One of the most common questions we get about showing after "how can I improve my Showing vs. Telling techniques" is "how can I figure out when to Show and when to Tell?"
Remember, not everything needs to be shown in a narrative. Showing creates an emotional response in the reader. Sometimes, though, it's better for the pacing to tell an event briefly instead of showing it in full detail. Here's a tip to help you decide whether showing or telling is what a situation calls for.
Showing is best used when you want to evoke feelings in the reader. Telling is best used when something doesn't need to create that emotional connection.
So what does that look like in a manuscript? Let's take weather as an example. Imagine it's important for the reader to know that it's raining, because it affects the characters' choices. Does the storm need to be shown or told? It depends. Does the storm have an emotional significance to the characters? Then use some telling. Is it simply a small element of the plot, without any deeper meaning? Then it can be told.
The choice whether to show or to tell is two-fold. It affects both the emotional response in the reader and the pacing of the story. Too much showing can actually drag the pacing down too much. Too much telling speeds the pace, but it also makes the story feel shallower. Finding the balance between the two is important for crafting a story with good pacing and compelling characters.
Today's editing tip was inspired by my personal editing work. I always have to double-check mentally whenever I mention "breathing" in a manuscript. And while my characters don't let out breaths they didn't know they were holding any more, they still have to breathe sometimes.
So how can you remember the difference between breath (short E sound) and breathe (long E sound)?
We have two handy mnemonic devices for you!
Tip #1: Lack of breath can lead to death. Breath and death rhyme, and they're spelled the same way. It's not the cheeriest mnemonic, but it works.
Tip #2: Breathe, with the long EE sound, is the one with more E's.
Now take in a deep breath, let it out, and enjoy your editing! For more hints and tips, you can browse our archives on the sidebar, or read tips sorted by category. -->
And you can always use the Contact Us form with suggestions or questions.
Adverbs. Possibly the most maligned part of speech.
Stephen King famously said, "I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs." But why does everyone hate them so much?
Because most adverbs are unnecessary. They're sentence clutter, and usually indicate places where the writing could be stronger.
Now, before we dive into the mechanics, I'd like to clarify: like most other writing "rules," this isn't an absolute. You're still allowed to use adverbs. Just use them sparingly. In fact, in the King quote linked above, he used eight adverbs in discussing why adverbs are so bad (not counting the ones he used as examples).
Why are adverbs often a sign of weak writing? Take a look at these examples:
#1: "Coffee, black," he said brusquely.
#2: The child skipped happily around the playground.
#3: She quickly ran from her car to the building.
#1. This isn't bad, but it could be better. Instead of using a boring verb plus an adverb, I could pick a better verb:
"Coffee, black," he snapped.
Or I could use an action to show the man's mood:
"Coffee, black." He rapped his knuckles on the counter while the waitress fumbled to make the right change.
"Keep the pennies, just get my drink already!"
This second method results in more words, but it works to create a mini-scene. Depending on how much weight you want to give to an event, you can spend less time on it (with stronger verbs) or more time (with actions and showing).
#2. Part of the problem with this one is that "happily" is, presumably, redundant. "Skipping" implies a happy mood, unless the scene has demonstrated otherwise. So this adverb can be cut out altogether:
The child skipped around the playground.
Or I could add body language or some other type of showing to demonstrate the mood instead:
The child skipped around the playground. A grin spread over his face as he skipped faster and faster, the wind rushing past him like he might fly away in between a step and a hop.
#3: This is another redundant adverb. Running is already quick. Again, this passage would be stronger either by removing the adverb or by showing why she's running:
She ran from her car to the building, holding an old grocery bag over her head to keep off as much of the rain as possible.
So when you're editing and looking for adverbs, think about if the adverb is necessary. Is it adding any new information to the sentence/scene? Does that information change how the reader views the scene? If it new and important, would the sentence be stronger by choosing a different verb or by using showing techniques instead?
This is one of those spelling errors that I know everyone has seen. I see it at least once a week. And like many common mistakes, this one is rooted in the fact that so many English words sound similar, and are spelled similarly as well.
So how can you remember the difference between then and than?
THEN, like WHEN, is a time word.
In other words, then will always give information about when something happened. Then is used to describe the order of a sequence of two or more events:
First he ate breakfast, then he brushed his teeth.
She clicked the key fob, then opened the car door.
You put your right foot in, then you put your right foot out; you put your right foot in again, then you shake it all about.
If I eat the entire batch of cookies, then I would have a stomach ache. (This last one sometimes trips people up, because it's cause and effect: If/then. But think of it as two events in time that are linked. First comes the cause, then the effect.)
So what is than used for, you ask?
THAN is a comparison word.
For example, it can describe the difference between two nouns, between different statuses, or between different time periods:
She can read faster than he can.
This flower is prettier than that one.
The restaurant looks different than it used to.
And just to show how complicated things can get:
He smells better than he did (comparison) back then (time sequence), before he showered.
Hopefully you know more now than you did at the start of this post! Happy editing!
All right, it's time for another quick run down of two similar English words that we see writers mix up from time to time: invoke and evoke. Not only do these two words sound alike, but they also have similar meanings. English is fun, right?
To invoke something or someone is to call upon it/them, usually for some sort of aid or presence. Occasionally, invoke is also used in legal situations: to invoke the law. If you've attended a religious ceremony, you may have heard prayers called an "invocation."
He invoked the law against jay-walking.
The Pastafarian invoked the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
The desperate writer invoked the Muse Erato, which was an unfortunate choice since she wanted to write Middle Grade novels.
To evoke something, on the other hand, usually refers to less tangible things. You can evoke a mood or a memory; you can also evoke a reaction, like laughter or protests, from an audience; you can even evoke a spirit by summoning. (I'll admit that last one was a usage I don't think I've seen before.)
The smell of cinnamon evoked a memory of winter and warm cookies.
The comedian evoked a chorus of boos from the crowd.
The child evoked the spirit of the house's past owner. His success evoked a wave of terror through the neighborhood. His mother then invoked the family's patron saint.
To sum up: Calling on a specific person or force or law? Typically INVOKING.
Calling up something intangible? Typically EVOKING.
Hopefully our posts evoke in you a renewed desire to keep on writing and editing!
Today, for a slight change of pace, let's address a common question about querying:
How do you address an agent in your query letter?
Here are a couples guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Remember, a query is a business proposal, not an email to a buddy. You don't have to be overly formal, but you definitely don't want to be super casual either.
2. Always, ALWAYS address the agent by name. The only exception to this is when you're querying an agency as a whole, and not a specific agent. Very few places ask you to do this nowadays, though.
3. For the love of all you personally hold dear, triple check the spelling of the agent's name. And check to make sure that your query is addressed to the right person--not, for example, the last agent you queried. Cutting and pasting can be dangerous!
Now, the harder question, because this is more a matter of personal taste:
What name should you use when addressing an agent?
First off, "Dear Agent" is the wrong answer, unless it's a general agency query as specified above. When you query an agent with "Dear Agent," it can give the impression you have no idea who this agent is and what they represent. It looks like you're mass-querying blindly. Using an agent's name shows you've put in a minimum of effort, and that's appreciated.
Second, whether you should address an agent by their first name or their last name is often a matter of personal taste, but most agents agree that they don't like being addressed by first and last name. For example, "Dear Jane Doe" is NOT a good choice. It's overly formal, and it's just not how we address letters in English.
So how do you choose whether to use first or last name? There seems to be a shift in recent years toward agents asking to be addressed by their first name. This is to querying author's benefits, because then you don't have to worry about choosing the wrong title (meaning Mr, Ms, Mrs, or Mx). How a person likes to be identified may not be easy to find online. And misgendering an agent or mistaking their marital status isn't the best way to get off on the right foot with a potential agent. So first names are often the safest bet.
Now, if your research shows that you're addressing an older agent who's been around for a long time, and they seem fond of formality online, then you could consider addressing them by Mr./Mrs. AgentLastNameHere instead.
But here's the secret: If an agent is going to turn down your query simply because you addressed them as "Dear John," instead of "Dear Mr. Doe," then maybe that agent isn't the best for you.
Because an author-agent relationship is a partnership. You don't have to be best friends, but you do need to treat each other with respect and feel like you're on equal footing. Someone who's so far above you that they reject your query for a small error--and something like their preferred form of address, which you couldn't have known about--is not likely to make a good partner.
So shake off the querying anxiety, double check how you've addressed your queries, and send them off into the great unknown! Good luck, my writer friends.
Apostrophes seem to be tripping everybody up lately. And it doesn't help that auto-correct tends to put them in the wrong place at least half the time. So let's talk about one we're seeing misused fairly often lately:
Whose vs Who's
Whose is ALWAYS possessive. It's always talking about who something belongs to.
Whose shoes are those?
Whose book is that?
Do you know whose laptop this is?
Who's is another way of writing who is or who was. Remember that in a contraction, an apostrophe always replaces at least one letter. (And apostrophes are only used to indicate possession with nouns, never with personal pronouns like its, hers, whose.)
Who's going to the baseball game?
Do you know who's driving tonight?
Can I ask who's read Rebecca's book?
In all these cases, you can look at those apostrophes and see that they are replacing missing letters. Who IS going, who IS driving, and who HAS read.
Remember, unless you're using an apostrophe with a noun to show possession, it stands in for a letter. So if you're unsure whether you need who's or whose, just stop and ask yourself:
Does this sentence make sense with WHO IS/WHO HAS? If the answer is yes, then you need an apostrophe to cover for those missing letters.
And then double-check that your spellchecker or auto-correct didn't change your contractions behind your back!
Today's post is all about a common mistake we see with -ing verb phrases.
When a sentence starts with a -ing verb clause (a present participle, in case you like to know that sort of thing), followed by a comma and then the rest of the sentence, it's generally implied that the action in both parts of the sentence are taking place at the same time, not consecutively.
Used correctly, that might look like this:
Trying to climb the wall, I scraped my knee.
Raising his hand, he shouted out the answer.
Grumbling, she walked away.
Purring, the cat settled down for a snuggle.
In all these cases, the two actions are going on at the same time. That's because the -ing verb clause (present participle) acts as an adverb, describing how the sentence's main action happened.
But sometimes, authors slip up and use this type of sentence structure with two actions that are meant to be consecutive, like these incorrect examples:
Putting on her coat, she waved goodbye. (She's probably not waving as she's putting on the coat.)
Kissing his spouse, he said good morning.
Taking out the book, she flipped to page ten.
Some of these you can get away with, especially when the two actions are close to concurrent actions, like taking out a book and flipping the pages. But if you really want to have a clear sequence of events, it's easier to just alter the first phrase slightly.
After she put on her coat, she waved goodbye.
Once he'd read the blog post, the author felt excited to begin revising again.
We hope you've enjoyed our tip of the day! Remember, if you ever have questions or suggestions for a topic you'd like to see us cover, you can use the Contact Us button in the upper right or find us on Twitter.
Hey, my fellow authors! Today's tip is partly inspired by one of Word's annoying grammatical errors, and partly by a common writer mistake. So if you make this particular error, don't feel bad! We see this one all the time.
There's a difference in meaning between every day and everyday, and someday and some day.
And the key to figuring out which one you want is often another day or a single day.
Everyday is an adjective, meaning commonplace, ordinary. Every day means something different. Every is modifying "day" to tell the reader that something happens every single day.
So if you can reword it to "every single day" or "every other day," then you need the two words to be separate.
For example: Every day she drinks a cup of coffee in the morning. (Every single day.)
Her everyday routine is to start the day with coffee and yoga. (Her ordinary routine.)
The same thing goes for someday. Someday is a theoretical time in the future. But in some days, some modifies "days" again to tell us that something is an irregular occurrence.
So if you can reword it to some other day(s), you need the two words separate.
For example: Someday, my princess will come. (An unknown future time.)
Some days, I like to sing with the birds. (Occasionally.)
One problem you might run into is that Word is notoriously bad at distinguishing between these usages. It has the same problem with every one and everyone, someone and some one, etc. So if Word is underlining your phrase and telling you you're wrong, use the tips above to check if you're smarter than your computer. (Spoiler alert: you are!)
Maybe someday, programmers will be able to make a word processor that can handle all the strange subtleties of the English language, but until then, we'll keep putting out tips to help you sort things out.
Today is all about some commonly mixed-up words: too and to.
To is a word that's used with locations AND with indirect objects, as well as infinitives.
Location: I went to the store. I drove to the park. I flew to Miami. You turned to face me.
Indirect objects: I gave the book to you. He brought the vase to his mother. She looked to her mother for permission.
Infinitives: You want to read this blog.
Too means also, as well; it can also be used as a modifier that indicates excessive, exceeding.
Are you coming too? I know him too!
I ate too many cookies. He drove too fast.
Typically, people know the difference between to and too, but sometimes run into trouble on the spelling. So here's your tip:
Too has too many OOs, just like its meaning of excess, too many.
And just in case you ever mix it up with the number 2 (two), just remember: most numbers are spelled in ways that don't make phonetic sense in modern English.
Every Wednesday and Saturday we bring you an edit tip of the day. Be sure to check out the archives for our popular summer series of SHOW DON'T TELL workshops!