Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Writing for impatient readers

Yes, I'm still here. Once again, life has been getting in the way of my blogging. But I was working on a manuscript just now and wanted to share something I've been meaning to blog about for a long time.

As much as I enjoy thumbing my nose at the "writing rules" splashed all over the internet and yammered about in critique groups and at writers workshops, I have imposed at least one such rule on myself: No paragraph can be longer than ten manuscript lines. Ever.

When one of my paragraphs begins to approach ten lines, I roll up my sleeves and start yanking out words and trimming sentences. Why? Not because of anything I learned in a workshop or a how-to-write book, and not because my editor makes me. I do it because of the way I read novels.

I am an unapologetic skimmer. When a chapter or scene of a novel I'm reading begins to grow tedious, I move on. My practiced eye zips down the page, down the next page, and so on until I find something that reengages my interest. What I'm looking for is a nice bit of "white space" created by a few short paragraphs or a snatch of dialogue, some convenient little hole in the page where I might burrow back into the story. Simply put, long paragraphs will be passed over, no matter how clever or evocative or informative they are.

Because I figure I'm not the only reader who behaves that way, I keep my paragraphs short. It's my hope that if a reader's interest begins to flag and she skips down a page or through one of my chapters, she won't go very far before she falls back into my story.

Ten manuscript lines. It's a completely arbitrary limit, but one I strictly adhere to. I adore long sentences, the kind that need a handful of commas and perhaps even an em-dash or a semicolon, but I can't abide long paragraphs. (At least, not in a contemporary novel. Authors like Henry James, Jane Austen, and even Georgette Heyer may ramble on as they please.)

I write in Courier New, 12 pt., with one-inch margins. A paragraph that takes up nine lines of my manuscript makes me worry. So on the rare occasion that I allow a ten-line paragraph to stand, I have a darn good reason for doing so.

It's often said that the internet encourages shorter attention spans, and I suspect there's a lot of truth in that, but I was an impatient reader long before I was exposed to the internet. So I'm going to stick with my pithy paragraphs.

Whether you're a reader or a writer, and especially if you read or write romance, how about leaving a comment to share your thoughts on paragraph length and "white space" in books?


Douglas Cootey said...

Excellent point, Brenda. I'm a skimmer as well and I automatically skim long paragraphs. I like the idea of limiting yourself to 10 ms lines. With limitation we can tighten our expression. I imagine this process makes you a better writer overall.

As for rules, I have stated here before that I find writers' rules tedious things. They seem far more arbitrary and senseless than any 10 line limit, IMO. At least your limit has a reasoning behind it.

Never write a dream sequence.
Never have your character describe themselves when looking in a mirror.
Never use anything more than "said".
Never use too many adverbs.
Never submit a ms on scented paper.

OK, maybe I agree with that last one. ;)

However, many writers' rules do seem to exist only to force newbies to comply so they can make it through a slush pile. ;)

Douglas Cootey
☆ @DouglasCootey on Twitter
The Splintered Mind

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I am so frequently interrupted (what with 3 little kids and life and all) I need white-space just to have a visual bookmark so I'm not always re-reading the same space looking again fro my spot.

I (visually) print something of the shape of the text and tend to re-find my place based on the shape more than the place (up or down) of where I am.

Neal said...

While I don't know that I'd stick to the rule religiously, I can see your point. As a reader, I find it easier to read books that are laid out well, and in particular have less dense pages (where "less dense" probably just means "fewer words", when I think about it). It feels as if I read these books more quickly, and more thoroughly, and am able to get "into the zone" with them more easily.

Now, of course, if there are fewer words on the page, then you read more pages per minute, but I'm talking about something more than that. My concentration is better with a well laid out page, my eye scans the page better, and I'm less likely to get lost in the text.

In the UK, there's a series of hardback classics called Everyman which I think are lovely. The books are small, the layout is nice, and the type is a reasonable size. I can read these far more easily than, say, a Penguin edition of the same book, and I think it's all down to the number of words on the page. Not quite the same as a 10 line paragraph, but definitely related.

For an example of the books I mean, see http://www.amazon.co.uk/David-Copperfield-Collectors-Library-Gilpin/dp/1904633838/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1236158408&sr=1-6

Cindy said...

I do the exact same thing! I will skim until my interest is regained. It's horrible, I know. But you make a good point. It helps to write the way we like to read. If something isn't interesting to us in a book, we'd better not be doing the same thing in something we write. Thanks for the tip!

Carol A. Spradling said...

I completely agree. It isn't so much that I'm an impatient reader, as much as I think some sentences aren't necessary. I don't want lengthy details that take me nowhere. Give me the story with enough window dressing to paint the scene. If you do that, I'm yours.

Delia said...

I'm a skimmer who definitely likes the white space :)

I'm all for detail and long descriptions but not when they're crammed into one never-ending paragraph.

Like Amy Jane, I also use the layout of a page/paragraph to help me find my place when I go back to a book.

K J Gillenwater said...

Wow, am I the only one who LOVES the details? Without the details and some of those long paragraphs I cannot get lost in the story. Guess it says something about me that I thoroughly enjoyed Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.

If I feel the need to skip anything, it is likely not a book for me, and I just put it down and don't finish reading.

Are you commenters also the type who will sneak a peek at the ending of a book?

I want to get the whole of what the writer intended for me to read. I don't care if the sentence is 10 lines long or 1.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I'm one who will check the ending-- but not before I've lost confidence in the journey of the story.

I'll only read the ending if something's happened that made me distrust the author. If the ending seems appropriate I'll (eventually) slog through what I dislike, but looking is usually my last attempt to redeem the story and it doesn't always work.

Karen H. said...

This is a very compelling idea. I know I am a skimmer, but I suppose I am not conscious of this fact while writing. I will be now. Ten ms. lines is a good guideline.

Jade said...

I too am a member of the unscrupulous skimmer crowd. I'm motivated by plot and character development, not the precise shade of green of the leaves in the background. And I get thoroughly frustrated because I read a lot of historical novels, which are of course rife with details. What I wish more authors would do is work their details in a few sentences around the dialogue or action, rather than plunking down long, rambling paragraphs.

Brenda Coulter said...

Hmm. For some reason I just now found all of the comments on this post. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in. Best wishes to all.