Painful Prose: How to Edit Your Paragraphs to Make Them Great

You did it. Your body shows the wear – calloused fingertips, short fingernails, and numb-butt syndrome that shows no signs of going away. That glorious masterpiece – short story or novel – has been written. You’ve taken careful steps to make sure your plot is seamless, your characters matter, and the premise of the thing is so fantastic you’ll talk about it for hours.

But no one can get past the third paragraph.

Don’t panic! If you’ve made your characters people to care about, living a fantastic (or harrowing) story, there’s no reason to scrap the project. What you might be dealing with is a literary “battle of the bulge”. In other words, it’s time to edit … carefully.

Luceo non Uro – Burn, don’t shine

Robert Southey was a brilliant poet who lived nearly 2,000 years ago. Part of his brilliance was his literary outlook:

“Be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams, the more they are condensed the deeper they burn.”

Let’s face it – the temptation to meet word counts by adding to descriptions is strong. Very strong. Particularly in a rough draft, writers often bload paragraphs with unnessecary “stuff”.

As writers, we want to burn, not merely shine. The more clearly we write, the more our writing burns with what matters most. The story. Consider this paragraph, taken from a novel I’m editing:

As the seconds ticked on, marked by the staccato beat of a clock directly above him, Michael fell into an old habit of studying the way people around him moved. One woman, coming from the corner across from him, had the stride of a dancer. He watched as she slipped across the tiles to consult with a nurse, the way that she rolled on the balls of her feet so her head barely moved. From the right angle, she would appear to be gliding, and when she turned back toward her companion, an elderly man, Michael noticed that the woman unfurled her arm in a gesture that started close to her chest and gracefully swung outward. A ballerina, he decided.

The paragraph is seriously bloated. How much effort does it take to get through? Reading should provide pleasure or information – if not both – so you don’t want to make the reader work for it. The same paragraph, edited, is much shorter and provides the story essentials without sacrificing detail:

Seconds beat a staccato rhythm above Michael’s head, compounding the sense of waiting. Before he knew he was doing it, an old habit pulled him into the study of movement. One woman passed with the grace of a dancer, marked by the way she rolled on her feet. From the right angle she would seem to float. When she gestured to her elderly companion, Michael traced the unfurling line of her arm swing from her chest. A ballerina, he decided.

Just a few seconds with one of your manuscripts and you’ll see the bloat – if you’re looking for it.

Signs of Paragraph Bloat

Unsure what to look for? Start with your first paragraph and take notes while reading through an entire scene. Things to keep an eye out for:

1. Redundant and Repetitive (yes, I know.)

When we describe something that we really want to drive home, it’s easy to find we’re repeating the same phrases. Look for repetitive words and back-to-back sentences saying the same thing in different ways.

2. Four Words Where One Will Do

This one is extremely common. The problem is audience – we want to be widely understood, so we use simpler words. Be careful, though. Not only do more words bloat a paragraph, but they can make a reader feel “talked down” to. Talk about adding insult to literary injury.

3. The Never-Ending Sentence

I don’t mean just run-on sentences – though those are painful, too. There’s something more subtle to consider: Rhythm. If every sentence in your paragraph has the same rhythm, comparative length, and syntax, you need to break up the party. Mix some short, punchy sentences in. If variety is the spice of life, it’s important in your writing. Simply put, if it all sounds/looks/feels the same, it gets glossed over.

After you’ve compiled your first draft, go through your writing with an eye on prose. You might be surprised to find that everything else starts clicking into place when your words match the level of your writing’s goals.

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