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How writers signal significance: Editor's Notes #387
March 22, 2023

The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things,
but their inward significance.


In this issue:

1. How effective writers signal significance
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt

1.How effective writers signal significance
I believe that everything that is in your writing should be there for a purpose. If you can’t defend a chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence, word, or punctuation mark, strongly consider removing it.

With that said, I accept that not everything is of equal significance. Effective writers use various techniques to signal degrees of importance. Here are some ways you can signal to your reader that something in significant.

Openings are, almost by definition, significant. Anything in your opening says to the writer, "There are clues here to where I’m taking you and what I’m telling you." In nonfiction, that opening is often highly explicit. In fiction, there is more room for subtly, and part of the enjoyment the reader has is decoding the writer’s signals. One terrific example is in a book I began to read this week, Greenwood by Michael Christie. He introduces Jake as someone who lies for a living. In the next sentence he refers to Jake as she. The head-spinning double-take is no accident, and it grabbed my attention. Superficially, I simply wanted to know exactly why a female was called Jake. Now that I’m almost finished the book, I understand that the way Jake is introduced set me up for 490 pages of subterfuge and the dawning certainty that just when I start to think I know something in this story, I’ll be proven wrong. Not every book has such a startling opening, but every good book has an opening carefully crafted because that’s the first signal of what’s significant.

Space indicates significance. How much real estate does a character take up? Details are part of space. If someone is wearing a red shirt, that should be an important fact. If the colour is not important, leave it out. Good readers know how to store details for later use. Do not clutter the pantry with unnecessary items.

The obvious exception is the red herring or false clue in mystery writing. Those need to be placed with care and given just enough space to make the reader store information until it will be revealed to be unimportant after all.

One detail that counts a great deal is the naming of a character. Betty the waitress who never reappears should not have a name (unless that’s part of a red herring).

Usually, a narrator is a trusted story-teller, and the reader usually accepts what the narrator says. But there are fallible narrators, used for many reasons. If you use a fallible narrator, be sure you give the reader enough clues to figure out what you are doing. This can be tricky, but wonderfully rewarding for the reader who catches on. See Interesting Web site below for more on this topic.

What characters say and do also signal significance in a similar way as the narrator. A character does not have to be reliable to be significant, but if a character is not trustworthy, be sure to give the reader enough information to weigh the information about and from that character.

How are you currently signalling significance? What could you do better?

2.Tickled my funny bone
Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line until it is no longer important to you.

3. Interesting Web site
For more about narrator reliability, read the page linked to here.

4. Writing prompt
Chose a piece you have already written. Print out a section. (You choose the length.) Use two different coloured markers, one to underline signals of significance you want to keep and another to underline those you could reduce in importance or eliminate altogether.

Don’t have a piece of writing of your own yet? Choose a book you have read all the way to the end. Print out a few pages and do the above exercise.

I would love to hear what you experience as you use this prompt.

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