Jen’s Editing Tips: The Power of White Space

Since I’m now a freelance editor, I’ve decided to start a new feature on my blog: Jen’s Editing Tips. This will give me a chance to share some of the common mistakes and missteps I come across in the work I edit, and hopefully help you avoid them.

Jen's Editing TipsTo kick things off, I’m going to discuss one of my biggest editing pet peeves: White space.

Or rather, the lack of it.

white-space-journal-3As you probably assumed, white space refers to the empty areas on a page. You know, the lovely gaps between paragraphs. The simple, yet powerful tool writers use to present their stories to audiences.

Before I get into the exact reasons why white space is so important, let me show you an example. Below is my 150-word flash fiction piece, Crumb Layer.

Without white space:

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully. It still does. I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold, and the cold makes things set faster. I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork. I smile. The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect. Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.

With white space: 

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold, and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork. I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.

See the difference? With just a few taps of the return key, I was able to strengthen my story without changing a single word of it. It read faster, cleaner, and easier. It also had more tension and landed a bigger punch at the very end.

So, now that you’ve seen what I’m talking about, let me list some specific benefits of using white space:

Reader-friendly

The majority of readers love to see white space on a page. It immediately welcomes them into a story, encourages them to keep reading, and tricks them into thinking they’re reading less (even though they’re not). To most readers, white space says, “Hey, I’m your buddy. I’m not gonna overwhelm you with long, dense paragraphs that make you want to quit before you’ve even begun.”

Trust me, your readers will be more enthusiastic and less intimidated if you insert white space into your work.

Pacing

White space is one of the best and easiest ways to control the pacing of your story. To speed things up, use more of it. To slow things down, use less of it. Simple, right?

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should use tons and tons of white space.

Just because you use more doesn’t mean people will zip through your story.

In fact, too much white space can be as detrimental as not enough.

Why?

Because, as you might see here, white space can become distracting.

Too much of it, and your story loses its cohesion and fluidity.

It also takes on a jagged feel.

And readers might get lost.

Or irritated.

Or both.

So don’t overdo it!

…Don’t.

Rhythm

Think about how a song would sound if it stayed in the same key from start to finish:

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. 

Not exactly thrilling, is it? Let’s mix things up by adding some variety.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum. Bum-bum-bum.

Bum-bum-bum. 

See? Even without changing the monotonous “lyrics,” the rhythm changed because I added white space. That’s how you should approach a story. You should remember it isn’t just words on paper. It’s a song and your audience listens closely. If they’re not grooving to the beat, then there’s a chance they’ll switch to another station (er, book).

Emphasis

One of my favorite things about white space is it ensures readers know something significant happened. Like, a new character was introduced or a plot twist was revealed. It also helps magnetize key moments in a scene. It ups the level of drama, hilarity, or, as seen in the example below, terror.

The smell of rot stung her nose, making her eyes water. Howls and groans she couldn’t comprehend echoed around her. They seemed to be coming from every direction.

Pete shoved Andy into Kate’s arms. “Run, dammit!”

She hugged Andy to her and bolted. The sky shrieked with inhuman sounds, and the ground trembled so violently, she feared she’d tumble.

The sky went white.

Blinding, icy, horrifying white.

If I hadn’t isolated those last two lines in my story “Inevitable,” they would’ve been diluted and lost amongst the other horrific events in the story. And they wouldn’t have amped up the tension and propelled readers to the very end.

Limits Confusion

In addition to emphasizing vital plot points and powerful moments in a story, white space helps cut down on confusion.

Think about it:

If you clump everything together–characters, plot twists, scene changes, time leaps–it’s likely your readers will miss something important. And once that happens, they’ll inevitably get confused. And confused readers tend to become bored readers. And bored readers will likely set your story aside to read one that doesn’t have them scratching their head.

Bottom line, no matter what your personal style is, white space is a key element in storytelling. Whether you enjoy using a lot or a little of it, it must be used to some capacity to ensure your story is presented in the clearest, most satisfying way to readers.

So, what do you think about this simple, yet strategic editing tool? Is it something you think about while writing? Or is it something you haven’t considered? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Can You Write A Story In 150 Words

A few weeks ago, my online writer’s group introduced me to a weekly flash fiction contest hosted by Ad Hoc Fiction. Basically, writers are given a prompt word (ex: feather, bark, note) and must incorporate it into a 150-worded story.

Yep! That’s it. Just 150 words to address all the vital components of a story and satisfy readers.

*gulp*

Once the deadline passes, the submissions are posted on Ad Hoc’s website and the public votes for a winner. It’s free (yes, FREE), it’s fun, and it’s a great way to challenge yourself. So give it a shot! Whether you want to learn, warm up, or win, you’re sure to have a blast with Ad Hoc Fiction.

Below is a story I submitted a few weeks ago. The prompt word I had to include was “plaster.” Enjoy!


“Crumb Layer”

by Jenna Willett

When I was little, my mom would let me help her frost cakes. “Remember, Annie,” she’d say, “the first layer is the crumb layer. You frost, wait, frost again, and—voila! See?” She’d point at a finished cake. No crumbs, no blemishes. The decorating method worked beautifully.

It still does.

I hum to myself as I spread a second layer of white goo over the crumbly surface. I dip, swirl, smear, and wipe my metal spatula down and up, left to right. Over and over. I work carefully, but quickly. I have to. Even with the heater on, the house is cold and the cold makes things set faster.

I give one final swipe and stand back to study my handiwork.

I smile.

The plastered wall looks great. With a layer of paint, it’ll look perfect.

Nobody will ever suspect I hid a dead body behind it.


To learn more about the contest and Ad Hoc Fiction, click here.

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Music Monday – Love Runs Out – OneRepublic

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicAs you might have (or might not have) noticed, I didn’t publish any blog posts last week. I decided to take some time off to relax, spend time with family, and work on my manuscript. It ended up being a great week. I took a day trip to Vail, visited the Denver Zoo with my nephews, and even won the Wicked lottery with my sister!

11666132_10102297028238983_2248675542357559971_nNot only did I have fun during my week off, but I made tons of progress with my new novel. I managed to write over 26,000 words in five days. Ahhh! Seriously, it’s amazing what you can do when you shut the world out and focus. Hopefully this major boost means I’ll be able to meet my goal of finishing a first draft by July 31st, when the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge kicks off.

Anyway, on to Music Monday! Today, I thought I’d share a song that helped inspire me as I wrote my booty off last week: OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out”.

D96028B1249DC92023B3DF5A5443E7F9201421220339876The number one thing I love about this song is its rhythm and beat. It’s edgy, energetic, and even a little dark. Every time I listen to it, I close my eyes and get lost in the incessant thumping of the drums, piano, and cymbals. And every time it finishes, I realize I’ve thought of a new layer to my story. A new drama, a new twist, a new character trait, a new something.

one-republic-love-runs-out-music-video-2014As always, the lyrics provide oodles of inspiration as well. I didn’t really listen to them the first few times I played “Love Runs Out”, but then I Googled them and I realized they fit my story perfectly.

Ooh, we all want the same thing.
Ooh, we all run for something.
Oh for God, for fate,
For love, for hate,
For gold, and rust,
For diamonds, and dust.

I’ll be our light, your match, your burning sun,
I’ll be the bright and black that’s making you run.

5ee20a4a8ccff7886e0566fcd5604dc0If you’re looking for an energetic song with an amazing rhythm and inspiring lyrics, then check out OneRepublic’s “Love Runs Out”.

What song(s) are you in love with right now? Which one(s) offer you inspiration? Let me know! I’m always searching for songs that motivate my writing.

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Music Monday – James Horner Tribute

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicLast week, the world lost an amazing, creative, and inspiring composer.

James Horner.

james-hornerLike so many, I was devastated when I heard the news of his death. For years, I’ve been listening to Horner’s compositions, and not just while watching the many blockbuster films he scored, but also while writing. Many a scene has been choreographed in my mind while listening to his music. In fact, I’m certain I have at least one James Horner composition on every book playlist I’ve ever created.

james-horner-collageJames Horner’s work is dramatic, suspenseful, and touching. It not only brings the movies we love to life, but it also has the power to bring a writer’s imagination to life. It helps us experience the emotions of our characters, visualize and plan the scenes of our stories, and develop the twists and turns that take our work to the next level.

I encourage you to take a moment today to listen to some of James Horner’s work below. I promise you’ll find inspiration in at least one of them.

One of my all-time favorites (and a previous Music Monday).

I like listening to this one whenever I take a step back and look at a story’s bigger picture. (Almost like imagining its trailer).

This is a favorite whenever I’m writing a particularly dramatic scene.

Thank you, James Horner, for composing such beautiful music, and offering writers like me such amazing inspiration. You will be greatly missed.

james-horner-oscars-2010-1415881552-article-0

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How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Characters

Welcome to Twitter Treasure Thursday! So, as many of you know, I optioned a YA novel to a producer in Hollywood in 2011. Back then, I was still new to the writing scene. Everyday, I learned a new lesson, achieved a new skill, and had an “Ah-ha!” moment. I hadn’t even shared my work with anyone outside of my family until those executives in LA asked to read it…Which is probably why my manuscript never made it off the cutting room floor.

I didn’t know how to fix the problems agents and publishers pointed out to me. And I especially didn’t know how to fix its main flaw: Unlikable characters.

Over and over again, I heard things like, “I just don’t love your characters” and “I like your story, but not your characters” and “I need to care about your characters, and I don’t.” These comments hurt every time I heard them because liked my characters and I cared about them. But I couldn’t figure out how to get others to feel the same way.

In the end, this issue was my manuscript’s greatest downfall.

Since then, I’ve made it my mission to write strong characters that readers care about (even if they despise them), and I think you need to you as well. Because, trust me when I say, no matter how great the rest of your story is, unlikable characters will ruin it.

So, today I thought I’d share this article from author, Jody Hedlund: How to Keep Readers From Hating Your Characters. It offers some great advice that will keep you from making the same mistakes I made with my optioned manuscript.

2. Make sure the reader understands the cause of the flaws. One way to generate reader empathy for our character’s flaw is make the negative trait a result of something that the character didn’t choose to happen to her. For example, maybe she was abused or teased or rejected at some point in her life. When we share the history that drives the negative traits, readers will be more forgiving of the negativity.

3. Never give the character an unforgivable trait or action. We might have made our character likeable, but then she does something (or several things) that the reader finds unforgivable, completely unlikeable, and irredeemable. The event or action leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth and often they’re unable to resume their fullest love of our character after that.

To read the entire article, click here. And for more useful advice, follow Jody Hedlund on Twitter!

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Deep P.O.V. Part One—What IS It? How Do We DO It?

Welcome to Twitter Treasure Thursday! A couple of weeks ago, I had dinner with a friend. As we ate, we fell into a conversation about POV. Specifically, deep POV. Now, to be honest, up until that conversation, I’d only heard of this term, I’d never truly understood it (which is funny, because now that I do understand it, I see that most of my stories are written in deep POV–doh).

 So, what is deep POV? Well, I’d sit here and explain it to you, but why should I when author, Kristen Lamb, has already done such an fantastic job in her article, Deep P.O.V. Part One—What IS It? How Do We DO It?

Deep POV is simply a technique that strips the author voice completely out of the prose. There is no author intrusion so we are left only with the characters. The reader is nice and snuggly in the “head” of the character.

Okay, clear as mud. Right? Right.

As an editor, I see the intrusion much more than authors. It is actually shocking how much you guys interrupt. In fact, you are like my mother chaperoning my first date who would swear she was quiet as a mouse.

NOT.

To read the entire article, click here. And for more useful advice, follow Kristen Lamb on Twitter!

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Music Monday – Rachel Platten – Fight Song

Welcome to Music Monday! As many of you know, music contributes a great deal to my writing process. Whether it’s a song’s lyrics, beat, rhythm, or tone, I find myself constantly inspired by it.

writing-to-musicToday’s Music Monday is one of those unexpected treasures I stumbled upon while listening to music on YouTube last week. From the corner of my eye, on the sidebar, I saw “Fight Song”. I’d never heard of its artist, Rachel Platten, but I decided to click on it anyway. And I’m so glad I did. It’s amazing!

Rachel-Platten-Fight-Song-1500x1500The first time I heard “Fight Song” I thought, “Well, this is perfect for writers and anyone else pursuing a dream.” Most of us experience failure along our journeys, and many of us get so crushed by it, we begin to question everything: Our passion, our goals, our abilities. Some of us even wonder if we have the strength to keep fighting for what we want most. I know I have.

Then I listened to “Fight Song” again, and I realized it isn’t just for writers and dreamers. It’s for anyone who has (or ever will) hit rock bottom. It encourages people to get back up after being knocked down, to forget the naysayers, and to keep fighting for what makes them happy.

11275279_1585162291762075_1632774544_n“Fight Song” also provides great story fodder. Although I can’t get a ton out of it for the current story I’m working on (my characters are way too crazy to care about digging themselves out of the pits they’ve fallen into), there are still plenty of gems to use from it: Conflict and drama. Depression and sorrow. Determination and hope. Freedom and courage…The list goes on and on!

promoted-media-optimized_5508890014322And, as you likely suspect, the lyrics are what make this song so great:

And all those things I didn’t say
Wrecking balls inside my brain
I will scream them loud tonight
Can you hear my voice this time

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song

3d80642a4708ae6f58e8489eaa366dc7So, whether you need a personal boost, or some motivation for your story, I strongly encourage you to listen to “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten.

What song(s) are you in love with right now? Which one(s) offer you inspiration? Let me know! I’m always searching for songs that motivate my writing.

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