Sunday, August 3, 2014

5 Ways to Intentionally Improve Your Story's Quality

Today's entry will be about improving the deeper qualities of your story. This will mostly be about line edits. What are line edits? A close examination of what you are writing…a.k.a. paying attention to the words you put on the page.

This post was inspired by one of my Fiction Writing Workshop classes. I read through critiques of the poem I had workshopped and found that almost everyone had similar reactions and questions. One observation that my professor made was that the style and format of the poem seemed very intentional.

The comments my classmates made were literally split 50/50. Some people thought my choice of rhymes fit well, and others disagreed. Some people liked that I chopped the lines in the last two stanzas, others didn't. Almost everyone asked why I italicized the word preserve when no other words were italicized. Only one person caught onto the fact that there is one line, in the fifth stanza, that didn't rhyme with any other lines.

Then something caught me off-guard: except for the people who I told the subject of the poem to beforehand, almost no one knew what the poem was about. This struck the loudest. So then someone told them and a chorus of "Ohhhhhs" spread around the room. It made complete sense once people knew the subject of the poem.

But what I found—and what I was aiming for—were the observations and questions people had. Almost everything in my poem was intentional, from the choice of words, to the (seemingly-forced) rhymes and messy style at the end.

So, after you excuse that long introduction, I give you...

5 Ways to Intentionally Improve You Story's Quality


Anything you write, whether it be poetry, prose, music, eulogies....anything....should have a purpose. Writing should present a message. It should mean something to you. So put your heart into the job.

Let your work speak to readers. They want to go on an adventure, learn a lesson (I'm NOT looking at you, school books), and be entertained. Speak to your reader through your words. Develop characters and scenarios that resonate in the reader's heart. THAT should be your goal.

I'm not sure Mr. Darcy will approve of polygamy, though.


Seriously. You don't have to sit there for ten minutes before you write something, but after you put words on the page, go back and look at them. What do they say? Okay, now what do they really say? Read them out loud. Read them sarcastically. Read them angrily. Read them joyfully.

What fits best? Okay, now what words present the tone you are trying to convey? There are different words, heck, different syllable-counts for different emotions. Short, tight sentences with one-syllable words generally show negative emotion. Longer sentences with longer words can express positive emotion. Of course there are exceptions. But take the following example:

Amy looked at Greg and pushed him.
Amy glared at Greg and slapped him.
Amy smirked at Greg and nudged him.

The first sentence conveys a neutral tone. "Looked" is a neutral word. It doesn't show too much. You don't sense anger or joy. It just is. The same thing with "pushed." Not too harsh, not too light. It falls in the middle.

The second sentence conveys an angry tone. "Glared" is negative. We usually associate glaring with anger and resentment. Then she goes so far as to "slap" Greg. Yup, right in the face. Again, you probably related the slap to a negative emotion.

The third sentence conveys a light, happy tone. "Smirked" is associated to a playful grin. "Nudged" is interpreted as a playful bump, maybe on the arm or in the ribs. Something you might do when someone makes you laugh.

You can see how these three sets of words (looked/pushed, glared/slapped, smirked/nudged) all convey different meanings. Each presents a different scenario and fills your chest with a different feeling, even though the same kinds of motions are made in each. The first sentence is kind of boring, while the other two each have action present. Why is she angry? Or, conversely, what did he do to make her laugh? Simple word choice can change the meaning of sentences. Pick your words wisely.


In the example I'm about to give, watch how the meaning of the sentence changes depending on the word that is emphasized. This alone shows why texting is the least-effective form of communication (especially during arguments).

I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.
I never said she stole my money.

Read those? Did you emphasize where I told you to? See how the sentences have seven different meanings? That's what emphasis can do. Sometimes it doesn't work (yes, there are sentences that don't change all that much, but this one is pretty effective).

Pay close attention to how and where you emphasize. It makes a BIG difference. You can use this in poetry to strengthen points. Do that. Practice this element.

And then there's this devil spawn.


You'd be surprised how many times people think "this is enough" when it's not. As I'll explain in Point #5, every sentence should mean something. This point will just show you how to think about structuring sentences.

You want to convey as much information in every sentence....AS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE. This is where run-on sentences become a problem. Some people just don't recognize where to put a period. You might have read a friend's essay and just prayed that it was some kind of a sick joke.

Trust me, I have.

Some people's writing is atrocious. Periods where commas should go, semicolons when none are needed....heck, whole words that have no relation to the sentence at all. But run-on sentences seem to be the biggest crime. Don't cram too much stuff into a sentence. Make one point per sentence and be done. Just make sure it's really done. Take this example:

Amy glared at Greg.
Amy glared at Greg and slapped him.
Amy glared at Greg and slapped him because he laughed.
Amy glared at Greg and slapped him because he laughed at her dress.

Okay, look at how the tension rises. First you get that she is peeved. Then you find out she is angry. Next you find out she is angry because he’s laughing…but why? Finally you find out he’s laughing at her dress.

Clearly, there’s an argument on the horizon.


In regards to writing poetry and prose, I like to say, "If you can't explain why you wrote something, don't write it at all." Every sentence, every line, and every word should serve a purpose.

This is a culmination of the above pointers. Think about why you chose to write what you did. In poetry, you don't always have that much time to tell a story, create emotion, and reach into the reader. This makes every word important. In prose, you have a bit more leniency, but the more words that mean something, the stronger the connection with your reader will be. Here are some tips:

Avoid "generic" words. It, they, is, was, had, been, too, so, else, everything, everyone, all, a lot, etc, etc. Try to find formal substitutes. Name objects and actions to strengthen flow and clarity. This can also prevent the phenomenon known as “pronoun syndrome,” where you have characters giving vague answers in order to have other characters ask what they’re talking about. Unless the situation calls for pronoun syndrome (and not many cases do), you’re just wasting words.

Avoid excessive use of adverbs. Basically, don’t turn write the next Twilight. Bleh. You’ve probably heard it called “purple prose.” Avoid words that end in "-ly." (There are other forms of adverbs, but these are good to plug into your CTRL+F function on a word processor). Common culprits include suddenly, immediately, quickly, and usually. Adverbs are just messy. They distract the reader and pull him/her out of the story.

She literally uses the same descriptions hundreds of times.

Use proper emphasis. Don't just emphasize just to throw the pace of the paragraph for a loop. Do it to convey emotion and importance. As I showed above, emphasis on various words manipulates sentences in all sorts of ways.

Whenever possible, avoid gerunds. If it ends in "-ing," there's a good chance it will weaken the sentence. There are other ways to make the same point that looks much cleaner. And the sentence will sound better when you read it aloud.

The best way to convey emotion, other than word choice, is to utilize appropriate sentence length. Short sentences with short syllables show negative emotion VERY well. Longer sentences with multi-syllable words are found as neutral/positive sentences.

You don't need exclamation points ("!") to show every bit of excitement or outburst from a character. More times than not, it will seem awkward. Choose your words carefully and the whole sentence will come alive just as it needs to. I have written sentences that shout in my head because I used words common to "shouting language." Sometimes sentences feel whispered. Switch around your diction and see what happens.

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  1. Great tips! Do you recommend implementing these during the first draft, or getting the first draft on paper and *then* going through with these tools?

    1. I'd say get the first draft on paper, *then* go through with these tools :) Similar to the structure presented in my other post: