Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

Young Adult and Children

Writing Tight

By Justin Stanchfield

© 2002, Justin Stanchfield

"Send us a piece that is written with a crisp, punchy style, use short, straight-forward sentences that adhere to the highest standards of journalism."

Does this sound familiar? If you've ever sent a story to Boys' Life, it should. It was taken verbatim from their guidelines. And they're typical of what most children's magazines want. Crisp. Tight. Punchy.

Notice they didn't say easy to read.

Children's writing is writing. Nothing more and nothing less. But it's writing that needs to be focused. Focused on the characters. Focused on the action. It is a literature that demands every word carry its weight. Use every sentence as an opportunity to enforce a theme or establish a mood. Don't settle for clichés or hand-me-down modifiers. In fact, avoid modifiers whenever possible. "A big house" is not as evocative as "a mansion". And a mansion carries a totally different connotation than a castle or a manor house. Look for subtle shades of detail, little things that make a sentence jump out at the readers. Challenge them!

Short sentences do more than simply make the narrative easy to follow. Short sentences add a sense of urgency. They are like stepping stones, one leading to the next, inertia carrying the reader ever forward. A combination of complex images and simple sentence structure can go a long way toward making a narrative that almost reads itself. And don't be afraid to break a few grammatical rules along the way. Rules are meant to be broken.

Right?

Damn straight.

Single words and sentence fragments, used judiciously, can shout an idea better than an exclamation point. But beware. Sentence fragments are like crash cymbals in a drum solo. A few of them are exciting. Too many are deafening.

Another method to keep word count down while keeping the action taut is to use dialogue as much as possible. Not only does good dialogue let the characters speak for themselves, it acts to break up longer sections of pure narrative.

Even the way a manuscript looks can help tighten a story. Try to avoid too many paragraphs of the same length, especially one after another. A good story looks exciting the moment it falls out of an envelope. Many editors say they can gauge a story before they've read a single word of it just by how the words are arranged.

Of course, the most important tool any writer has in his bag of tricks is a sharp knife. Write the story that needs to be written. Keep the word count in mind without obsessing over it. Then, with the rough draft is finished and all the plot elements and character issues set down firmly on paper, begin searching for words to cut. Be ruthless. Think of yourself as a surgeon cutting away diseased tissue, refusing to leave so much as a single unwanted cell. Look for awkward phrases or repetitious descriptions. Search out unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Set yourself a goal of cutting the manuscript by ten or fifteen percent of the total word count and don't stop until you've met your mark.

One trick, if you write with a word processor, is to enter problem words in the "Find and Replace" field. First, look for obvious trouble-makers such as "there," "as," "of" or "like," and ask yourself each time the computer spots them whether they really are needed. Then search for "ly," and after that "ing." Chances are, many of the words that end in either can be eliminated.

Finally, remember that no matter how crisp your style is, no matter how tight you edit, if the plot isn't equally tight then no amount of cutting will save the story. Keep a clear idea of where you want the story to go from the moment you type the first line. Start as close to the action as possible and never let it out of your sight. Even humorous stories need to be exciting. The same holds true for kids' novels. Just because you have fifty or sixty thousand words to write instead of fifteen hundred is no excuse not to make every one of them count.

Now get out there, and happy cutting!