Top 10 Tips for Paragraph Revision: Getting down and dirty

I just thought I’d summarize a few things you might look for when you’re revising a paragraph or passage:

  1. Paragraph unity. What’s this paragraph about? Can you identify that in your own mind? (“This is about her getting the eviction notice—the moment she gets the notice.”) Pay attention to anything in there that doesn’t fulfill that central idea.
  2. Paragraph length. Is this enough (or too much) for one paragraph? There’s no rule, of course, but if the paragraph seems too long, think about what you have. If you have event/reaction, you can break it into a paragraph about the event, and a paragraph about her reaction, for example. Or if it’s more about the past and present (like what he remembers of his hometown, and what he’s seeing now as he returns), you can have a paragraph about past and another about present.
  3. Starting sentence. Does this sentence open the idea or event or whatever you’re doing in this paragraph? Can you make it more effective? Is it too long and complicated, or too short and generic? Does it DO something—make the reader pose a question, or reveal something about the character, or show the character in action?
  4. Character. Make sure it’s clear who the POV character is—who is “telling” this, or experiencing it? Generally (not always), it’s good to start the paragraph IN that point of view, so not “He sped up,” but “She checked her seatbelt as he sped up.” Also see how many names you have in the paragraph, or how many identified people. If the waitress is just there to bring the coffee, you don’t need to name her or show her hand trembling—don’t make the reader interested in someone who isn’t important to the scene.
  5. Sequence of events. Unless you have reason to break the chronology of events, try to make things happen in the paragraph the way they do for the character. So if he loses the big game and feels like a failure, and goes and crashes his car, you should have a good reason to start with the car crash. (In a scene, the event and backtracking can work, but within a paragraph, it can be pretty confusing.) Think about cause before effect, action before reaction, event before response (though again, if you have a reason to change the sequence, see how you can do that effectively).
  6. Sequence of character experience. Usually these are the things that can happen in paragraphs (not all of them at once, of course): Event (something that happens, not due to character action, like the wind picking up). Action (by a character). Reaction (by a character). Speech. Thought. Feeling. Description. These don’t always proceed in the same order, but they DO proceed in an order in any given situation. You probably don’t want Action/description/reaction—like he slams the door on his finger, stops to describe the car, and then screams in pain. Think about how the character (especially the point-of-view character, the one narrating/experiencing the scene) experiences this—what comes first? The POV character probably THINKS before SPEAKING. Or the event happens, and then she responds. She notices the room (“describes”) before she talks about it. If the paragraph seems jagged, or the character comes across wrongly, check this sequence and try to get it to match the character experience.
  7. Word choice. Does the work choice amplify the mood you want (so if this is supposed to be solemn, you might want to avoid “light” words like giggle and sunshine. Also go through and see if you have word repetition. Repeating of keywords (important to the story) can be helpful, and repetition of “invisible” words like “and” and “with” won’t be a problem. But watch out for word repetitions that are both noticeable and non-essential.
  8. Dialogue and action. If there’s dialogue in this scene, make sure you have it punctuated and tagged (he said) effectively. You might not need a specific tag if the reader will know who is saying this.  Almost always, there’s one speaker in a paragraph. If he says something, start a new paragraph when she responds (no matter how short the paragraphs are – dialogue paragraphs are often short). Generally, if there are both dialogue and action in the paragraph, they should be “from” the same character and proceed in the same sequence it happens. She should pour the coffee and then ask if he wants cream and sugar.
  9. Simultaneous action is difficult to convey in words! But the reader will cut you some slack here. You can put two simultaneous actions in the same sentence, or intersperse a sentence of action and then a sentence of dialogue. This might require some real revision so that you don’t end up with too much happening. Try to get the simultaneous events in the same paragraph, or start a new paragraph with a marker like “At the same time” or “Just that moment.”
  10. Use transition and landmark markers like “then” and “after” and “next to” and “beside”. One or two of these in the paragraph (especially at the start of a sentence) can help guide the reader through. (Be sure to read over after and cut back if you have too much.) Causal transitions like “Because” and “So” are also helpful to stress the cause/effect nature of the events in the paragraph. – She wouldn’t look at him. So he started to play the clown to get her attention.—

Most important, think about what you want the reader’s experience to be in this moment with this paragraph. Watch out for anything that will interfere with that experience.

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