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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Avoiding Sleepers

Yesterday I attended the November meeting of the Kansas Writers Association, at which the topic, led by author Sara Jenlink, was writing style and how to improve it.

Among the subjects she covered was avoiding sleepers. That means avoiding certain words or forms as much as possible because they tend to not draw readers into your work.

Most authors know to avoid the passive voice whenever possible. That's because the passive voice doesn't draw the reader's attention like the active voice. "He was running from the area" does not command a reader's attention like "he fled the scene."  The writer should not say "she was wide eyed" because "her eyes widened" works better.

Jenlink also discussed the weather report, or what is the real focus of a scene. One shouldn't write that it was hot, but write about a character wiping sweat from his brow or fanning a hand in front of his face.

Other sleepers to avoid are:

* The to + verb combination. To walk, to see, to do. You should not write "she tried to see." Instead, you should write "she strained her gaze."
* "Have to." Unless you are writing dialogue, use a word such as must, essential, or required.
* Limit the usage of verbs ending in -ing. "He started running" can be rewritten as "he quickened his pace" or "he moved faster."
* Avoid ending a sentence with an -ly word, also known as an adverb. That's not just about Tom Swifties, but describing action. Figure out how to show the meaning or action.
* "Got to." Avoid the word "got" as much as possible, except in dialogue.
* "Seems." Either replace the word, use an active word or add a passage to establish when something is vague.
* Avoid starting a sentence with "this is" or "there was" or "these are." Rewrite the sentence and focus on the object. Not effective: This is the car I like to drive. More effective: I like my Chevrolet.
* Don't use "start" or "begin" to describe an action. Get to the action. Do not write "it started to rain" when "raindrops fell" works better.
* Limit prepositional phrases. If you have already described where and when, you need not repeat that.
* "The problem" sentence. Your character, in dialogue, might say "the problem is that we have no money." But if you're describing first-person point of view, write "we had no money" or "we were broke" or you might get creative and write "we stared at our empty wallets."
* Don't start a sentence with a question word such as "what" or "how." Get to the main noun and verb.

You may find you can't eliminate in sleepers -- even the best writers occasionally use them. But your objective is to minimize the sleepers outside of dialogue.

Even when writing dialogue, you can cut down the sleepers. Think about how most people talk -- for example, they don't use the passive voice all the time. On the other hand, "it seems to me" is a phrase people will likely use in conversation, and so is "we have to go." Your dialogue should reflect how your characters talk, so while reducing sleepers may help, you shouldn't do it if it isn't in line with the way your character speaks.

Your narration, however, needs to keep your reader's attention. Sleepers will reduce your story's readability. If you want readers focused on your narrator, make sure your writing style keeps them that way.

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