Columns > Published on October 16th, 2014

Edit My Paragraph! Episode Five

In this edition we’ve got reptilians, zombies, and aliens. Perfect for Halloween, right? Right.

First up, a user emailed the following paragraph:

Glancing out of his hiding spot Ito looked down with a derisive snort. The gutless wretch was huddled under the conveyor, the sounds of his hitched breaths filling the room in panicked little hiccups. Ito could barely believe this was the man who’d attacked him. Stepping out with a disappointed head shake he let his weapon slide to the ground with a light tap, snorting when the man jumped and spun at the noise. Green eyes locked with the terrified reptilian’s. Ito cocked his head sideways and strolled to meet him, pipe dragging over the floor in a slow, even scrape.

He said, I want this scene to be as striking and menacing as possible.

There is certainly some action going on to spark the reader’s interest, but if this is a first paragraph, then I’d toss in a few more details making it clear where we are and who the protagonist is. If it isn’t the opening paragraph, then presumably all of that is already established.
In the first sentence “glancing” and “looked” are redundant actions. “Hitched breaths” and “panicked hiccups” are also somewhat repetitive, but I think they work if combined. Also “the sounds” can be cut before “of his hitched breath” because it is clear this is a sound.

I moved “the man who attacked him” to the first line because I think it gives it more context right away. Then we don’t need “could barely believe” later, because it is implied by the contrast of introducing the man as the attacker and then showing him cowering.

Beware of starting sentences with –ing words. There is nothing wrong with it per se, but the –ing verb in that position needs to make sense, and when it doesn’t quite match up it’s usually a sign that this choice was made for the sole purpose of varying the sentence structure. The –ing verb needs to actually be happening simultaneously with what follows for the sentence to be logically consistent. With your first sentence, aside from the redundancy, this is okay. But the sentence that begins “Stepping out” feels a touch off. The “stepping out” sentence is also a tad cumbersome in general and might work better broken up.

You will see that I’ve eliminated five adjectives that were unnecessary: derisive, little, barely, disappointed, and terrified. Adjectives are always “tells” instead of “shows” and oftentimes they qualify things unnecessarily or they’re redundant with what is already conveyed from the action. Use only as directed.

I did have a minor point of confusion when I got to the line describing the “terrified reptilian’s eyes.” I assume Ito is the reptilian because the other character is referred to as “the man,” but in the last sentence, I wasn’t getting the sense that the protagonist was scared, so this didn’t make sense to me. This has me wondering if I’ve misinterpreted something. In the revision, I’ve gone with my assumption that Ito is the reptilian and that once he sees his attacker cowering, he seizes the power this gives him.


With a snort, Ito looked down from his hiding spot at the man who attacked him. The gutless wretch was huddled under the conveyor, his hitched breaths like panicked hiccups filling the room. Ito dropped down from the rafters, shaking his head, and letting his weapon slide to the ground with a light tap. This caused the man to jump and lock eyes with the reptilian, who cocked his head. The man held his breath as Ito walked with casual confidence toward him, dragging the pipe across the floor in a slow, even scrape.

Making it clear from the beginning that the man had attacked and is now cowering can go a long way in making it feel menacing, and eliminating some unnecessary words and redundancies sharpens the action.

Next up, from ambodini534, we have:

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.

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

Starting with action is often a good way to hook a reader, but upon first read, I felt disoriented. It wasn’t clear to me what Lena was doing. Jogging makes me think she’s being chased. But then there is mention of her arms being red from carrying supplies, so maybe she’s jogging because she has to move supplies quickly and that’s what she’s doing. Then we have the mysterious sound and the revelation that the only thing she’s carrying is a machete, so maybe she’s jogging toward someone in need of help? This is ultimately what I went with: That she somehow lost Vinny and is jogging to find him because he might be in peril.

The passage gets a tad wordy in places, and the descriptions of breath or panic, or even the mysterious sounds are often not unique enough to be relevant. In general, beware of clichés. There are a lot of them here. Abandoned warehouse, flickering lights, zombies and characters that sound like they came from The Walking Dead. Every good story has something unique to it. Put that in the opening paragraph. Maybe the zombies are procreating. Maybe movement attracts them and not sound. Maybe instead of an abandoned warehouse, they’re hiding out in an abandoned military base, or an elementary school, or a fire station. Something a little less generic. Or maybe there’s something unique to the characters themselves—they were movies stars, or top government officials, or fly-fishing enthusiasts who use their fly-fishing skills against the zombies. That’s all food for thought. The revision below simply works within the bounds of what you’ve established, and for the most part I’ve cleaned up the prose and tried to make the sequence of events form a coherent narrative (which may or may not be in line with your intended narrative, so view it simply as an example).


Lena jogged down the hallway of the abandoned warehouse, machete in hand, running toward the source of the metal banging sound. She almost tripped side-stepping a large splatter of blood with grey chunks covered in flies, but the smell of rotting flesh was so ever-present she didn’t notice it anymore.

“Vinny?” she yelled before remembering that sound attracts them. She pushed down the urge to yell again as she reached the fork in the hallway.

The noise was getting louder but she couldn’t tell direction at first. The dripping water confused all other sound. Then she heard a crash to her left and adrenaline sent her sprinting, machete clutched tight in her shaking hands.

Lena slowed to a stop at the end of the hallway, trying to quiet her breath and make sense of the banging sounds before turning the corner. She could hear their moans, but there were no wet sounds of feeding.

Slowly peering around, she saw four zombies clawing and scratching at a large metal cabinet smeared with bloody hand marks. Vinny was perched on top, barely enough room to fit his bulky frame. He had tossed down the ceiling panels and was crouched under a bunch of wiring and ducting, banging the gun on the top of cabinet in a steady rhythm. He looked up at Lena and put his fingers to his lips as he kept up the banging. Holding the machete up, she stepped slowly and quietly behind the distracted zombies.

To complete our Halloween trifecta, we have the following from Vince:

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.

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

This sounds like a very rich setting, but what struck me is that we’re getting it all in a list. As a result, readers will tend to skim over it, and they aren’t likely to retain much. If instead you wove these details in as your character interacted with the scene with some clear purpose in mind, then everything has context and relevance, and readers will experience it more deeply and be more likely to retain the information for later. Telling us all about Glecks when we don’t yet know why we should care about Glecks doesn’t keep us as engaged as we could be.

In my revision I simply unpacked everything a little, giving all of these details as Braddock interacts and moves through the scene. Note that you can take this even further since you know where the story is going and what it’s about. Consider Braddock’s reason for visiting the Alien Quarter and deliver all of this description as he’s in pursuit of some goal. Make each detail relevant to whatever it is he’s actively trying to accomplish.


Braddock stood just inside the spiked, graphene-coated gates of the Alien Quarter. He had noticed that if he took two steps to the right, he felt noticeably lighter, two steps to the left and he was heavier. As he walked toward the bustling narrow street, this lumpy gravity sensation continued.

He touched the condensation on the walls, wondering if it might be the source of the chlorine smell in the air. He sniffed it, but it was just water.

All manner of alien filled the street. Some as small as a cat, and some standing twice the size of the average adult human. Skin colors ranged from pink to brown to green to purple. Some were scaled and had lizard tongues; others had thick fur coating their faces. They varied in number of eyes, number of fingers, number of limbs, and they spoke in all different languages—some comprised of sounds no human could possibly make.

The skydome enclosing the quarter glowed orange and cast a warm hue on the incredible variety of beings roaming around. A breeze wafted over Braddock as a group of gray-hooded Hausers from the Deneb cluster flew by on mechanical walkers, the tallest in the group pontificating about unfair trade practices. The air in their wake now smelled of ammonia.

Braddock watched as shrewd, pig-like Montifers snorted and shuffled along, led by uniformed human companions, and was so distracted that he bumped into an imperious, long-striding Gleck from Ganymede. The Gleck flicked its lizard-like tongue angrily at him, its four-fingered hand hovering above the handle of its sidearm.

The air smelled of ozone, now. Or the Gleck smelled of ozone.

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!

About the author

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

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