Monday, March 4, 2013

If I Don't Know What's Wrong, How Do I Fix It???

I was at a writers’ conference last year when someone brought up that age-old dilemma: what do I do when a chapter/scene/section of my manuscript just doesn’t feel right, but I have no idea what specifically is wrong? If I can’t put my finger on what’s broke, how can I fix it?

Yeah, been there. Sometimes a section of your manuscript just isn’t making the grade. You’re not happy with it, you’ve revised it a million times, you’ve re-read it over and over again, and all you know is that something still isn’t quite right. Frustrating!!!

I think I’ve gotten better over the years at spotting the deficiencies in my writing. It’s taken a lot—a lot!—of trial and error, but I’ve learned that when a scene feels “off” I can usually put my finger on the problem if I ask myself certain questions. We all have different writing styles, of course, but here’s the list of what I investigate if a scene doesn’t feel quite on the ball:

  • Is there a good balance between internal and external? There are character-centric stories and plot-centric ones, of course, but I tend to like a balance between the two. Sometimes I find that a scene feels off-kilter if I’m focusing too heavily on external events or internal reactions. I often find that an action sequence flows quite a bit better if I remember to add some character reaction into the mix to break up the constant description of what’s happening in the physical world. 
  • Is there too much description? It’s that old trap of telling rather than showing. If a scene feels too stale perhaps I’m telling the reader too much through description rather than conveying it through dialogue, emotions, and character reactions.
  •  Do I focus too much on setting? Okay, maybe it is a really beautiful meadow, but do I need to spend three paragraphs describing every wildflower and blade of grass. (No!!) What can I cut to keep the pace from getting too bogged down?
  • Does the dialogue feel natural? I’ll read it out loud to make sure there are no places where it gets wordy or awkward. And on a related note, is there a good balance between dialogue and narrative? Variety keeps it interesting—a scene can start to feel flat if there’s constant dialogue or little to none at all.
  • Are the characters true to themselves? Remember, every character should have a very distinctive voice. A scene can get boring fast if everyone starts to sound the same. If this is the case, then it’s time to revise with an eye toward bringing out their individual personalities.
  • Does the scene flow? Does it transition well between what comes before and what comes after? Or does it feel too abrupt? Reading out loud is a great way to gauge these things.
  • Super important—does the scene accomplish its purpose? Yes, every scene should have a purpose, whether it’s to reveal an important plot development, introduce an aspect of a character that’s significant to the overall story, or convey a piece of information the reader needs to know. Perhaps the scene feels wrong because it’s unnecessary. If it doesn’t serve a purpose in the story as a whole, cut it, cut it, cut it!
  • Does the scene lack clarity? Perhaps it feels off because it’s not conveying what it’s meant to convey. Is it confusing in some way? If so, how can you revise so the reader comes away from the scene knowing what they need to know. We just talked about every scene needing to serve a purpose—make sure your scene is making its point as clearly and efficiently as possible.

Of course, if you still can’t figure out what’s wrong with a scene, a fresh pair of eyes is golden. Ask someone whose opinion you trust to read the scene and tell you what they think. You’ll be amazed at what jumps out at others immediately when you’re struggling to see the forest through the trees.

How do you deal when your writing’s “not quite there”?

photo credit: ReillyButler via photopin cc


  1. What a great list of reminders. Thanks, Dawn!

  2. I have a team who are not shy about telling me if somehting sucks. I credit all of my sucess to them. They dont let me write crap. They dance on it and wipe there butts with it! :) Thats my process. HAHA.

  3. Good tips! All I can add is that I have learned to listen to my internal self telling me when something is off. It's so easy to ignore that and to want to be finished with something, but if something feels off to me, it has always turned out to actually be off. Better to have my nagging voice tell me than an editor or a reviewer.

    When I first started writing, I couldn't identify problems very well, so I'm glad I can approach my own writing more critically now.

  4. Great list and tips of what to look out for.

  5. Read the passage aloud or have someone read it to me. Sometimes, I can hear what I can't see on the page.

  6. Super post, Dawn. For me, those fresh pair of eyes do it every time.

  7. FANTASTIC post, Dawn! I always turn to a critique partner for a fresh perspective. Love the list you gave us, though--definitely saving it. :)

  8. Super great tips, Dawn. They are all so important, especially being sure the scene accomplishes its purpose. That tends to be a problem with mine that don't work.

  9. Good tips. I'll keep an eye on this post next time I'm revising my manuscript or critiquing someone else's.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!