Friday, January 15, 2016

Grow Your Writing: Revision Challenges

Here are some revision challenges to help you work on your writing. Do you have some ideas for other editing challenges I can add to this list? Let me know!

You might want to try a different challenge each week, but you should also feel free to repeat a challenge that is useful to you. As you practice these different skills, you will be able to apply them to your writing more and more easily:

Sharpen and focus. If your story is longer than 800 words or so, challenge yourself to reduce the length by 100 words. That might mean tinkering with the story sentence by sentence (these short and sweet revision strategies might help), or it might mean deciding to leave out a part of the story. When you edit a story down, that gives it a stronger focus and it also leaves you room to decide to add more to the story later during the revision process. This is a great challenge to do every week if you tend to write stories on the long side.

Expand your story. If your shorter than 800 words right now, challenge yourself to make it longer by another 100 words or so, but staying within the max. length of 1000 words. You might add some dialogue to the story, work on describing the characters or setting, or add on to the beginning of the story (are there prior events you could include?) or expand on the ending (are there later events that could fit?). This is great challenge to do every week if you tend to write stories on the short side.

Start strong; end strong. Does your story have a fantastic first paragraph and a fantastic final paragraph? What about the very first sentence and the very final sentence: are they both excellent? For this writing challenge, focus on the beginning and ending of your story to make them both as strong as possible.

Visual details. The more you can share your imaginary vision with us, helping us to see what you see, the bigger the impression your story will make. Try to weave visual details into your story, using some well-chosen words or phrases to describe the characters, action, and setting. If you don't already have a clear picture in your mind's eye, use some images to inspire your description: even if you are not using the images as illustrations in your story, you can use them to inspire your writing!

Research and learn. In every story, no matter how fantastic and imaginary, there is some "real" stuff that you can research and learn more about, bringing a sense of reality and depth to your story. So, take some time to do some research relevant to your story. That might be research into the geography of the setting, the historical period, cultural traditions, some physical object that appears in the story, etc. etc. Wikipedia is a treasure trove of background information that you can research and use in your story and/or in your author's note. If you are not sure what kind of research you could do for a given story, send me a note; I'll be glad to suggest some questions to investigate. This is a great challenge to do every week because it works for any story.

Re-read your source story. Now that you have written your own version of the story, go back and read the original; try reading it out loud to really focus your attention. You might find new details from the original that you can now use in your own story. Likewise, you might realize there is important information about the original story that you should include in your author's note because your version has gone in a different direction. You will probably have a very different perspective on your source story when you read it again now that you have written your own version!

Author's note. The author's note is really important! If your story is really different from the original (new characters, plot twists, change in setting), then you need to provide an accurate summary of the original story in your note. Don't summarize your story; instead, focus your attention on the source story you used so that your note will give your readers everything they need to know about your source. You will find lots of tips for working on your author's note here: Writing the Author's Note.

Activate your passive verbs. Especially when you are doing a lot of academic writing, you might end up using a lot of passive verbs, but passive verbs are usually not a good choice for storytelling. For this editing challenge, check each verb in each sentence, looking for passive verbs you can change to active; read more about passive and active verbs.

Zombie nouns. The phrase "zombie nouns" refers to abstract nouns that don't have any life to them; you can read more about that here: Zombie Nouns. A good editing challenge is to look for sentences with zombie nouns and then rewrite each of those sentences with a strong personal subject and a vivid, concrete verb.

Check your verb tense. This is a really important strategy if you are telling a story in present tense: you need to use present tense for the entire story. Believe me: when you are telling a story in present tense, past-tense verbs are going to try to sneak in there. So, read through your story, checking every verb in every sentence to make sure you are consistent with verb tense throughout the story. Past OR present can work as a style, but you need to choose one or the other and stick with that.

Paragraph length. Are you using paragraphs effectively? Especially when people are reading your writing on a computer screen, shorter paragraphs are usually better than long paragraphs, but at the same time you don't want to have all your paragraphs be super-short. Instead, the idea is to use the paragraph breaks to help your readers see the "shape" of your story, with each major event having a paragraph of its own. You should also make sure to insert a paragraph break when there is a change of speaker in a back-and-forth dialogue.

Sentence length. The key to sentence length is variety. To get an idea of how that works, take a look at this great example: Don't just write words. Write music. Read through your story, looking at the length of the sentences. Try to make music with the length of your sentences instead of being boring!

Dialogue: tags and beats. To write effective dialogue, you need to use both speaker tags and action beats. Here are a few articles online that explain the basic concept and provide lots of examples: dialogue tags and beats. If you learn how to use both tags and beats, you will find it much easier to include dialogue in your stories.

Dialogue punctuation check. The rules for commas and other punctuation in dialogue (direct speech) usually requires some special attention. Here are the main things to check on when you are using direct speech:
  • Vocatives. When characters address each other by name, you need to set those off with commas; read more about commas and vocatives.
  • Interjections. Just like vocatives, interjections also get set off with commas; read more about commas and interjections.
  • Quoted speech. There are special rules for quoted sentences that you will want to check; read more about quoted speech.

Weed out extra commas. Sometimes there are too few commas in a story, but sometimes there are too many. For the comma check, you will look at the commas to make sure you really need them. Watch out for these problem areas:
  • comma splice — you cannot use a comma to separate two independent clauses (sentences); read more about comma splices and how to fix them
  • commas and coordinating conjunctions — you do not need a comma before "and" when it is connecting two equal words or phrases; read more about coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or)
  • commas and subordinating conjunctions — you do not need a comma before a subordinated clause; read more about subordinating conjunctions (because, when, after, etc.)but you do need a comma when the subordinate clause comes first in the sentence (see next challenge).

Commas and starter elements. One of the most important tasks that commas perform is to separate the two parts of a complex sentence when the "extra" part of the sentence comes first. If you are having trouble remembering to include a comma after a starting element in a sentence, review the rules for the different kinds of starter elements, and then proofread carefully, looking for sentences with a starter element that might need a comma.

Slow down your reading out loud. Sometimes even reading out loud does not quite help you catch all the typos and little errors that need fixing. When that happens, you need to find a way to slow down and focus while you are reading out loud. You can try some different techniques for that — printing out the story with a really large font is a good option, and you can run a pen or your finger along each line as you read. Another idea: you can force yourself to pause at the end of each sentence by tapping your finger on the table (that can work with a printed copy or while reading on the screen). Experiment until you find the best way for you to proofread by reading out loud really slowly.

Names. Are you happy with the names you are using for your characters? If you chose the names yourself, did you choose names that match the context in terms of culture, time period, etc.? If you are not sure, do some research at Google into the names you are using. The best kinds of names are the ones that add something to the story. If you think your readers might be curious about the names (either the names you have chosen or the names that come from your source story), you can add something to the author's note where you share what you have learned about the names.

Music. Is there some music that would make a good accompaniment to your story? If you embed a YouTube video, people could listen to the music (if they want) while they read. You can find out about embedding video in your blog or website here: Tech Tips. (And yes, if you did not know how to embed video before, you can count this as a Tech Tip too!)

Fix up your browser. If you are having trouble with things like the spellchecking and word count, you might want to fix up your browser to help you with that. Do you have the spellcheck in your browser turned on? Most browsers have a spellcheck option; check your browser settings to see how to turn that on. You might also look for a browser extension that will do a word count for you (for example, I use Word Count Tool in Chrome). Since you are doing your writing in the browser for this class, it's good to have your browser ready to help you write.

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