41 tools to write (and critique) effectively

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When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.

Style

  1. Is sentence length varied?
  2. Do sentences flow naturally?
  3. Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
  4. Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
  5. Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
  6. Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
  7. Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
  8. Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
  9. Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
  10. Are two words used where only one will do?
  11. Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
  12. Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
  13. Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
  14. Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
  15. Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
  16. Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
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Descriptions

  1. As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
  2. Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
  3. Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
  4. Are the details portrayed in logical order?
  5. Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Characters

  1. Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
  2. Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
  3. From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
  4. Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
  5. Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
  6. What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
  7. What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
  8. Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
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Scenes

  1. Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
  2. What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
  3. Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
  4. Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
  5. Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
  6. Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
  7. Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.

Cohesion

  1. Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
  2. Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
  3. Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
  4. Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
  5. In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
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