The Scan Test: Paragraph Size, Italics, and Dialogue

Appearances count. This might sound like grade school all over again, but I’m not talking about the neatness of your work. I know your work looks great; you are or you want to be a professional, and you act like it. What I am talking about is the overall appearance of the printed work; what the book, blog, or article looks like as a whole.

You have a great beginning, so you sit back smugly thinking that all a reader has to do is pick up your work and they will be hooked. Not so fast. Even before people read that first line, they quickly leaf through the book or scan the article. If they don’t like what they see, that fabulous first paragraph will never be read.

So, what is it they are looking for?

First, potential readers look at paragraph size. If the paragraphs are too long, they feel that the work will be ponderous; if the paragraphs are too short, they think it will be lightweight. And if all paragraphs are more or less the same size, they get an immediate impression of stagnation. An experienced writer knows how to vary the lengths of the paragraphs according to the flow of the story. Since everything in a story is connected to everything else, the size of your paragraphs should be connected to the rhythm of the story: short paragraphs for action scenes, longer ones for a respite. A variety of paragraph sizes from one to ten lines tell readers you will keep their attention.

Second, potential readers look for italics. An occasional italicized word is good for emphasis. An occasional italicized sentence is a way of indicating the character’s thoughts. But when there are long italicized paragraphs, or even entire italicized chapters, readers lose interest. Italics tell them that those passages are not part of the story, and can be skipped. So if you know most readers won’t read those passages, may even use the sight of them as an excuse not to read the entire work, figure out another way to present the material. I know that some experienced writers fall into the trap of italicizing flashbacks, but they (or their editors) should know better.

Third, potential readers look at dialogue. Long dialogue looks like preaching, and few readers are interested in your sermons. And long sections of one or two word dialogue looks inane. And generally is inane:

“How are you.”
“Fine, how about you?”
“Can’t complain.”

Even worse is using dialect. Too many apostrophes say that you do not know how to write dialogue. It’s better to use colloquialisms like “That dang fiddle-foot don’t rightly know what he’s talking about.” It gets the point across, and is easier to read.

Now that you’ve passed the scan test, you are ready to hook your reader.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

6 Responses to “The Scan Test: Paragraph Size, Italics, and Dialogue”

  1. suzannefrancis Says:

    I read your three excerpts and I was pretty impressed. You have some original ideas and they are well expressed.

    I was a little confused by the beginning of “Light Bringer.” I think the child you describe would be older than the word “baby” implies. Certainly a child who is toilet trained would be more like a toddler.

    But perhaps you were trying to imply that the baby was growing and developing at a phenomenal rate? If so, I think you could be clearer about that.

    I’d be happy to read more of your work, and I will add your blog to my blog roll so I can keep up with what you are doing.


  2. Bertram Says:

    Thank you for your compliments. They are hard to come by when one is trying to break into print!

    I was trying to portray the baby as advanced, to show that perhaps she was not quite human (to go along with the possible UFO sighting) but obviously I did not do a good job. I will not be making any changes quite yet, as that is the book an agent is looking at right now. Wish me luck!

    My website is static right now, but if I get enough interest, I will post other chapters. And, when I begin writing my new book this winter, I will be posting the chapters on my blog as I write them.

  3. suzannefrancis Says:

    Good Luck!!! Keep us posted on developments.

    As far as the baby thing goes, I don’t think you would have to do much at all to fix it. But maybe you would get more mystery from not having her be too weird right from the start? Then you can let the evidence mount up slowly, and the reader can experience the moment of realization at the same time the main character does. Just a thought.


  4. Bertram Says:

    The prologue is the only time we meet the baby, so I had to make her as different from a normal baby as possible. The book (and the mystery) actually starts thirty-six years later when she comes back to Chalcedony to find out who she is.

    In the next few days I will post the first few chapters of the book on this blog so you can see how it shapes up.

  5. Bertram Says:

    I just posted the first few chapters of Light Bringer. It’s listed under pages.

  6. Looking For Inspiration in My Blog Archives | Bertram's Blog Says:

    […] other posts mentioned what readers look for when they pick up a book, such as Paragraph Size, Italics, and Dialogue. If the paragraphs are too long, they feel that the work will be ponderous; if the paragraphs are […]

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