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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About Synopses or Pitches, Speed Writing, O.K. or Okay, and Character Description

Q: What is the difference between a synopsis and a pitch?

A: A pitch is an extremely brief summary of the premise and is intended to intrigue and make people interested in the story. It should be as short as one or two sentences, and has also been called an “elevator speech,” because it could be said on a brief elevator ride. Here’s a sample pitch for The Wizard of Oz. “A tornado sweeps a young girl away to a magical land where unusual friends try to help her and evil enemies try to stop her from finding her way back home.”

A synopsis, on the other hand, covers the plot from beginning to end. It’s not a teaser, it’s not creative, and it’s not meant to intrigue, simply tell the story. It’s usually one page long and single-spaced.

Q: For a writer who prefers to write longhand, how much should s/he write over the course of two hours? I write about one tablet page every twelve to twenty minutes. Is that too slow? Should I try to think more quickly?

A: No one ever picked up a book and said with admiration, “Wow, this writer sure wrote (or thought) quickly.”

Successful writers concentrate on content, quality, and precision. The only time that speed may be important is when you are up against a deadline, but even then, it’s more important to be sure all the elements are there: flow, pace, characterization, conflict, tension, etc. After your first handwritten draft you will have to revise the piece several more times before it’s finalized, anyway. Will you want speed requirements imposed on that portion of the project as well? I think not.

To enhance profitability, producers of manufactured goods may watch the clock and ensure production speed stays high. Good writers are artists, though, and our payback comes not from manufacturing, but from crafting a story.

Q: When writing dialogue in a fiction manuscript, would one write O.K. or okay? Does it even matter? I assume that the eventual editor will use his or her personal preference in this regard. Is there a hard-and-fast rule?

A: I'll answer by copying the entry from Purge Your Prose of Problems, my own reference book for editors and those who want to edit their own manuscripts.

OK, O.K., or okay

Any of the above configurations are okay, but be consistent within the manuscript. Don’t use OK in one place, then O.K. in another. By the way, ok and o.k. are not okay!

Personally I prefer using "okay." It doesn't shout at readers.

If you'd like to learn more about my reference book, go to

Q: I'm writing a book, and my first chapter is action. In the second chapter I want to introduce the main character who is not in the action. She is writing a note to a friend, but I don’t know how to describe her without it sounding awkward. Please help and possibly give me an example.

A: Let me address a separate issue first, and that is that readers assume that the characters in the first chapter are the main characters. How does the first chapter make readers want to read more, if it does not involve at least one character that will sustain them through the remainder of the book?

Now as to your question about how to describe a character, your best bet is not to describe him or her at all, and certainly not in one long narrative. Instead, each character should build a little at a time, preferably through action or dialogue, every time he or she appears in a scene.

Instead of the narrative saying “Mary had blond hair,” the scene could go something like this:

Mary tucked a tuft of her blond hair behind one ear before she began writing.

In the above example, readers can visualize her hair more clearly, because she did something with it, which is better than the narrative simply telling readers a fact.

Writers know they should show, rather than tell, but sometimes they don’t realize when they are telling and when they are showing. “Mary had blond hair” tells, rather than shows. It has no action. “Mary tucked a tuft of her blond hair behind one ear” shows action, and the blond hair information comes out through showing, rather than telling.

Later in the scene, instead of the narrative saying something like “Mary had long legs,” the information could also come out through her actions, such as “She smoothed her skirt down over her long legs.”

Again, the second version has action that shows, whereas the first version simply tells.

–Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write in Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at



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