6 Writing & Editing Lessons from My Students


When I’m not editing, I’m teaching writing classes for 7th-12th grade students at a homeschool co-op. It’s a lot of fun—the students all have unique minds and different writing abilities, and I love watching them grow in their academic and creative writing.

As different as the teens all are, there have been specific issues that tend to repeat in their writing. As I’ve taught them to grow in these areas, I’ve realized that it’s not just kids making these mistakes. They’re common to writers of all ages, and if the weaknesses can be universal, so can the lessons on how to fix them.

Here are six of the lessons for better writing that I taught my students. I’ll be covering each of them in more depth on my personal blog in July, but this overview will hopefully get you thinking about what you can do to kick your own writing up a notch. Continue reading 6 Writing & Editing Lessons from My Students

How to Keep Your Reader Immersed in Your Story

Last week I heard about a project called “Immerse or Die.” It’s a rating system for books—when we are immersed in a story, we keep reading. When we are taken out of the story, we are more likely to abandon the book.

How do you keep your reader immersed in the story? Pay attention to how you are describing your world. (Originally posted on my blog Write, Edit, Repeat)

In today’s post, I talk about stage directions in fiction, writing natural descriptions, why some books are constantly reread by readers, and, to an extent, immortality.

Orderly Description

Ever played that “blind drawing” party game? You close your eyes or put a piece of paper on your head and someone gives you direction upon direction to cram into one picture?

Here’s an example for the party planning website Sophie’s World (which, consequently, is the title of one of my favorite books):

“I’d like you to draw the outline of a house. Just a simple little house, right in the middle of the page… Now, beside the house I’d like you to add a tree, a medium sized tree, not too big, not too small… Oh, I forgot! You need a front door on your house. Please draw a front door so that the people can come in and out easily… Oh, did I tell you there are apples in your tree? Draw a few apples, maybe 5 or 6, in your tree now… And don’t forget the windows in the house! I think two would be nice… Did I remind you to draw a chimney? Let’s put a chimney on the house, with some smoke coming out the top… Oh, and look! There’s a dog in the yard… And a picket fence… And of course there’s a family…”

This is the kind of experience a reader has when you describe something in an unnatural order:

blind drawing
It’s also what it’s like when description is given out of order. When describing a scene, consider camera shots. Zoom in from broad descriptions, ending on one specific detail. Or zoom out, starting on a detail and working your way out to observing the whole. Pan in one direction. Going in an unnatural order gives the nauseating effect of “shaky cam.” Adding details too late, after the reader has already created the image in his or her mind, gives what I like to call the “awkward goat” effect, after this GIF:


Writer: “I went to give the goat a kiss. Then the other goat—”
Reader: “Wait, there’s another goat?”
Goat: “SURPRISE! I’ve been here the whole time!” (maniacal goat bleating)

While this effect is used effectively in visual comedy, it doesn’t really work in fiction.

Overcomplicated Stage Directions

Another problem of ineffective description is overcomplicated stage directions. I see sentences like this all the time in unpublished manuscripts:

“Come with me,” he said and turned around while kissing my hand as we ran away together.

Though these are most often found in dialogue tags, I see overcomplicated stage directions all over. That sentence above is just one I made up, but let’s rewrite it so it doesn’t seem like “he” is doing a hundred things at once.

First, find the perps: “and,” “as,” and “while.” The two latter words can often be cut in stage directions. The former is a fine word that sometimes gets overused. Let’s focus on no more than two actions at once.

Said + turned, kissing + ran

“Come with me,” he said, turning around. He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

What did I just do? I took advantage of my friend the progressive verb.

A progressive verb is a verb ending in -ing. That ending tells us that the -ing verb is happening while something else is going on, while letting us cut the “while” or “as.”

“While” and “as” aren’t bad words. It’s not about the word, it’s how you use it. By all means, use “as” to make a simile (e.g., “as [adjective] as a [noun]”). “While” is an innocent preposition until proven guilty. The problem is using them to show more than one thing happening concurrently. Show me a manuscript which uses “while” or “as” in the first page in stage directions, and there’s a big chance that same construction will keep showing up over the next ten pages.

Doing a find/replace search for all instances of “as I,” “as we,” “as she,” “as he”  (depending on your POV), repeating the search with “while,” will help you see if you’re going overboard. Use them a few times, and that’s fine. Do it a few times per chapter, and you’re just being unnecessarily wordy. Gone are the days when novelists are paid by the word.

The Divine Detail

Remember, your novel has to compete with online, in-demand television and movies. You need to keep your reader’s attention. That doesn’t mean your novel needs explosions or murders every other chapter; it means your prose needs to be immediate and precise rather than longwinded and wordy. You want to be Robin Williams giving his Seize the Day speech, not Ben Stein droning about economics. The difference isn’t just subject, it’s diction. Do diction right, and you’ll engage readers that otherwise don’t care one iota about your subject. That is, until they start reading your book.

When describing, choose one or two vivid details, referred to by editors as “divine details” that can set the scene or characterize, and let the reader fill in the rest of the image. Compare the chaos of the drawing above (ain’t I an artiste?) with expansion drawings done by children:

Image via ArtMommie. Click for more images.

When the reader is allowed to contribute, your work takes on a new form. It evolves in the readers’ individual minds. It’s a spark which they build upon to create a conflagration.

Letting the Reader In

It doesn’t matter how brilliant of a writer you are—writing and reading are collaborative efforts, and that collaborative effort will bring more life and beauty to your work than you could hope to do by yourself.

Sometimes we write because we’re control freaks. We are the masters of the universe, and we will plot and plan and tell our characters exactly what they should do. But when we let our characters breathe and give them freedom, when we let the reader have some creative liberty, our work takes on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but if you want your work to live on after you’re gone, you need to let your reader experience your world naturally. You need to let them read between the lines and contribute to the meaning and world of your fiction. When you let them participate, readers will not only want to buy your books, they will want to reread your books over and over again, letting them become part of their life, seeing how their interpretations change over the years.

Editing Scenes (from Elizabeth’s Revision Cheat Sheets)

At the beginning of the month, I posted a three-part series of “Revision Cheat Sheets” over at ElizabethBuege.com. The first post in the series deals with revising your manuscript for structural elements, and the third post deals with addressing grammar and style on the sentence level. The second cheat sheet, which talks about revising your scenes, was the most popular, so it’s the one that I am reblogging here today. Happy revising!

It’s best to revise your manuscript for structural elements like characterization, conflict, and plot before moving on to scene revisions, so I’m assuming in this post that you’ve already done some developmental work on your novel and are ready for a second round of revisions. Today’s cheat sheet deals with the content, descriptions, and dialogue of your novel’s scenes.

Scenes are where the reader connects with your story.

camera-36840_640You might have planned extremely convincing characters with equally convincing conflicts for your novel, but unless you can let the reader into the story, they won’t be able to connect with it. Your whole story should not be made up out of summaries, but neither should you write your entire book in meticulously-described scenes with no summary or reflection. Scenes are like little snapshots into your characters’ experiences, and it’s your job as a writer to make sure you use this tool effectively. During your second round of revisions, it’s time to take a closer look at your scenes to make sure you’re including the right content, giving relevant descriptions, and using dialogue well. Continue reading Editing Scenes (from Elizabeth’s Revision Cheat Sheets)

Beta Readers vs. Manuscript Critiques

You just finished writing the last page of your story—congratulations! Whether you pumped out a NaNoWriMo victory or spent the last five years agonizing over your dream book, you now have a full manuscript sitting in front of you. Give yourself a pat on the back; you deserve it for making it to the end. Now what? You want to make your story better, but you’re still too close to see its weaknesses and discern whether readers would enjoy it. It’s time to get an outside opinion. If you take your work seriously, you should show your story to someone other than your mother or best friend. Run far away from anyone who has an obligation to tell you that your story is great as is! No book will be ready for publication without major revisions, so you need to hook up with someone who can give you informed feedback on what to fix. Most writers turn to one of two people: a beta reader or a profession editor. What’s the difference between the two? When should you pay to have an editor provide a manuscript critique, and when is it smarter to stick with a beta reader? No single answer fits every writer, so here are some guidelines to keep in mind.

A beta reader knows books and agrees to read and react to your story.

A beta reader…

  • …is usually someone you know well or trust.
  • …is often another writer but sometimes just an educated reader.
  • …must not be afraid to be honest.
  • …is unpaid, though writers often exchange reading favors.
  • …reacts to the story as a reader.
  • …typically doesn’t check grammar.
  • …may comment on characterization, dialogue, and pacing if you ask them to.

The primary job of a beta reader is to let you know what a reader would think of your book. A good beta reader will tell you what they liked about your book but will also point out anything that they found confusing, unbelievable, or dull. Because personal tastes vary, it’s a good idea to get two or three reliable opinions when working with beta readers.

An editor is paid to shape stories into books and will give specific, structured feedback.

An editor…

  • …is a trained professional, often someone you don’t know.
  • …has an eye for what readers want as well as for the standard of quality writing.
  • …knows the elements of good writing well enough to tell you not only where your writing is strong or weak but exactly why it is that way.
  • …knows your genre well enough to make sure your book fits its context well.
  • …gives you, after a careful reading, a multi-page analysis of major story elements—characterization, dialogue, plot, pacing, continuity, style, etc.
  • …recognizes and notes consistent issues with your style and grammar in a constructive way.
There is a time and a place for both beta readers and professional critiques.

Without knowing you, I can’t tell you which option is best for your situation. Take a close, honest look at your goals, experience, and resources. Then, make your choice with these scenarios in mind. Use a beta reader…

  • …when an established fellow writer is willing to trade manuscripts with you.
  • …when an acquaintance you trust has a good eye for story and style.
  • …when you’re on a tight budget and want to know what to improve on your own.
  • …when you’re looking for readers’ reactions before or after you self-edit.

Use a professional editor…

  • …when none of your acquaintances have the experience or knowledge to give your manuscript a thorough, quality critique.
  • …when you’re an unestablished author and aren’t sure what to do after your first draft.
  • …when you doubt your own editing skills and want your repeated mistakes pointed out.
  • …when you want a professional opinion before you pursue publishing.
  • …when you’re planning to self-publish and won’t have an agent or publisher to advise you on the shape of your story.
  • …when you have the budget to push your writing to the next level.
Being good at storytelling and grammar doesn’t mean that you won’t need help with your book.

I should know—I’ve had training and experience in writing style, advanced grammar and syntax, and the shaping of stories, but I still miss problems with my own writing. Even though I’m a trained editor, I still plan to get outside help when I get a little farther along in my fiction manuscripts. Depending on my budget, I might decide to fall back on some trusted beta readers who graduated from the same writing program as I did. Whether I work solely with the beta readers or also turn to a professional for a manuscript critique, I know that solid feedback is a crucial step on the road to a finished book. Do you suspect that you want a professional manuscript critique? Talk to me—I’m happy to chat about my process as an editor and take a peek at your first chapter. If I’m booked out or don’t work in your genre, I’ll do my best to connect you with another experienced professional who would be a great fit for your story. Is working with beta readers a better option for your situation? Follow the blog—I’ll soon be posting tips on finding and working with a great reader.

Comment below if you’ve worked with a great editor or beta reader in the past; other readers and I would love to hear about your experience, and your critic will thank you for the praise!

book with glasses