The Devil is in the Details

I’ve been with this writing group now for three years. They have taught me many things. How to handle critique. How to properly read aloud. But mostly, how to pay attention to those pesky details. You know, the tiny words that don’t seem important until they are.

Chet Cunningham, the founder of San Diego Professional Writer’s Group, has many rules about how words should appear on pages. Several of these have become ingrained in my writing style. Here’s a short list of common Chet-isms (tiny details that can be improved with a little tweak).

Cement is a something that binds things together. Concrete contains cement and other materials (like rocks) and water. When your character falls onto the sidewalk, she smacks her face against concrete, not cement.

The ground is the earth (dirt, sand, rocks, etc). A floor is a man-made surface (carpet, hardwood, tile, etc). Characters inside buildings can’t fall on the ground (unless they smash through the floor onto the ground below).

Eyes can do all sorts of things, like squint, ogle, glare. However, be careful when using this object (eyes) to substitute for looking. The phrase, “Her eyes dropped to the floor,” means that the eyes have popped out of their sockets and have landed on the floor. (Think Pirates of Caribbean and the fella with the wooden eye). Instead, you should write: “Her gaze dropped to the floor.”

We all shrug when we don’t know something. However, what do we shrug? Do you shrug your elbow? How about your butt? No. Then you don’t need the phrase: “He shrugged his shoulders.” What else would he shrug?

Another word that we add too many descriptors to is smile. Think of the phrase: “There was a smile on his face.” Really? Are there other places we can smile? Not really. You could rephrase with: “He wore a smile,” or “He smiled.” Plus you get the added bonus to axing out one of those pesky “to be” verbs.

That’s all I can think of right now. All of these are hard wired into my writing brain now. Each of them, minor as they are, help improve my writing.

How about you?

Tim Kane


About Tim Kane

Tim Kane is a young adult fiction writer.
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5 Responses to The Devil is in the Details

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 12-29-2011 « The Author Chronicles

  2. More laughter in Maine. I wish all writers would first enter the discipline of journalism. If they did, you wouldn’t have had to write this. 🙂

  3. JC Rosen says:

    All great points, Tim. These and other details help keep the reader in the story. I don’t know if Chet covered this one, but a reader recently pointed out “her face lit up” makes him look for LED fixtures. I’ll never be able to use that phrase again. Thanks for these reminders.

    Take care,

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