Don’t Change the Subject: Lesson #3 from Student Writing

This is post #3 in a series expanding the six writing & editing lessons that authors can take away from my writing students.

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“Speaking of keeping paragraphs on topic, well, keep your paragraphs on topic. I had students who would often switch from one idea to another while they were still in the same paragraph, making it hard to see where their focus was. I had to work with them on identifying and sticking with a single focus. This goes for fiction writing, too. Just because something is related to your overall topic or story doesn’t mean it belongs in a certain paragraph or scene. Know what you’re trying to express with each unit of your book, and don’t wander away from that.” –Original post

Student Problem #1: Not knowing the focus

Some of my students wrote their rough drafts before they had a good sense of how their thesis statements and main points interacted. Without understanding what they were trying to communicate with a given paragraph, they had nothing to focus on. This led to vague, wandering prose. Stories may not have topic sentences, but they’re not immune to this problem! Do you know where you’re going with each paragraph in your story, or are there words on your pages that aren’t contributing anything useful? Know your focus and stick with it.

Student Problem #2: Mixing separate ideas on a subject

Sometimes, my younger students mistakenly assumed that absolutely anything they had to say on their subject would be considered on-topic in a paragraph. This led to situations like the single paragraph that with a discussion of a certain animal’s size but also described its noise level, digestive habits, and friendliness. Even though the student never changed the topic away from the animal, they did give the reader mental whiplash as they bounced around from fact to fact. Sometimes, authors do this too. Make sure you don’t have too many different things happening at once in a scene or dialogue. You don’t have to oversimplify your scenes, but the reader wants to be able to track what’s going on.

Author Problem #1: Describing irrelevant details

I see a lot of scenes that describe what the main character sees when they get out of bed in the morning. Why do the color of the carpet and the consistency of the mattress get this much page space when the protagonist has some major problems on her mind? There may be many things that you know about your character’s life and environment, but the reader doesn’t have to hear about all of them. It would literally take a lifetime to read every detail of your character’s life! Choose only the ones that advance the story and truly enrich the reader’s understanding of your characters and experience of their world.

Author Problem #2: Jumping viewpoints

I see a lot of new writers who don’t stick with a single viewpoint within a scene. Instead, they hop around, showing each character at times from the outside and at other times from the inside. This creates another sort of whiplash. Unless you know exactly what the omniscient point of view is and how it works, stick with one viewpoint at a time. Whether you’re writing in first or third person, know whose point of view each scene comes from, and watch out that you’re not excluding that person’s thoughts or including thoughts of other characters.

Fix #1: Give one idea per paragraph.

For the students who didn’t understand how to focus their paragraphs, I encouraged them to put just one idea or thought in each paragraph—not everything they could possibly say on a subject. When you have just one thought in a paragraph, you can add the necessary explanations or examples to flesh out that idea without including multiple, clashing thoughts. In your stories, can you summarize each paragraph’s main idea in a sentence? Don’t put too many activities, descriptions, or events in a single paragraph—keep it focused.

Fix #2: Ensure chapters and scenes have a purpose.

I already warned against describing irrelevant details; sometimes, scenes can also be irrelevant. Just like some descriptions distract from the story instead of adding to it, some scenes can reveal parts of your characters’ journeys that belong behind the scenes. Have you ever noticed how most books don’t mention the characters going to the bathroom? Sure, it’s a crucial part of your character’s day, but it doesn’t merit page time. It happens, but it does nothing to advance the plot or develop characterization. Remember, if you go back through your manuscript and find some scenes that need to be removed, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer! It can be good practice when drafting to work out what characters do and say in as many different situations as possible, but make sure you cut out the extras when revising.

Fix #3: Finish one thought before starting the next.

For students, this looks like using clear topic sentences, sticking with them, and supporting them well. For authors, this looks like making sure each scene has had a chance to play out fully before jumping to the next one. Has the event or its action been completed? Has the protagonist had a chance to comprehend and react to the situation? If I’m reading a fight scene, I don’t want to suddenly jump to something that happens the next day before reading that (a) the fight ends, or (b) the main character completes their last action or decision of the fight. If your protagonist has significant thoughts or actions occur between scenes A and C, don’t skip them! Continue scene A until it’s complete, and make sure you start scene C soon enough. If you need to put in scene B to show important thoughts, conversations, or events, do so.

Short version: The goals of every chapter, scene, and paragraph should be to have a focus, stick with it, and cover it adequately.

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