21 Do It Yourself Tips on Writing!

21 Do-It-Yourself Editing Tips by Melissa Donovan http://www.writingforword.com, July 4, 2017

*proofreading and editing

*Tips for Editing Your Own Work.

*The human mind is a funny thing; it likes to play tricks on us.

For example, when we proofread and edit our own writing, we tend to read it as we think it should be, which means we misread our own typos and other spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes as well as problems with word choice and sentence structure, context, and overall readability.

Do-It-Yourself Editing Tips

Here are twenty-one do-it-yourself editing tips that you can put into practice for polishing your own writing:

  1. Proofread and edit every single piece of writing before it is seen by another set of eyes. No exceptions. Even if you hire a professional editor or proofreader, check your work first.
  2. Understand the difference between proofreading and editing. Edit first by making revisions to the content and syntax. Then proofread to check for proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  3. Use the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word when you edit. This feature saves your edits. You can then review the changes you’ve made and approve or reject them.
  4. Step away from a piece of writing before you proofread it. The longer the piece, the longer you should wait to proofread it. Let a novel sit for a few weeks. Let a blog post sit overnight.
  5. Before proofreading and editing, run the spelling and grammar checker. Then run it again after you’re done polishing to check for any lingering typos. However, don’t count on software for spelling and grammar. Use it as a fail-safe.
  6. Read your work aloud. Pronounce each word slowly and clearly as you read and check for mistakes.
  7. Proofreading should never be a rush job. Do it s l o w l y.
  8. Don’t review your work once and then send it out into the world. I recommend editing until the piece reads smoothly and then proofreading it at least three more times.
  9. At the very least, proofread until you don’t catch any more errors.
  10. Read the piece backward so you can see each word separately and out of context.
  11. Look up the spelling of proper names as well as scientific and technical terms that you’re not familiar with to make sure you’re spelling them correctly.
  12. Don’t make any assumptions. If you’re not sure about something, look it up so you can fix a mistake (if there is one) and learn the correct way.
  13. Don’t forget to proofread titles, headlines, and footnotes.
  14. Pay attention to the mistakes you’ve made in your writing. You’ll find that you tend to make the same ones repeatedly. Keep track of these and work on avoiding them during the initial writing process in the future.
  15. Choose one of the many style guides and stick with it. This will make your work more consistent, and you’ll have a trusty resource to use when you have questions about style and formatting.
  16. Start building a collection of grammar books and writing resources so when you do run into questions (and you will), you have access to reliable and credible answers.
  17. If you intentionally let grammatical mistakes slip through, do so by choice and make sure you have a good reason. It’s okay to break the rules if you know why you’re breaking them.
  18. Pay attention to formatting. Use the same formatting on all paragraphs and headings for a professional level of consistency. Learn how to use these features in your word processing software (in MS Word, this feature is called Styles).
  19. Proofread when you’re fresh and wide awake. Proofreading doesn’t go over well when you’re tired or distracted.
  20. Proofreading and editing can be tedious, so break up your revision sessions by doing other tasks that help you clear your mind: exercise, play with the pets or kids, go for a short walk, or listen to some music. Try to avoid reading or writing during these breaks.
  21. Make it your business to develop good grammar skills. Read up on grammar or subscribe to a blog that publishes grammar posts (like this one) to stay up to date on proper grammar.

Some people love the proofreading and editing process. Others despise it. If you’re into grammar, the mechanics of writing, and polishing your work, then proofreading and editing will be easier and more enjoyable for you. If not, just look at it as part of your job — something that goes along with being a writer. And once you’re done proofreading and editing, make sure you get back to your writing.

 

 

 

Adventures in Writing:  The Complete Collection

A Tuesday Review: The Son of Nepal by J.J Sylvester (Book 1 of the Sons of Thunder)

Visit J. J Sylvester’s website and see a sample of his books: via  https://theeverplanes.com/2017/04/23/the-son-of-nepal

5 Stars!  This intriguing novel, The Son of Nepal, by author J.J Sylvester, is a fascinating and uniquely beautiful story. It is told with a Middle Eastern flair for story-telling, that I found utterly enchanting. When a novel can transport the reader to a different place and time – that is extraordinary. It is beautifully written, with a lush cadence like prose that moves brilliantly through the entire novel.
Johannan, our hero, is very brave in his pursuit to find a cure for his beloved’s blindness and gives himself over to be used by a Great Spirit, such is his desire to return the gift of sight to his beloved. What is Johannan to learn from his quest, as he searches for months on end to find the magical cure, but only a true heart, he has been told, will the Great Spirit choose to grant Johannan’s wish. Johannan suffers great hardship in his pursuit to find a cure for his beloved, and therefore, he should be rewarded, shouldn’t he?
Will the parables this novel evokes ring true or will they not? We are often told: be careful what you wish for, true love conquers all, think before you leap, and everything comes with a price!” What price will Johannan pay or will the Great Spirit, bestow on him the happy life that Johannan has sacrificed so much to achieve for his beloved?         Johannan’s story is powerful and is so meaningful, even about our own lives, that we should take heed, for we are vulnerable as well. Is what we wish for honorable and good? It is only in our hearts, that will it ring true. I highly recommend The Son of Nepal.

A Summary of K.M. Weiland’s  “Write Like a Master”

 

My summary of K.M. Weiland’s excellent article presented in Writer’s Digest, Work Book: Exercises and Tips for Honing Specific Aspects of Your Writing presents the key points of her exceptional article via Writer’s Digest 2014 Reblog. It is especially for writers penning their first novel, but also for seasoned writers to again remember a classic, Jane Eyre, a novel that was ahead of its time, by Charlotte Brontë.  Often, reading classics, as most of us do, gives us fresh insight to dramatic storytelling par excellence. K.M. Weiland gives us 10 distinct techniques for dramatic masterful writing.

  1. Hook: Start in the middle of some type of interaction within environment, statement, or internal angst to provoke reader curiosity.
  1. Characteristic Moment: Reveal/show a personality trait of the Protagonist.
  1. Setting Description of Scene: Start broadly, and then zoom in.
  1. Symbolism: Small details set story’s tone and foreshadows its course.
  1. The World Protagonist Inhabits: demonstrate character’s interior and exterior world.
  1. Back Story: Intersperse with dialogue, don’t dump back story in long paragraphs in chapter 1.
  1. The Premise of Story: Present the Dramatic Question early on, involving the moral foundation, the impetus that drives the story forward.
  1. Physical Actions: The physical movements of characters interspersed throughout dialogue increases depth of character traits.
  1. Protagonist’s Belief: Once Dramatic Question is identified, writer presents obstacles for protagonist until she/he can relinquish belief/misconception and meet deepest needs.

10.Extraordinary Factor: What makes the Protagonist important? How at odds is protagonist in his/her world with others that creates friction, tension, and thus the central conflict of story premise.

***see Writer’s Digest, October 2014 edition, for full article.

How to Proofread your Posts (or Novel)

The White Corner Creative at  https://www.whitecornercreative.com/

Though proofreading is something that a lot of people don’t think a lot about, it is one of the most vital parts of publishing a blog post. Writing and content is important, but it doesn’t mean anything if your readers can’t make it through your post because of errors. A while back I wrote a post HOW TO PROOFREAD YOUR POSTS BEFORE PUBLISHING because it’s very important to have a system in place so that proofreading every post is easy, and having a list of things to edit for will help.

Having a list is a great way to stay organized and create a strategy. You should build from my list and make one that applies to you – because everyone struggles with different elements of writing. Though you may be excellent at spelling or grammar, you might struggle with certain tenses or verbs, and you should put those specific examples on your list to make sure you always catch the mistakes. So, start with this list, and use it to create your own! Here’s what I’ve got so far – I’ll be adding things as I think of them over time!

Clichés

Clichés are the worst. They are as stinky as old cheese. They are just a waste of time. They are just gut wrenching. You see where I’m going with this, right? I wrote a post a little while ago – PRO WRITING: CLICHES – HOW TO AVOID THEM & WHY YOU NEED TO. If you’re not careful, clichés can really drag down a good post. Make sure to edit every post for them!

Tense

Though tense isn’t something many people think about, it can ruin a post if you let it. Tense means switching back and forth between present, past, future, etc. in your writing. Of course, switching around is okay if you’re talking about things that happened versus things that are going to happen, but most people do it all in one post that should be written in the same time-period. For more information about tense and how to do it right you can read my post PRO WRITING: HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR TENSE.

Grammar

There are so many different grammar rules that you need to keep an eye out for when you are proofreading your posts. In my opinion, the most important ones are commas and apostrophes. When they are placed right, they help your writing make sense and go unnoticed, but when they are wrong they can break the flow and really tear your writing apart. I don’t have a post on grammar just yet – mostly because I need to figure out how to properly use commas myself (they are my weakness) but proofreading will help you catch the most obvious grammar mistakes.

Headline Grammar

You may or may not know this, but your headlines have their own grammar. The rules apply mostly to how you should capitalize them. There are certain words that you never capitalize, certain words you always should, and certain words that depend on where they are placed. For some details, you can check out my post HEADLINE GRAMMAR – HOW TO CAPITALIZE AND WHY YOU SHOULD, because headlines are a vital part of every post, and a grammar error there might warn people off before they even start reading.

Verbs

Verbs are the most powerful parts of every sentence. Front and center is where you want them in every sentence, and they should have true meaning. When I started out in school for professional writing, one of the exercises, we repeated over again and again, was to go through a piece and highlight every single verb. Then we would go through it again and make sure every one of those was as strong as it could be. Verbs can be weak in a few different ways. The first is when you haven’t chosen the right one. For example, why say ‘running fast’ when you could say ‘sprinting’. It cuts out a necessary word and has such a more powerful meaning. The second is when the verb you intend to use isn’t really the verb at all. If you say ‘I am writing for my readers’, ‘am’ is the verb, though you probably meant it to be ‘writing’. Instead change the sentence to ‘I write for my readers’. You can already tell how the sentence feels so much more powerful, and the meaning is truly what you intended.

Similar words

This one is something that a lot of people struggle with, and it’s something that really bothers a lot of people. When you use the wrong form or spelling of a word. There are hundreds of different examples of this, and everyone struggles with different ones. Some of the most common are:

they’re, there, their

right, write

its, it’s

two, too, to

then, than

You should make a list of the ones that you struggle with the most, and then make sure to edit for those on every post. Once you do this enough, using the right forms will be something automatic for you.

Spelling

Spelling is the first thing that people think of when they imagine proofreading, but it is only one small element in a long list of things to edit for. Most programs like Microsoft Word check your spelling as you write, and now WordPress even does it right in the post editor window. These are the spelling errors that are easy to catch because they are pointed out to you. But, you also need to proofread the post and check for spelling errors yourself, you can’t just rely on the built-in editor. This is because the editors are just checking that the words you type are real words spelt correctly, they don’t check that they make sense in the sentence or are the correct word. Read over a post yourself to see that all the words you meant to type ended up there.

Once you’ve built a list of things to edit for that’s custom tailored to you and the things you struggle with, print it off and use it every time you write and edit a post. Eventually you’ll start to catch fewer errors, and eventually you might overcome some of your writing problems altogether!

YOUR NOVEL BLUEPRINT, by author Karen Wiesner

 

karen-weisner-photo

 

 

 

I found “Your Novel Blueprint” on Writer’s Digest,  it is a book by Karen Wiesner. It  is a very useful and very complete guide from start to finish.  I am posting the first couple of pages and then a link to her article (10 pages) and also her book  can also be purchased there.  Read the article and then see if it is for you. I loved it.

You can find Karen Wiesner on Writer’s Digest http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/your-novel-blueprint

Writing a novel and building a house are similar when you think about it. For instance, most builders or homeowners spend a lot of time dreaming about their ideal houses, but there comes a time when they have to wake up to the reality of building by analyzing what they expect from a house, and whether the plans they’ve selected will meet their needs. Architects argue that it’s better to build from the inside out.

This is where a home plan checklist comes in handy. This list assembles the key considerations to keep in mind when deciding on a plan, including what are called external monologues, relating primarily to the outside of a house and its environment, and internal (interior) monologues. (The word monologue, in building, refers to a single facet of overall composition on the inside or outside of a house, such as flooring material or landscaping aspects.) Writers spend a lot of time dreaming about their ideal story. Eventually they have to face reality and analyze whether or not the story will work. Authors, too, usually build from the inside out—in other words, they know what they want at the heart of their stories and they build around that.

This is where a Story Plan Checklist becomes essential, because it targets the key considerations necessary when building a cohesive story that readers will find unforgettable. The checklist has basic external and internal monologues.  Monologue, in writing, refers to a single facet of overall composition concerning the internal or external elements, such as conflict and motivation. Generally, these are composed individually in free-form summaries, but they need to develop and grow cohesively.

The Story Plan Checklist can ensure cohesion between character, setting and plot. This checklist connects all the dots between internal and external conflicts, and goals and motivations, thereby guaranteeing the cohesion all stories require. In its most simplified form, a Story Plan Checklist—which you can find an example of at writersdigest.com/article/first-draft-finish-novel—includes free-form summaries (or monologues) covering each of the following:

PART I: THE BASICS

  • Working Title
    •    Working Genre(s)
    •    Working Point-of-View Specification
    •    High-Concept Blurb
    •    Story Sparks
    •    Estimated Length of Book/Number of Sparks

PART II: EXTERNAL MONOLOGUES

  • Identifying the Main Character(s)
    •    Character Introductions
    •    Description (outside POV)
    •    Description (self POV)
    •    Occupational Skills
    •    Enhancement/Contrast
    •    Symbolic Element (character and/or plot-defining)
    •    Setting Descriptions

PART III: INTERNAL MONOLOGUES

  • Character Conflicts (internal)
    •    Evolving Goals and Motivations
    •    Plot Conflicts (external)

I call this list a Story Plan Checklist not only because of its correlation with a home plan checklist, but because if you haven’t considered each of these areas, written something solid about them and checked them off, your story may not be fully fleshed out and cohesive enough. Sooner or later, the basic structure will begin to fall apart.

While you’re in the beginning stages of forming a story plan, sit down and figure out some of the working details (which may change throughout the process).

TITLE AND GENRE SPECIFICATION

First, come up with a preliminary title. All you need here is something to reference the project. While you don’t want to lock in your genre too early (stories evolve in unpredictable ways), get started with genre specification. For now, list all the genres this story could fit into.

POV SPECIFICATION

Now, start thinking about what point of view you want to use for your book. It’s very important to start your Story Plan Checklist with this because the identities of your main characters will play a huge part in your characterization and, subsequently, each of the areas you’ll be summarizing on your checklist. Most stories spark with a character who may end up becoming your main character. Your best bet for deciding which character’s viewpoint to use: In any scene, stick to the view of the character with the most at stake—the one with the most to lose or gain.

HIGH-CONCEPT BLURB

The high-concept blurb is a tantalizing sentence—or a short paragraph with up to four sentences (one or two is ideal)—that sums up your entire story, as well as the conflicts, goals and motivations of the main character(s). It’s no easy task. Here’s a simplified explanation of what your sentence needs to contain:

A character (the who) wants a goal (the what) because he’s motivated (the why), but he faces conflict (the why not).

Or you can simply fill in the blanks—whichever works best for you:

(name of character) wants (goal to be achieved) because  (motivation for acting), but she faces  (conflict standing in the way).

Tips For Proof Reading and Editing!

very-reduced-size-pen-paper

Use ‘was’ only twice per page. This includes ‘were’ and ‘is’.

Limit adverbs. Search for ‘ly’ endings and get rid of as many as possible.

Watch out for bouncing eyes–He dropped his eyes to the floor. His eyes roved the room

Use gerunds sparingly. Search for -ing endings and eliminate as many as possible.

Eliminate ‘very’.

Eliminate ‘not’ and ‘n’t’–switch them to a positive. Rather than ‘he couldn’t run, he was so tired ‘. Instead say, ‘he stumbled forward, his legs so tired they refused to obey’.

Eliminate dialogue tags as often as possible. Indicate a speaker by actions. Those you keep should be simple, like said.

Be specific. Not ‘the car’, but the red Oldsmobile convertible’.

Eliminate but, the fact that, just, began to, started to. Rarely do these move the action forward.

Use qualifiers sparingly. This includes a bit, little, fairly, highly, kind of, mostly, rather, really, slightly, sort of, appeared to, seemed to–you get the idea. These make you sound unsure.

Run your manuscript through an auto-editor like Autocrit. It’ll find problems like sentence length variations and repetition of words so you can fix them.

Run your manuscript through a grammar checker like Grammarly or Hemingway.

Don’t have too many prepositional phrases in a sentence. There’s no set rule, but if you get lost before the sentence ends, you have too many.

Secure each chapter in place and time. A quick reminder of where characters are and whether it’s in the present or past is good enough.

Don’t repeat yourself. It’s tempting to retell events when a character is talking to someone who didn’t live through the last few chapters, but summarize instead–briefly. Your audience already knows this material.

Verify that time tracks correctly in your novel. Make sure the day is correct and that characters have enough time to get from here to there in the timeline.

Verify that your characters are wearing the correct clothing and have the right reactions for their position in the timeline. For example, if they were in a car accident, when they appear again in the novel, make sure they act accordingly.

Describe with all senses. Add what your character smelled or heard along with what s/he saw.

Don’t tell what you’re showing. Use one or the other, preferably showing.

A great way to find these miss-writings is with Ctrl+F, the universal Find short key. It will highlight all instances of whatever you’re searching on the page.

What these don’t address is character development, plotting, or living scenes so you’ll still have to deal with those prior to sending it to your editor.

What are your secrets to self-editing? I’d love to add it to this list.

Source:  I don’t remember exactly where I found these tips, but probably Writer’s Digest.com & Writing Forward.com

 

Word Painting – The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan

Word PaintingHere are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description that Rebecca finds to be very important in writing descriptively.

  1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.

  1. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

 

  1. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair. In the same way, his oxford shirt could become “a white oxford button-down that he’d steam-pleated just minutes before” or “the same style of baby blue oxford he’d worn since prep school, rolled carelessly at the elbows.” These descriptions not only bring forth images, they also suggest the background and the personality of the father.

  1. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination. When I write about Uncle Leland, I describe the wandering eye that gave him a perpetually distracted look, as if only his body was present. His spirit, it seemed, had already left on some journey he’d glimpsed peripherally, a place the rest of us were unable to see. As you describe real-life characters, zero in on distinguishing characteristics that reveal personality: gnarled, arthritic hands always busy at some task; a habit of covering her mouth each time a giggle rises up; a lopsided swagger as he makes his way to the horse barn; the scent of coconut suntan oil, cigarettes, and leather each time she sashays past your chair.

  1. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond. Let’s say you’ve written several descriptions of an elderly woman working in the kitchen, yet she hasn’t begun to ripen into the three-dimensional character you know she could become. Try putting her at a gay bar on a Saturday night, or in a tattoo parlor, or (if you’re up for a little time travel) at Appomattox, serving her famous buttermilk biscuits to Grant and Lee.

  1. In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her. In addition, Flaubert describes the book that held her attention during mass and the images that she particularly loved—a sick lamb, a pierced heart.

Living among those white-faced women with their rosaries and copper crosses, never getting away from the stuffy schoolroom atmosphere, she gradually succumbed to the mystic languor exhaled by the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the holy-water fonts and the radiance of the tapers. Instead of following the Mass, she used to gaze at the azure-bordered religious drawings in her book. She loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced with sharp arrows, and poor Jesus falling beneath His cross.

  1. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

What items would your character pack for a weekend away? What would she use for luggage? A leather valise with a gold monogram on the handle? An old accordion case with decals from every theme park she’s visited? A duffel bag? Make a list of everything your character would pack: a “Save the Whales” T-shirt; a white cotton nursing bra, size 36D; a breast pump; a Mickey Mouse alarm clock; a photograph of her husband rocking a child to sleep; a can of Mace; three Hershey bars.

  1. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff. Which items is she practically giving away? What has she overpriced, secretly hoping no one will buy it? Write your character’s Last Will and Testament. Which niece gets the Steinway? Who gets the lake cottage—the stepson or the daughter? If your main characters are divorcing, how will they divide their assets? Which one will fight hardest to keep the dog?

  1. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

The earlier “all-points bulletin” description of the father failed not only because the details were mundane and the prose stilted; it also suffered from lack of movement. To enlarge the description, imagine that same father in a particular setting—not just in the house but also sitting in the brown recliner. Then, because setting implies time as well as place, choose a particular time in which to place him. The time may be bound by the clock (six o’clock, sunrise, early afternoon) or bound only by the father’s personal history (after the divorce, the day he lost his job, two weeks before his sixtieth birthday).

Then set your character in motion. Again, be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

  1. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

Notice the strong verbs Robinson uses throughout the description. The mouth “bowed” forward; the brow “sloped” back; the hair “hovered,” then “sprouted”; the hem “swept” the floor; hats “fell” down over her eyes. Even when the grandmother’s body is at rest, the description pulses with activity. And when the grandmother finally does move—putting a hand over her mouth, closing her eyes, laughing until her shoulders shake—we visualize her in our mind’s eye because the actions are concrete and specific. They are what the playwright David Mamet calls “actable actions.” Opening a window is an actable action, as is slamming a door. “Coming to terms with himself” or “understanding that he’s been wrong all along” are not actable actions. This distinction between nonactable and actable actions echoes our earlier distinction between showing and telling. For the most part, a character’s movements must be rendered concretely—that is, shown—before the reader can participate in the fictional dream.

Actable actions are important elements in many fiction and nonfiction scenes that include dialogue. In some cases, actions, along with environmental clues, are even more important to character development than the words the characters speak. Writers of effective dialogue include pauses, voice inflections, repetitions, gestures, and other details to suggest the psychological and emotional subtext of a scene. Journalists and other nonfiction writers do the same. Let’s say you’ve just interviewed your cousin about his military service during the Vietnam War. You have a transcript of the interview, based on audio or video recordings, but you also took notes about what else was going on in that room. As you write, include nonverbal clues as well as your cousin’s actual words. When you asked him about his tour of duty, did he look out the window, light another cigarette, and change the subject? Was it a stormy afternoon? What song was playing on the radio? If his ancient dog was asleep on your cousin’s lap, did he stroke the dog as he spoke? When the phone rang, did your cousin ignore it or jump up to answer it, looking relieved for the interruption? Including details such as these will deepen your character description.

  1. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

The novels of Milan Kundera use little outward description of characters or their actions. Kundera is more concerned with a character’s interior landscape, with what he calls a character’s “existential problem,” than with sensory description of person or action. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tomas’s body is not described at all, since the idea of body does not constitute Tomas’s internal dilemma. Teresa’s body is described in physical, concrete terms (though not with the degree of detail most novelists would employ) only because her body represents one of her existential preoccupations. For Kundera, a novel is more a meditation on ideas and the private world of the mind than a realistic depiction of characters. Reading Kundera, I always feel that I’m living inside the characters rather than watching them move, bodily, through the world.

With writers like Kundera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …

Later in the book, when Agnes’s sexual relationship has led to pregnancy, then to a life-threatening abortion, she describes the farm in quite different terms.

It was August, high summer, but there was something definite and curiously insubstantial in the air. … In the fields near me, the cattle were untroubled, their jaws grinding the last of the grass, their large, fat tongues drinking the clear brook water. But there was something in the air, a sad note the weather played upon the instrument of the bone-stretched skin. … In October, the leaves would be off the trees; the fallen leaves would be beaten flat by heavy rains and the first fall of snow. The bony ledges of the earth would begin to show, the earth’s skeleton shedding its unnecessary flesh.

By describing the farm through Agnes’s eyes, Schaeffer not only shows us Agnes’s inner landscape—her ongoing obsession with sex and pregnancy—but also demonstrates a turning point in Agnes’s view of sexuality. In the first passage, which depicts a farm in winter, Agnes sees images of beginnings and births. The earth is curved and full like a woman’s fleshy body. In the second scene, described as occurring in “high summer,” images of death prevail. Agnes’s mind jumps ahead to autumn, to dying leaves and heavy rains, a time when the earth, no longer curved in a womanly shape, is little more than a skeleton, having shed the flesh it no longer needs.  ****originally posted  Writer’s Digest by Rebecca McClanahan