Wednesday, June 1, 2022

2022 June - The Long and Short of It


Quickly jot down your answers to these questions:

1. What is the average word length of a sentence?

2. A long sentence exceeds how many words?

3. What is the average number of sentences for a paragraph?

Here are the answers— 

1. 20 — The average word length of a sentence is considered twenty words, which is the exact word count for this sentence.

Why use such a benchmark as sentence length? Because twenty words can be said in one breath? Yes, that's true, but equally as important is that shorter sentences promote clarity (and as I've said many times: clarity trumps all rules.)

However, when writing fiction, what will affect the length of sentences is narrative voice. How does the character or narrator think and talk? Do they speak or think in short, medium, or long sentences? Do they use simple sentence constructions or complicated or clause-filled sentences? How complex is the narrator's language, diction, and syntax? Such things affect sentence lengths and bring characters to life on the page, making readers like them or hate them or feel neutral toward them.

Here's the thing: a sentence can stand alone as a paragraph and a sentence can be as short as one word.

2. 30 to 40 — A long sentence is considered thirty to forty words. Exceed those thirty or forty words and clarity becomes an issue. So does running out of breath when speaking such sentences out loud. For the record, in READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose, there is a 181 word sentence. Interestingly, no semicolons were used in that sentence. That sentence is broken apart by eight commas, one pair of dashes, and ends with one period. Those pieces of punctuation and the rhythm of the words allows for clarity and comprehension. It takes a pro to write with such clarity and comprehension at such a long length.

3. 3 — The average number of sentences for a paragraph is considered three (which translates to an average of sixty words.) However, all depends on the topic of that paragraph. After all, the supporting sentences to that opening line (i.e. the topic sentence) can range from three to five to eight but at twelve sentences, such a paragraph looks like wall-to-wall-words.

     Wall-to-wall words is a term used to describe blocks of type. When a reader comes to such a block, most readers think the subject matter is boring or too technical and they'll skip down to dialogue or the indentations to shorter paragraphs.

Here's a tip: any double-spaced manuscript page with four or fewer indented paragraphs should be looked at to see what's in those paragraphs. Those long paragraphs likely need broken apart for clarity. (For single-spaced pages, look for eight or fewer paragraphs.)

Take a few minutes today and go to your work in progress. Use your word processing program's zoom feature, reduce the pages to 50%. Count the white-space of paragraph indentations on each page. Also check for paragraphs that carry over to the next page. Do you have any wall-to-wall paragraphs?  

In those long paragraphs, did you find long sentences, semicolons joining clauses or sentences, or conjunctions like and joining sentences, or even run-on sentences?

Share your findings with a comment to this blog.

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Sunday, May 1, 2022

2022 May - RUE Resist the Urge to Explain



I often tell writers that there is one rule to writing, which is: Clarity trumps all rules. 

Unfortunately, in an attempt to make things clear to a reader, a writer often overexplains. The result is that editors and critique partners will place RUE in a manuscript's margin (or in a comment box). RUE stands for Resist the Urge to Explain.

Let's look at the most notorious place for overexplaining, which is the opening of the story, and the two most common types of overexplaining, which are setting details and characterization.

Prologues that open a story are notorious for being explanations of characters or settings. Here's a tip—if anything in that prologue is repeated in the story, ax the entire prologue.

Back to setting details, in particular, those in the opening chapter of a story. Novice writers often think they are setting mood or tone with such an expository chapter one opening. Trouble is, such openings have no drama or action underway, making the opening sound like a travelogue or documentary. Such openings bore readers.

Keep in mind that setting details should be sprinkled into the  ongoing action. This is best done through the sensory perceptions of a major character (protagonist or antagonist) who is actively engaged with some sort of worthwhile problem at the beginning of a story.

Yes, writing science fiction and fantasy often requires explanations of strange worlds and settings or how gadgets, technology, or weapons work. The rule of thumb is to allot no more than one to three sentences of description in any one spot (that's 20 to 60 words). In other words, use only those precise, vivid, image-provoking details of a setting, the society, etc. that can be tucked into the story's action or given in small doses by a major character. Unfortunately, putting in such details is where research complicates things.

In all honesty, resistance seems futile in the face of researched knowledge that so intrigues a writer that the writer feels they must share and teach the reader about the history, the theology, a cause, a disaster, or social mores, etc. of a story.

A story is not about everything.

A story is about 

the most important elements that 

support the plot and theme.

Now, let's turn to characterization and the information dumps that are back story, flashbacks, remembrances, and recalls by the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist or second major character, who is often the romantic lead or sidekick). 

Recalls are short quickies amounting to a sentence or two. Remembrances are often triggered by a sensory perception and are brief, just a paragraph or two. Flashback are lengthy scenes of many pages. A flashback will stop, or slow down, the story's forward movement and action. Such flashbacks force a reader to stop, go back in time, reorient, and forget the now of the story. Getting in and out of flashback requires skills and techniques that most new writers don't have.

Here's another thing—those lengthy information dumps, explanations, or back story details were necessary for the writer to get to know the story and characters but the reader only needs ten percent of it. Which ten percent? The ten percent that succinctly fills in the back story of why a character is who they are or justifies their particular long-held belief or moral value. Such elements are tied into the story's theme and plot and should be inserted only when it is absolutely necessary for the reader to know and understand.

In writing this post, I've had a hard time resisting the urge to explain in greater detail. Suffice to say, I've just touched on the tip of the iceberg.  

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

2022 April - What is Your Inner Ear IQ?

Let's start this month's topic with a Quiz:

When reading words, something magical happens, our brain's inner ear "hears" the voice—the narrator—created by the diction, syntax, vocabulary, and jargon of the words being read. That narrator might be the author or a character or the author-as-a-storyteller (using a storyteller's voice), etc.

So, how good an inner ear do you have? After reading each sentence below, identify the voice of the narrator:
    A - "It is half full of water."
    B - "Don't be an idiot, it's half empty." 
    C - "That's just a glass with water in it." 
    D - "Why do you humans concern yourself with a glass containing water?" 
    E - Marsha couldn't believe the conversation had deteriorated to analyzing a glass of water.
    F - When is my master going to pour that water into the bowl for me?
    G - "It is obvious, Sir Charles, that crystal goblet is barely half full."
    H - "Measuring . . .  In the glass is 0.236588 liters of water, which is the equivalent of one cup."

The basic problem with convincing writers about POV-Viewpoint is getting them to realize POV-Viewpoint is not about First Person, Second Person, or Third Person but about "the narrative voice," which is the voice of the person or entity that is narrating the story or article.

Too often a writer hears only their own voice and uses only their own diction, syntax, etc. Thus all the characters and the narration sounds alike. Which isn't good.

Two thing help hone an inner ear and help bring story characters to life. The first is to read voraciously in multiple genres, fiction and nonfiction, memoir, etc. The second is to actually take time to keenly listen to the way people talk.
So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, 
then you are listening not only to the words, 
but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, 
to the whole of it, not part of it
— Jiddu Krishnamurti, philosopher, speaker, and writer
For those who took the quiz, here are the answers: 

    A - "It is half full of water." (Optimist)
    B - "Don't be an idiot, it's half empty." (Pessimist)
    C - "That's just a glass with water in it." (Realist)
    D - "Why do you humans concern yourself with a glass containing water?" (Baffled Alien Being)
    E - Marsha couldn't believe the conversation had deteriorated to analyzing a glass of water. (Omniscient)
    F - When is my master going to pour that water into the bowl for me? (A pet or being who cannot talk out loud)
    G - "It is obvious, Sir Charles, that crystal goblet is barely half full." (A highly educated and opinionated person)
    H - "Measuring . . .  In the glass is 0.236588 liters of water, which is the equivalent of one cup. (A machine, an automaton, a robot, etc.)

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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

2022 - March - Ups and Downs of Writing

 Being a writer, I bet you've experienced ups and downs, the surges and lulls of the struggle to get a story onto a page. So often a writer blasts off like a rocket ship with an idea and then the engine quits. The idea plummets to earth, the reality-check that what seemed so grand has exploded into nothing worthwhile. The pattern may look like this: 

1. This is the "ah-ha moment," the manic high, the stupendous exuberance of the idea's arrival. The thrill of "what if" that sets a writer off to scribble down the bones or a scene of the idea. But this "ah-ah moment" of conception can also be a character coming forward and intriguing the writer into telling their story. Such an idea is the most beautiful of wild roses, but— 

2. The rose has thorns. The first thorn-prick is a reality check—  there are problems with the idea, the character, the plot. And so the joy fades.

3. But the rose's scent lingers. That idea has the writer pausing, reflecting, and thinking that the idea isn't as bad as first feared. Hope renews with possible fixes, new information, and so on.

4. However, the fix nets another jab of a thorn—more problems, seemingly unsolvable. Then come questions without answers. The writer feels stuck in a depressing quagmire.

5. But the recalled, heady, first-scent of the rose, the idea itself, beckons anew, whispering of a promise that must be written. The stick-to-it-ness of being a writer kicks in, and a renewed sense of can do, must do, nets a draft to be shared and feedback sought.

6. With that feedback, the red-pen notations, the scowls and blank faces of readers, additional thorns sink deep and draws blood that the work is doomed. The pessimist within the writer whispers "you can't write this."

7. And yet, the realization dawns— the work needs a few Band Aids. A tweak here. A restating there. Another realization—the work is good enough, not perfect but worth shipping out to beta readers and keeping one's fingers crossed.

8. The beta readers seem to take forever to return their feedback. It's good feedback. Now the book goes out to a professional editor or agent.

9. If all has gone well, the book becomes a bouquet of roses, published, earning five-star reviews, being talked about, entertaining the populous, or affecting their lives.

Writing often seems like a topsy-turvy endeavor. One that takes perseverance.

So, where on the graph are you now with your current WIP (Work In Progress)?

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Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Here's a little quiz dealing with the language of writing and being a writer. Answers appear at the end. 

When proofreading, AWK stands for

When proofreading, POV stands for

When proofreading, LS stands for

Widows and Orphans are

deus ex machina is

Beats are 

C-E stands for

Dénouement is

Grawlix is  

The Black Moment is

Now try your hand at these True of False statements:

1. Dialogue has 13 functions (or more)

2. Internalizations are not dialogue

3. Exposition is telling not showing

4. A plot and theme go hand in hand

5. A flashback is a short look at what happened in the backstory and is presented in the now of the story

6. A vignette is a short story


When proofreading, AWK stands for Awkward. That is, the text did not make sense, forcing the reader to stop reading and enjoying the story to reread and puzzle out — and guess — what the writer meant. Another type of AWK is where sentences were joined together (by "and" or semicolons or colons) to the point of the reader being uncertain what was happening or going on or who was doing what to whom.

POV stands for Point of View

When proofreading, LS stands for Long Sentence. An average sentence is considered 20 words. Any sentence exceeding 30 words should be looked at for being awkward (AWK) or a run-on or a convoluted sentence.

Widows are one line from the previous page stranded at the top of the next page. Orphans are one to three words stranded on one line at the end of a paragraph (often changing one "big" word to a simpler "smaller" word will free up that line for better use.

Deus ex machina is an unexpected character who appears in the climax to solve the story and save the hero and heroine. Reader don't like it when someone other than the Protagonist solves the story problem or is resued.

Beats are bits of stage business or actions interspersed throughout a scene, often involving physical gestures, like pouring a glass of wine or walking into or out of a room.

C-E stands for Cause and Effect (often C-E is skewed or elements of the logical straightforward sequence of events or actions are missing).

Dénouement is the final resolution of the main story's problem.

 Grawlix is that bunch of swearing symbols: "£$%*>#!

The Black Moment is when the Protagonist faces off with the Antagonist in the story's climax.

True of False:

1. Dialogue has 13 functions (or more) TRUE

2. Internalizations are not dialogue FALSE - internalizations are dialogue that is not spoken out loud

3. Exposition is telling not showing TRUE

4. A plot and theme go hand in hand TRUE

5. A flashback is a short look at what happened in the backstory and is presented in the now of the story FALSE - a flashback is a long look back, a full-blown scene).

6. A vignette is a short story FALSE (Vignettes are "slices of life").

How did you do? Did you cheat and look at the answers while doing the quiz?

***Feel free to share this quiz with other writers.***

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Saturday, January 1, 2022

2022 - January - Begetting Quality

  This year we're back to first-of-the month posts, this year topics are about writing well and telling a story well. 

Writing does not beget good writing, it begets repetition of the same-old principals of setting words into sentences that were taught in school. 

In order to write quality stories worth a reader's interest, time, and money, a writer needs to learn and then train their mind to write with techniques of the successful, highly paid, multi-published.

It's the difference between learning to swim and making the Olympic team in swimming.

That's why I tell new writers to stop writing and learn craft. Craft enhances talent and liberates creativity. And here's the catch — by learning craft, a writer must practice what they're learning and thus bring to the writing a whole new aspect of workmanship and mastery of word images.

Other benefits follow, like far less rewriting, far less revising, and far less errors of all kinds from the big picture of plot to the minuscule of line edits done word by word.

If you're truly interested in writing well and telling a story well, then take a time out to learn. Start with books on craft, not an Internet blog post or two of a few hundred words, but books that cover a topic-subject in tens of thousands of words. Then practice that craft subject in a short form—  a short story or a scene—  until it comes naturally. Those will not be wasted words. Those will be better words, better scenes, better stories.

So where should a writer start this learning curve? Start by learning what story is. And I will recommend the following books that can teach this:

A STORY IS A PROMISE by Bill Johnson
This book is filled with, as the subtitle says: "Good things to know before you write that screenplay, novel, or play." And never forget, verbal stories, epic poem-stories, and plays came long before novels.

This book does hold the secrets of writing captivating tales.
This book takes a writer step-by-step through the Developed Short Story. Here's the catch: the only difference between the Developed Short Story and a Novel is length and scope. Learn to write the Developed Short Story and the novel is oh so much easier to do.

SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder 
A screenwriters bible, but again, plays came before novels. This book's how-to's give insight and practical advice on story and writing a story.

You don't have to buy the books. You can usually get them through the Library Loan system. 

It's the New Year and resolutions and goals often are set — or at least thought about. Isn't it time you made a commitment to not just writing the same-old way but writing well and telling a story well?

****Stop back the first of February for the next posting to this blog.   — Catherine E. McLean, Author, Writing Instructor, Workshop Speaker

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