Thursday, March 1, 2012

Self-Editing and the Rule of Two

Continuing the "Realities of Self-Editing" series, have you heard of the rule of two, that it's best to keep no more than two paragraphs of the same type beside each other? Jami Gold recently reminded me about it.

This guideline works as a general rule of thumb for many genres, fiction and non-fiction alike. The goal is to keep things 1) clear and 2) interesting for the reader.

The paragraph "type" is its function: dialogue, narrative, action, exposition, thoughts, backstory, etc. (Note that in non-fiction, things like definition, explanation, and quotation apply.)

So, do you have more than two paragraphs of dialogue in a row? There should probably be some action or POV emotion in there.

Have you a block quote in your essay? Does it truly need to be that long?

Some genres and audiences can go beyond the rule of two for particular types of paragraphs. High fantasy, for example, can be heavier on the description and exposition, while a thriller might go above and beyond on the backstory.

The rule of two is simple. Applying it, though, can be a bit more difficult.

First, you have to know what your intended audience will expect and accept.

Second, you have to be able to see the different paragraph types. Some folks eyeball it. Others use different-colored highlighters to mark every piece of their text according to what type it is. (This highlighted copy might be a print copy, or it might be a draft that's in their word processor, taking advantage of the highlighter function.)

Most likely, you'll have some type(s) of paragraphs that you're prone to overusing, and others you're prone to underusing. The POV you write in can influence this.

But there's a way to help yourself write more balanced text, and here's the most efficient method I've found: Make yourself write a short story in the opposite extreme.

For example, I'm prone to text that's heavy on the dialogue and light on the setting. (You should see the original version of A Fistful of Fire.) When I realized that, I made myself write a short story that's almost all monologue and description.

That short story's actually how I got started writing scripts, since I was struggling with one aspect of it and my English professor at the time said I'd combined short story and playwriting techniques. I had no clue how to write a play, so I signed up for the playwriting class, the following term. And therein discovered I'm pretty good at scripts.

Writing a short story in the opposite extreme does a world of good. I'm actually due for writing another one.

Do you use the rule of two or some other rule of thumb when looking at your writing? Can you think of genre exceptions to the rule of two?


*Explanation is not a paragraph type and should be avoided, unless you're writing a Sherlock Holmes-type mystery. Even then, be careful not to overdo it.

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