Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Young Adult and Children
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.
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
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
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!