A few months ago, I wrote a review of award-winning editor Jack Hart’s book Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.
(That’s my Amazon affiliate link above — I’ll make a small comission if you buy a copy at no extra cost to you. Thanks!)
Storycraft is one of my favorite books on the craft of writing (I share several of my other favorite books in my article here). Even though Hart aimed his book at writers of nonfiction, I believe there is much that writers of fiction can glean from its pages too.
In fact, there’s one chapter in particular that’s a goldmine of editing tips for any kind of writing. Recently, I collected my top takeaways from the chapter and arranged them as an editing checklist for myself when I work on blog posts, essays, and short stories.
I’ve found these tips incredibly helpful so, today, I wanted to share seven of them with you!
These powerful editing tips will help you breathe life into your writing, turn plodding sentences and paragraphs into fast-paced narratives, and capture the attention of your readers.
Let’s dive in.
1. Get Moving in Your Introduction
Hart emphasizes the importance of getting moving right out of the block. Make sure your opening paragraphs aren’t dry and filled with exposition. Instead, they should include a sentence or two that catches your reader’s interest and entices them to read more.
Hook your readers with action, curiosity, or intrigue.
The hook might be the very first sentence in your piece — a real attention grabber like the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984,
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
In my recent memoir essay “Expecting the Unexpected in New York City”, I followed that approach, opening with this sentence,
During the two-and-a-half years that I went to college in New York City, I witnessed a crime only once.
However, you can also bury the hook several paragraphs into your piece as I did in my essay “The Hidden Treasure Beneath My Library”, and as Joan Didion did in her essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” when she writes, after three paragraphs,
Imagine Banyan Street first, because Banyan is where it happened.
Even if the hook appears several paragraphs into your story or essay, make sure those preceding paragraphs are fast moving. They might even hint that a twist or something else unexpected is coming.
And that leads into tip #2.
2. Push Scenes Forward with Continuous Motion
Scenes should not be stagnant. At the end of a scene, the action should move forward. The characters shouldn’t be glued to their chairs and talking to each other like robots. That will bore our readers to tears!
If you have scenes with dialogue, include descriptions of what the characters are doing while they’re talking. Often, this is more effective at revealing what they’re feeling then if you used words like “angrily.”
For example, compare these two sentences:
“I’m not talking about this,” he said angrily.
“I’m not talking about this,” he said and slammed the door behind him.
When you’re editing your piece, look to see if you’ve included motion to push scenes forward. If you’re writing an informative blog post, this might mean including a story to illustrate a point.
3. Use the Language of Action
Are your action scenes as powerful as they could be?
Hart points out that the most powerful action words describe causality.
For example, let’s say you’re describing a woman driving a car. She tries to swerve out of the way of something in the road. You could write, “The car jerked to the left.”
But Hart suggests that it would be more gripping to write, “She jerked the wheel to the left”. It puts us closer to where the action is happening.
4. Write in the Active Voice
With tip #3 in mind, when you edit your piece, make sure you’ve written your sentences in the active voice and not the passive.
If your high school grammar is a little rusty, you can read a quick review of passive sentences here. Essentially, in a passive sentence, the subject receives the action rather than performing it.
For example, politicians and business executives like to use the passive voice when they want to avoid claiming responsibility for a mistake. They might write, “Mistakes were made.”
It’s a neat little trick because this sentence avoids taking responsibility by failing to tell us who made the mistakes.
Note that you can’t fix a passive sentence by tacking the subject onto the end. “Mistakes were made by all of us” is still passive.
So how to fix it?
Just write, “We all made mistakes.” Now the sentence is active.
5. Eliminate Unnecessary Words
In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser notes,
…The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what–these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
Hart agrees and recommends eliminating the following unnecessary words in order to write strong sentences:
1. Progressive tense and auxiliary verbs. Write “The wind blows” or “The wind blew” instead of “the wind is blowing” or “the wind had blown.”
2. Empty Words. For example, eliminate “There are”, “There is”, “There was”, “It is”, “It was”. I shared more about empty words in my article here.
3. Beginning of an action. For example, don’t say “He began to race around the room.” Just write, “He raced around the room.”
6. Use Time Markers and Straight Chronology
Sometimes when you’re writing a narrative, it’s necessary to skip forward or backward in time. However, if you do, be sure you use clear time markers so your readers don’t get confused.
If your reader has to stop to try to figure out when something is happening, it will definitely slow down the pace of your narrative.
A time marker just means that you write a line explaining when the next scene is going to take place. For example, “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t received that call two days earlier…” or “Fast forward three weeks later.”
Hart points out that sometimes your time markers can be more subtle,
You might simply note the fall colors on the trees when you open a new scene that jumps ahead from summer to autumn. Or you could slip in the height of the sun in the sky when a character walks out of a building.
He also believes straight chronology is the easiest for readers to follow, so evaluate your piece to see if a flashback really is necessary. Sometimes I’ll rearrange paragraphs in my piece because I realize that jumping backward and then forward in time might be confusing to my readers.
7. Speed up, then Slow Down
Speed up during the boring parts. Slow down during the climatic scenes.
How do you speed up? Wherever you have lots of exposition, make sure you’re only communicating what’s absolutely necessary for your readers to know.
I’ll ask myself, “Is this paragraph of description necessary? Is this back-story necessary?”
When you reach a climatic moment in your piece, however, you’ll want to slow down the pace of your writing to keep your readers in suspense. It will give the writing a breathless quality.
Hart quotes Pulitzer-Prize winner Tom French,
The reason you slow down is so that the reader can really feel and process and really enter that scene…And how do you slow down?…You allow more space on the page. You allow more sentences. You literally write in shorter sentences. You get more paragraph breaks. You use space. You find pauses inside the scene that occur naturally that you would normally skip over.
I wrote more about varying sentence structure in my article here.
These seven editing tips are simple and straightforward. You can start using them right away to make your writing more engaging and fast-paced.
By following these tips, you’ll better hold the attention of your readers and, thus, be more effective at sharing your message with the world.
If you’re looking to strengthen your writing and storytelling skills, I definitely recommend getting a copy of Hart’s book. It’s an in-depth read with lots of fantastic actionable advice.
Make sure to check out the other five tips I shared from his book in my previous review here.
What was your biggest takeaway from Jack Hart’s tips above? Let me know in the comments.
And If you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!