Edit My Paragraph! Episode Four

First up this edition, we have Christopher Derrick with the following paragraph:

It was a coup for Harris to set eyes upon his granddaughter’s killer coming out of the Exxon service station at the Morgantown exit off the I-95. Harris normally skipped that pricey by-the-freeway gas, but he needed to clean the splattered bird shit off on his window. The sighting rang the death knell to the endless nights of slurping sludge that masqueraded as coffee and nibbling on dried donuts while roving through Recession-blighted towns. Harris had been hunting this harbinger of despair going on four months now, and his ardent daily prayer now had been answered. However, as they reckon, when God wishes to punish you, he answers your prayers.

Christopher says: I want to bring readers into what is hopefully a controversial and twisted revenge story.

A controversial and twisted revenge story is certainly an alluring premise, and there’s a good set up happening in this opening. But lets get down to business:

On first read, I found this paragraph a little confusing and some of the sentence structures and word choice a little cumbersome. I’m not sure the word “coup” is being used correctly here. Also, the phrase “set eyes upon” distances us from the action. “Exiting the service station” is potentially ambiguous—is he pulling away from the gas pump? Or is he walking out of the convenience store? I’m going to assume the latter. The important piece in that opening sentence is that the granddaughter’s killer is spotted. A little bit of setting and context are needed, but we can probably cut to the chase more efficiently.

In the third sentence we have a long string of qualifiers before getting to the meat. This sentence in essence is saying “the search was over,” but it is prefaced with “the sighting” and “rang the death knell” and “to the endless.” Also the phrase “rang the death knell” is a bit hyperbolic—especially when we’re looking at finding a killer, to use language about death in a much less severe context weakens the impact. “Harbinger of despair” is also a bit hyperbolic. Phrases like this sometimes have the opposite of the intended effect. The goal is to make this guy sound creepy, but using a phrase that is over-the-top or clichéd can make it lose all impact. The solution is to either cut it, and let it be implied by context and atmosphere, or to include something more specific—an action or a concrete description which will give the correct vibe.

In the last sentence, the word “reckon” doesn’t seem like the right word. This one might be a matter of opinion, so use your judgment. 


Harris looked up from pumping his gas and saw his granddaughter’s killer exiting the convenience store. A completely by-chance encounter after four months of all-nighters roving through recession-blighted towns hunting the man, subsisting off of dried donuts and sludge that masqueraded as coffee. Here at the Exxon service station at the Morgantown exit off the I-95—that pricey by-the-freeway gas he usually skipped except that he had to clean splattered bird shit off his window—his ardent daily prayers had been answered. But as they say, when God wishes to punish you, answering your prayers is exactly how he does it.

Next up we have Shawn with the following passage:

“Twenty-five, I think”
“You think?”
“You want the truth, right? That’s as best as I know. We were in the same grade in school, but he might have been held back. Or skipped. Hard to say.”
“You know the way some kids would tie a string around their finger and make it turn red, then purple? He liked to do that to his head.”
“His head?”
“Yeah. He’d get a length of string and wrap it around and around his head tightly. Not his neck—just his face.”
“And what does he do now?”
“He’s a photographer.”
“Likes to take pornographic pictures of fruit and vegetables engaging in erotic acts.”
“Does that pay well?”
“Oh, there’s a market for anything.”

Shawn says: This is for a story that starts with a man talking to a police detective in order to find his missing friend.

The dialogue in this piece sounds natural and interesting, but unless you’re experimenting with the idea of telling a whole story in dialogue, this piece could use some grounding. A reader can put this exchange in better context if they know who is talking, who they’re talking about, and where they are. Some physical description of the speakers can also give us a sense of character. And some body language thrown in the mix can tell us more than the words do.

The only other thing that caught my attention was the fact that you used the word “Oh” in three separate places. So there isn’t much I felt I should cut or change in this piece. My revision consists mostly of just adding scene, setting, and character descriptions in. Obviously my choice of description may not at all be what you had in mind, so it’s just there to give you an idea of the type of things you might want to include.


The detective’s desk was a messy arrangement of files, old coffee cups, and poorly framed family photos. Behind the desk the perfectly groomed detective sat in suit and tie, notepad at the ready. Across from him was John, an overweight, greasy-haired twenty-something who looked the sort to play World of Warcraft for month-long binges, subsisting off cheese puffs while neglecting hygiene. John was there relaying the details of his missing roommate.
“What was his age?” said the detective.
“Twenty-five, I think.” John attempted to sit perfectly upright despite his constitution. Possibly nervous, possibly hiding something.
“You think?” The detective looked up from his notepad.
“You want the truth, right? That’s as best as I know. We were in the same grade in school, but he might have been held back. Or skipped. Hard to say.”
“Right, well, what else can you tell me?”
“You know the way some kids would tie a string around their finger and make it turn red, then purple? He liked to do that to his head.”
“His head?”
“Yeah. He’d get a length of string and wrap it around and around his head tightly. Not his neck—just his face.”
“We’re still talking about grade school?"
John nodded.
“And what does he do now?”
“He’s a photographer.”
John looked sideways at a drug prevention posted hanging on the wall. “Likes to take pornographic pictures of fruit and vegetables engaging in erotic acts.”
The detective leaned back in his seat, face scrunching in concentration as he tried to make sense of John’s awkwardness. “Does that pay well?”
“There’s a market for anything,” John looked back at him, smiling maybe a little too big.

That concludes this edition! Feel free to discuss these edits and make other suggestions in the comments.

Also: I need more paragraphs to edit! Inundate me with yours either by posting in the comments or by messaging me. You can remain anonymous if you’d like. Just send me 300 words or less and a sentence or two explaining your goals or concerns, and I’ll see what I can do!

Gayle Towell

Column by Gayle Towell

Gayle Towell’s stories have won the 2013 Women’s National Book Association writing contest, the 2014 Willamette Writers Kay Snow fiction award, and have been published in Menacing Hedge, Pif Magazine, and the Burnt Tongues anthology among other places. Her novella Blood Gravity was released through Blue Skirt Productions in September 2014. Gayle is the founding editor of Microfiction Monday Magazine and cofounder of Blue Skirt Productions, an artists’ collective. For more information, visit gayletowell.com.

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ambodini534's picture
ambodini534 from Anchorage, Alaska is reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell September 22, 2014 - 3:01pm

Lena jogged down the hallway of the abandoned warehouse, the lights flickering on and off. Her ears strained to hear something besides the dripping water on the cement floor and magnifying scraping sounds. She gagged as she passed a large splatter of blood with grey chunks covered in flies. Her arms were red and aching from carrying supplies to and from the car. Her feet moved as if they knew the way through the confusing twists and turns of the building.
“Vinny!” Lena yelled despite the fact that noise attracted them. She pushed down the urge to yell again as her mouth went dry. She had reached the fork in the hallway.

She leaned her head slightly to the left. She could hear a faint noise, different from dragging noises. Vinny, to the left, she thought. She turned left as the noise grew louder. Water was running down the walls and her Vans splashed through the puddles. Lena’s long hair was sticking to her face, made unruly by the fact that she hadn’t washed it in weeks. Her head was on a swivel, her machete clutched tight in her shaking hands.

Lena slowed to a stop at the end of the hallway. She tried to calm her ragged breaths while her ears strained to make sense of the growing racket just around the corner. It sounded like Vinny was banging metal on metal, but with a hollow ringing sound. The other sounds brought out a whimper of fear and made her pulse race. At the end hallway, she waved the cheap camping machete out in front of her, and waited.

When nothing happened, Lena peered around the corner. She held back a scream, clapping her hand to her mouth. A breathy sigh escaped between her fingers. About twenty feet away, four zombies clawed and scratched at a large metal cabinet. Vinny was standing on top, barely enough room to fit his bulky frame. There were bloody smeared hand marks on the top of the cabinet and on the side from moving it into position. He had tossed down the ceiling panels and was crouched under a bunch of wiring and ducting. He was banging the gun on the top of cabinet in a steady rhythm. Relief flooded his face as he saw Lena. Oh Vinny, what have you gotten yourself into? Lena thought as she grimaced and clutched the machete tighter.


This is for a zombie apolcalypse story which follows average, normal people as they attempt to survive. I'm wondering if this is enough to lurn the reader in.

Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon September 22, 2014 - 8:55pm

Awesome! I'll likely be tackling this one in next month's edition. Thanks, ambodini!

ambodini534's picture
ambodini534 from Anchorage, Alaska is reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell September 22, 2014 - 11:14pm

Thank you for offering your wisdom and valuable time. I appreciate it!

Vincent Morgan's picture
Vincent Morgan from BC is reading Russia's Last Gasp September 27, 2014 - 12:08pm

A great service for us scribblers.

Here's a descriptive passage one of several in something that I've been working on. How might it be improved?

The Alien Quarter, with its spike-topped, graphine-clad gates, orange-tinged lighting and  lumpy gravity was, Braddock reflected, unlike anywhere else insystem. Some sections reeked of chlorine, others of ammonia others still of ozone. The narrow streets, humid and dripping with condensation, were packed with beings of every description. There were gray-hooded and robed Hausers from the Deneb Cluster riding high above the crowds in their mechanical walkers barking out presumed admonitions, shrewd-looking, pig-like Montifors, from the gods know where,shuffling along amid their liveried,human retainers,imperious, long striding Glecks, from out Ganymede way their flickering lizard-like tongues ever tasting the air, their four-fingered hands never straying far from their sidearms' well worn hilts.






Gingermutt's picture
Gingermutt September 27, 2014 - 2:14pm

Hello! loving your work on 'Edit My Paragraph!' so far.

After taking a year off to focus on school, I returned to my dusty sci-fi/fantasy/post-apocalyptic manuscript and started rereading. I feel very conflicted about the opening, but beyond that, I admittadly don't know what my editing goal is here. My initial intention when writing it was to convey a great deal very quickly (setting, theme, and character), but I feel like I only succeeded in trying to do too much at once. A friend who read it and referred to it as 'try-hard,' which was very much not my goal. So here it sits, in all its 'try-hard' glory ....

The world lingered in a hushed gloom of perpetual twilight where the sun had forgotten to rise, night had yet to fall, and human existence had faded into a forgotten silence. The vague silhouette of the Drifter was barely contoured against a skyline that hinted early dusk, a silent witness to the condemnation of the heavens. He stood now upon the crumbling edge of a formerly grand structure, a triumph of human domination, now nothing more than a vacant reminder of humanity’s fall.  The world had been burned alive, the myriad accomplishments of humanity extinguished, and the wreckage left in their wake was no more than a fleeting tombstone of humanity’s ephemeral achievements, the evanescence of their lives. The Drifter thought on this and laughed. It was a harsh laugh, weighed down by the pains of experience, but it was not without its forgiveness. His body was tall but powerful, and his poise suggested class and stature not commonly associated with the grimy attire he wore, stained with dust and dirt. To him though, it seemed appropriate. Despite the argent hue of his hair, he must have appeared as he had in his youth, a soldier drawn across the battlements, blood and dirt and sweat caked into his very skin. At the end of all things, he had finally returned to war. Perhaps it’s too late to fight, he thought, too late to do anything.

Let her rip, if you please. 


Gayle Towell's picture
Gayle Towell from North Plains, Oregon October 12, 2014 - 10:37pm

Thanks again, everyone. The submissions are great. If I don't get to yours in this month's edition, I'll still hold onto it and possibly work it in next month!