Making your story a good read

Updated: 27 July 2022

Help ensure your story is an enjoyable experience for your readers! Here are a few hints that come from my long experience as a reader, writer, and editor.

Reread for typos and snags you missed and spellcheck didn’t catch

Word processors make spell-check and often grammar-check easy these days, so please make sure you’ve machine-reviewed your story before submitting. (Third-party apps like Grammarly can also help if you have something like that, though as with the grammar-check built into in MS Word or Google Docs they only go so far.)

It’s also a good idea to give your story a complete manual read-through (or two) for mistakes your spell-check and grammar-check won’t necessarily catch. Case in point: the day after I first posted this revision to the Guidelines page, I reread a recent story of mine and noticed I’d missed a reference to my protagonist enjoying “comfort foot” (instead of “comfort food”). Not buried two thirds of the way in, either: it was in the first paragraph of the story! As you write, your mind supplies what you planned on being there even if that’s not what you typed, so it’s important to go back and experience the story, as best you can, as a reader instead of as its author. (I’ll keep reminding myself, too. Just remember, dude: comfort foot. )

Watch your tenses

One pitfall of fiction writing that often flies under the radar is that it’s surprisingly easy to accidentally switch tenses partway through a story. Even experienced authors sometimes start out in the past tense and then, without realizing it, switch to present tense when the action starts or intensifies. This is very distracting for readers, and it’s also time-consuming for me to edit, so I hope you will take a moment to review your story for tense shifts before submitting. One good indicator is your dialog tags: look through your story to see if you’ve got he said in one part of the story and he says in another.

If English isn’t your first language (or you just can’t be bothered about grammatical nugatories): there are two general kinds of stories when it comes to tense in English. Some stories are set in the present tense, with events that happened before in the past tense: Then Bob fucks Michael with great enthusiasm, remembering all the noises Michael made the first time. “That feels amazing,” Michael says.

Other stories are set in the past tense, with memories and flashbacks in the pluperfect (past of the past) tense: Then Bob fucked Michael with great enthusiasm, remembering all the noises Michael had made the first time. “That feels amazing,” Michael said.

Either is great, and which you use is subjective. Mostly it’s up to your gut feeling about what works best for you and for the story you’re writing. Just, please, stick with one or the other, and take a look afterward to see if in the heat of the moment you accidentally shifted from one to the other along the way. I’ll be very grateful if you do.

Be consistent as you’re formatting dialog

Speaking of dialog tags: the convention in American narrative is to write dialog as follows: “Fuck me,” he said sweetly. Note that the punctuation at the end of the quote is a comma before the quotation mark, followed by the next words continuing in lower case.

The reason for the latter is that grammatically this is all one sentence: in the case of something like “Fuck me,” he said, the subject is he and the sense is He said “Fuck me.” When inverted, as in routine prose dialog, this becomes “Fuck me,” he said, with the intervening comma a convention to emphasize that the quote is a clause coming before the subject of the sentence. If you’re ever trying to remember whether that he after the quote is capitalized, just think of it that way: “Fuck me,” he said is all one sentence.

Moderate your paragraph lengths

Readers tend to get lost in very long paragraphs, and may lose the thread of your story or, if it gets out of hand, they may even lose interest altogether. Try to keep your paragraphs from being too long or too short. In general, a paragraph deals with a specific idea you want to get across, so if you shift to another idea, even if it’s related (say, you’ve been talking about the character’s pecs, and now you want to talk about his abs for a while), you might want to start a new paragraph. Also bear in mind that paragraphs that look reasonable length-wise on a computer screen will seem longer for readers viewing your story on narrower devices in portrait mode, like phones or tablets.

Most of time paragraphs are three, four, or five sentences—something like that. Paragraphs are a tool, so you can use them in a whole bunch of ways—just remember that really long ones can work against you if you’re not careful.

Paragraphs in dialog

When your dialog changes speakers, you should start a new paragraph. This is admittedly another convention of English prose fiction writing, but it really does help your reader follow the dialog and the story behind it.

Again, if you have any queries or questions at all about your submission, just ask. And thanks again! Metabods would not be what it is without authors like you.

 

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