This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.
Good character work this week, editors! We’ve asked some tough questions about building your character outward and inward and upward. Now it’s time to return to editing on a micro level, really polishing the piece from sentence to sentence. As I was reading one of my favorite stylists, Zadie Smith, I noticed something powerful and effective about her paragraphs. Check out an example from her New York Review of Books essay, “Joy”:
“…if you asked me if I wanted more joyful experiences in my life, I wouldn’t be at all sure I did, exactly because it proves such a difficult emotion to manage. It’s not at all obvious to me how we should make an accommodation between joy and the rest of our everyday lives.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable…”
And here’s another couple of paragraphs later on:
“An egg sandwich from one of these grimy food vans on Washington Square has the genuine power to turn my day around. Whatever is put in front of me, foodwise, will usually get a five-star review.
You’d think that people would like to cook for, or eat with, me—in fact I’m told it’s boring. Where there is no discernment there can be no awareness of expertise or gratitude for special effort. “Don’t say that was delicious,” my husband warns, “you say everything’s delicious.”
And how about just one more pair of paragraphs:
“…my husband nods a little impatiently; there was no need for the addition. My husband is also a professional gawker.
The advice one finds in ladies’ magazines is usually to be feared, but there is something in that old chestnut: “shared interests.” It does help.”
There is much to love in Zadie Smith’s clean, precise, gently comedic writing, but I want to focus today on her transitions. In the way we often do, Smith seems to be thinking about her topic from paragraph to paragraph; we can see each paragraph engaging with a different aspect of her subject (the differences between pleasure and joy). But she does a neat little trick that makes every paragraph seem to flow seamlessly from the next: the last sentence of each paragraph is actually the beginning of the thought of the next paragraph. See how that works? The first paragraph mentions everyday lives and then the next paragraph is about experiencing pleasure every day; the next one mentions the pleasure of food and the one that follows is about food and cooking; and the next one mentions a shared interest of her husband’s and the paragraph that follows is about their connection and bond.
It’s such a simple trick, but it’s the kind of thing that can usually only be caught in a second or third draft, not the first. We first think of the ideas and anecdotes we want to share in separate, discrete chunks, and put them in paragraphs accordingly. But what if we re-visited them and just made the first sentence of each paragraph the last of the previous one, or wrote a new transitional sentence? Suddenly the idea seems to flow naturally from the one that came before. This works for both fiction and nonfiction; we want to see a continuous thread of thought and narration, weaving seamlessly through the story.
So today, play around with the first and last sentences of each of your paragraphs in your story. See if you can just make them jump up to the previous paragraph, or throw in a quick image or phrase that will transition from one to the next. It makes things more suspenseful and also more inviting.
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