Swoon Author Katie Van Ark: Spice Up Your Writing With Sensory Detail

Sandy Hall and Jenny Elliott have both done a great job sharing what the Swoon editorial process looks like. So now that it’s my turn, I thought I’d share about the harder part. Because they’re right. Editing is fun with an editorial letter – it’s a road map that gives you directions about what to do and where to start. The hardest part comes before then, when you’re trying to get your story polished enough to attract the attention of an editor. When you’re sitting in a pile of rough drafts that all need major work, the task can seem overwhelming.



Take a deep breath and remember that the journey of a thousand edits begins with one step. You won’t finish it all in one day, and that’s normal. Focus on one thing at a time. Right now, I’m in the middle of editing my NaNo draft with my attention on the timeless writing advice to “show, don’t tell.”

Sara Zarr has a great post on her tumblr by author Chuck Palahniuk on this. Chuck asks writers to abstain from using “think/thinks/thought” for half a year. He doesn’t mean to swap them out for fancier variations from the thesaurus. The related words of know, realize, wonder, understand, want, etc. as well as like, love, and hate also make the do-not-use list. Why? While you will sometimes need these words, more often than not their use means you’re telling instead of showing. Searching your manuscript for these words can help you find places where you can improve your writing by using action, dialog, or sensory detail.

Here’s an example from a scene in my NaNo draft, French Lessons, where Breelynn’s siblings have weaseled Jonah into taking them to Chuck E. Cheez:

Jonah really doesn’t care, I realize, sitting in a booth with him the next night enjoying the last slice of pizza while Dwight and Jackson run around on a video game high. He’s got Merry cradled in one arm and even the baby likes him.

Jonah is the book boyfriend and I was missing an opportunity to show his total swoon-worthiness in this paragraph. How does Breelynn know that he doesn’t mind hanging at Chuck E. Cheez or that the baby likes him? What’s happening that shows these things? Here’s the edited replacement:

The next night, I’m enjoying the last slice of pizza while Dwight and Jackson run around on a video game high. Jonah leans back against the wall of the booth with Merry cradled in one arm. The baby looks up at him, eyes wide from the noise and flashing lights. He holds out one of his fingers for her to clutch. She grabs it and smiles.


Then she spits up on him.


I drop the pizza on my plate and reach out my arms to take her back, but Jonah just grabs a napkin and wipes everything up. I pick my pizza back up and take another bite. Somehow, it’s the most delicious one yet. He really doesn’t mind.

Notice that the baby now spits up on Jonah, where she hadn’t before. This was an added bonus that spontaneously emerged once I really got into the scene with my characters instead of just stating their thoughts.

Fellow writers, it’s your turn. Are you up to this editing challenge in one of your own manuscripts? Or do you have your own great editing advice to share?

Author spotlight

Katie Van Ark

Katie Van Ark lives in Michigan with two daughters, two cats, and one very patient husband who was also her …

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