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Writing That Wails or Whimpers (And How to Fix It)

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There’s a scientific connection between a child’s cry and an adult’s response. That is, there is something in a distress cry that, once detected by the human ear, causes said human to react. It’s all part of the great survival plan of the human species. For animals, too, when you think of how many animals vocalize distress. 

I mention it because very early this morning I proved how well this science works. In a deep sleep, I heard a child crying outside my bedroom window. I told my brain that it was just a kid waiting for the bus, probably annoyed with a sibling. But then my brain argued back, “Get up and go check.” (I did. The kid was fine.) 

My thoughts wandered to a writing project I’m working on and how a particular element is so distressing me that it’s practically wailing. “Fix me!” it shouts and I cannot ignore it. I began to consider what kind of distress calls in a writing career get my attention every time... 

Let’s start with grammatical errors. Just a few days ago, I heard a salesperson—a grown professional adult—use the word “brung” and it was a fingernails-on-chalkboard moment. At least, for me. (I’m much too polite to say anything but imagine if she were a speaker at a writer’s conference. Would I take her seriously?) 

I read articles of favorite teams almost daily; they are literally teeming with misspelled words, missing punctuation, or mixed-up tenses. Ugh. (I keep reading, though.) Online readers may tune out grammar missteps, but for writers hoping to be published it’s a different story. 

If grammar mistakes show up regularly in your work, whether it’s a manuscript you’re sending to an agent or a story or essay you’re submitting to a contest, or even a proposal as a speaker, you can be sure that the agent (or judge or conference coordinator) will react. One error can be overlooked, the same way a mother will hear a slight whimper and wait before responding. But once the howling starts—or the errors pile up—something must be done. Unfortunately for a writer, that something is generally rejection. 

What can you do if grammar is your Achilles’ heel? Read! Reading well-written prose and essays and such will fine tune your ear to mistakes. Use a grammar program that will check for errors, or rely on a trusted critique partner for help. Strive to get the wailing down to an occasional muffled cry. 

And speaking of the muffled cry, there are other writing problems that don’t exactly bawl for attention but my instincts will tell me that something’s just not right. Take, for example, the writing at the beginning, whether it’s a blog post or a 60,000 word manuscript. I often don’t start at the right place, or I go on too long on the front end. I know that I’ll get a familiar, annoying tug when I re-read if I need to fix that beginning. 

Leaving the work for a longer period is always helpful for finding those whiny, whimpering problems like the boring info dump or the fall-in-love-with scenes that turn out to be indulgent. When that old uncomfortable feeling hits during the revision, I know: the story’s not moving. Do you hear that whimpering, friends? That’s me, taking out favorite bits to make the writing tighter. 

So how about you, dear writer? What’s the wailing or the whimpering in your writing? And how have you learned to fix it? Tired writers want to know. (Yawn.)

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