon-colored-pencil-150994_640I recently judged in my chapter’s writing contest. My entries were really good–great premises, interesting characters, but writer did some things that pulled me out of the story:

1) If you have your character perform a complex physical action (like cupping his jaw while simultaneously pulling on his lower lip) do the action yourself, exactly as you’ve described it, in front of a mirror. Is it possible? Does it look the way you imagined it? If there’s any doubt at all, snag someone and have them read your text and then perform the action for you. Are you still happy with it? If not, rewrite until it works.

2) We’re constantly told “show, don’t tell” but be sure what you’re showing tells the reader what you intend. “A lick of fire curled through her belly” tells me she’s experiencing a strong emotion, but does the fire represent anger or lust? Make sure that’s clear from the context.

3) Gratuitous prepositions and adverbs. “She sank down to the floor.” You can’t sink up and even if that weren’t true, the floor is a dead giveaway. Trim those suckers!

4) Pronominal reference. I get that all the tutorials on close third POV tell you to minimize using character’s names, but if there are two men in the room and you just say “he,” make sure it’s crystal clear which “he” we’re talking about.

Also, by default, a personal pronoun references the last noun of the same gender. Example: “Marisa didn’t want Leah to go. She would be lonely without her sister.” I believe this means that Marisa would be lonely, but what it says, as written, is that Leah would be lonely because “She” references the last noun of the same gender–Leah.

5) If you’re going to define a new term that’s part of your world building, give us the term and then the definition, not the other way around. Don’t make us go hunting through three paragraphs trying to figure out what you’re defining. There’s a reason the dictionary is written the way it is.

8 thoughts on “Jeanne: 5 Writing Tips from a Cranky Judge

  1. Pronominal reference–yes!! This always trips me up, but at least I’m aware of the problem. I try to correct my mistakes before I ask anyone else to read my pages 😉

    • Pronominal reference is tough because, aside from the close third POV issue, it quickly becomes clunky when you repeatedly reference characters by name. But if you have to choose between clunky and unclear (and there’s usually a third option), choose clunky. That’s not nearly as distracting as completely losing track of what the author is trying to tell you.

      It’s always a good idea to clean up your work as much as possible before showing it to anyone–especially a contest judge.

  2. Great list! A lot of these things are really hard to see on the third (or the fifth, or the twentieth) draft, so it’s important to have a beta reader who will tell you exactly where s/he got confused. Even if they “caught up” later on the page, a moment’s confusion may be longer-lasting for a different reader.

  3. I’ve constantly been told “show, not tell” by my creative writing professor but there are times I focus on that so much in my stories that I basically end up speaking in vague analogies and metaphors. I agree that context definitely helps- the point is to help immerse readers in the story by letting them do some of the thinking, which means including plenty of build up to lead them from one point to another.

    Thanks for sharing. This is really helpful insight for writers, and I’m glad I found this blog. Looking forward to reading more!

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