Welcome to this week’s Writer-to-writer update. I want to take a one-week hiatus from the ‘have you heard about?’ series to discuss observations on my writing style drawn from my third round of editing. My sincerest hope is that picking at my literary scabs helps you avoid similar pitfalls, or, if nothing else, to feel better about yourself.
I’m about 50% through with editing pass number three. I have cut scenes, added new ones, and re-written the first 5,000 words. On this pass, I am revising my actual prose, and certain trends stand out. Nothing shows you your own bad habits like wading through one hundred instances of the same mistake.
As with many things in writing, a little goes a long way. Some of these ‘sins’ are acceptable in moderation, and may even be the exact tool needed for some situations. I describe them as my ‘sins’ because I use them to the point that they call attention to themselves, distracting from the narrative.
Of course, some are just bad.
Without further ado, here are my self-discovered writing sins:
My first writing sin is removing my verbs’ power by adding ambiguity. For example, I often say that a character “appeared to” take an action. Did they, or didn’t they? Did something obscure that action from the viewpoint character? If not, that week prose needs to go! Go boldly to the page. The character took the action! Just say so.
Bad: “Appeared to turn.” “Seemed to think about.”
Better: “Turned.” “Considered.”
It is ok to occasionally establish the relationship between one scene and another in time and space with a quick “across the room” or “two hours later, in the courtyard…” Although these tags are a little lazy, sometimes they are the most effective way to get basic information across. The most appropriate place for these transitions is the beginning of a chapter or scene. My second writing sin is dropping these tags in the middle of paragraphs.
Writing “suddenly” does not make the action seem more sudden. On the contrary, it takes longer to read, delaying the reader’s experience of the sudden development.
Bad: Suddenly, next, then, shortly, after a while, X minutes later, etc.
Better: Limit these phrases to some transitions, where appropriate. I removed 95% of them.
Show and Tell
How many times have you read or heard the axiom “show, don’t tell”? More than you can count, I imagine. I find that I have a tendency to show something (good!) then immediately summarize the conclusion the reader should draw from what I have just shown them. This habit reveals both a lack of trust in the reader and lack of confidence in my descriptions. These need to go!
Leave show and tell in kindergarten where it belongs.
Bad: “Yvette’s wrist throbbed from the impact. Her vision swam. She was in pain from the fall.”
Better: “Yvette’s wrist throbbed from the impact. Her vision swam.”
This is not intrinsically bad. Sometimes it is appropriate to bring an image to life with more than one descriptor. When it happens every third sentence, however, the prose feels choppy.
Bad: tall, stony, crumbling walls
Better: ancient walls
I notice a tendency to write long sentences with clauses in the middle that do not necessarily modify what comes immediately before or after. These confuse me when I re-read my work. I know they will confuse others.
Bad: I ran through the field, forgetting my troubles, which plagued me, embracing the isolation.
Better: I escaped my troubles when I ran through the isolated field.
Overuse of Action-Based Dialogue Tags
Dialogue does not mimic real speech when every phrase is bracketed by a sentence or two of stage direction. Once again, you need some of this. Repeating he-said, she-answered format gets dull quickly. However, overuse of action-based dialogue tags kills the conversation’s momentum.
I am trying to train myself to keep only the action-based dialogue tags that tell something unique about the situation or the character taking the action. Leave out the generic stuff.
Brandon wiped the sweat from his brow. “What brings you to these parts?” He leaned heavily against his shovel. “We have nothing to offer travelers.” He blinked against the blazing sunlight.
Alice dismounted gracefully and took up her horse’s reins. She studied Brandon for several heartbeats. “All I need is a place for the night.” She idly kicked a stone.
“We have nothing to offer travelers. What brings you to these parts?” asked Brandon, resting on his shovel.
“All I need is a place for the night,” said Alice.
Redundant Scene and Blocking Information
Setting details are important for creating a sense of place. Without them, characters stumble around in a blank, white void like the loading screen to The Matrix. At the same time, a little goes a long way. Rather than meaningless, filler description that distracts from what’s important, it is better to choose the most impactful, powerful details that reinforce your tone, your setting, your characterization, etc.
One of my most overused meaningless descriptions is “across the room.” It seems harmless enough, but it does not actually tell the reader anything meaningful about how the two objects or characters are oriented spatially beyond the fact that they are not adjacent. The situation usually takes care of that. When it doesn’t, I find that the missing information typically does not matter.
Bad: Nodded, Smiled, across the room, above, below, near, up, down
“Jenny reached down across the table and grabbed the apple”
Better: Cut boring information that does not round out the world.
“Jenny grabbed the apple.”
… How about you?
That’s all for this week. I hope this encourages or helps you. Let us know what you think in the comments. Happy writing!