I was lucky in having a series of teachers in junior high and high school who were committed to teaching good writing, and they’re the reason a lot of my early rejection slips said things like, “This is well written, but. . .” I got the writing down before I got “story” down because those teachers taught me in the importance of paying attention to how you write as well as what you write.
I still have one of the handouts from my junior year of high school, and recently dug it out of my file to look it over. It’s basically a summary of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, condensed for hormonal eleventh graders. But you know what? Putting it in a form that hormonal eleventh graders can understand isn’t a bad way at all to deliver information.
Here’s the text of the handout:
Use the following to perfect your written creations:
1. Remove as many forms of be and get as possible.
2. Change five verbs and five adjectives to better words.
3. Alter five sentence beginnings.
4. Remove very, really, and so.
5. Make sure every sentence contains a subject and a verb.
6. Omit it is, there is, are.
7. Vary sentence type and length. (simple, compound, complex, and compound complex)
8. The four manipulations possible in the English language:
- a. Substitution
- b. Rearrangement
- c. Addition
- d. Subtraction
9. Check each paragraph for a topic sentence and a concluding sentence.
10. Check each composition for an introductory and concluding paragraph.
11. In any composition, the following questions should be addressed for completeness:
- a. What is the problem?
- b. What is the cause?
- c. What is the effect?
- d. What is the solution?
These last three points are directed at non-fiction essay writing, but I think they can apply to fiction as well — does the sentence contribute to the overall meaning of the story? What does the paragraph/sentence accomplish in terms of telling the story? What’s the conflict? What’s the resolution? And so on.
If you’re finding that your prose isn’t “popping” or you want to spend a little time analyzing your work not just at the level of story, but at the level of sentences and even words, a checklist like this can be helpful.