Thursday, March 3, 2011

Selling Our Readers on Our Writing

Old_Bookshop_-_Ciudad_Vieja_-_MontevI was picking up a carpool of high school and middle school boys for Scouts on Monday evening. It was absolutely pouring cats and dogs, lightning was illuminating the darkness every couple of minutes, and it looked like we were working up to a flash flood.

At one house two boys ran out the door, full speed, jackets held over their heads, and launched themselves into my car. “Mrs. Craig?” gasped one of the boys, “Uh…do you need a car wash? Have you got a dirty car?”

“No, no Daniel,” said his brother, briskly. “That’s not the way to sell Mrs. Craig anything! Remember, you’re supposed to say, ‘Mrs. Craig, I noticed your car is dirty. Guess what? I’m selling car wash tickets for lacrosse.”

We were all laughing about the fact they’d bolted right into the car without even looking at it. But it was definitely going to be filthy after the rain we had (which makes me wonder what’s in our rainwater that makes things filthy.) Besides, they knew I was going to buy whatever they were peddling, anyway. It was a sure sale.

Selling our readers or editors on our writing is a tougher job—after all, they’re not totally invested in us like I am with my Scout carpool. And before our writing even gets to the reader, it’s got to convince an agent or an editor that it’s good.

My first drafts are full of seems, felts, mights, started tos, thinks, and coulds. These words dilute my writing and make it sound indecisive and weak. So I take most of them out, unless it’s a wishy-washy character using the words in dialogue.

Writing can also sound stronger by avoiding passive construction of sentences (when the subject is acted on instead of performing the action.) Strunk’s Elements of Style is one of my favorite writing books. As Strunk put it (and I’m using his example to illustrate his point, below):

The habitual use of the active voice, however, makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind. Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

Instead of: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground. Use: Dead leaves covered the ground.

Decisive is convincing…and I’m trying to sell my agent, editor, and readers on my story.

What kinds of things do you do to strengthen your writing?


The WKB newsletter that Mike Fleming and I are putting together is set to launch later this week. We’ve got a great interview with freelance editor Jason Black and links to February’s most popular writing articles. For a preview of what's in the newsletter this month, click here for Mike's blog. If you’d like to get on our email list for the newsletter, please sign up here: