Monday, February 4, 2013

Five Edits to Strengthen Your Writing, Right Now

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Back when I was learning how to write and trying to figure it all out, one of my favorite things to discover was a great writing tip. Something that I could immediately apply to my work and see actual improvement. I got especially excited over list of words or specific examples, because I could do a search and find the weak areas right away.

Today, I'd like to share a few of those weak area words that often pull me out of a story. Some words, phrases and sentence structures that I've seen (and commented on) in many a critique. If you have these things in your manuscript, please remember that there's nothing inherently wrong with these words and phrases, they're just commonly seen hanging around weak prose. So if something feels off in your work or you're looking for that next step to improve your craft, these are some options to try.

1. As

As is one of those words that slips in without notice. We imagine a scene in our heads, and then put it on paper. But sometimes we lump everything together so it flows as once nice sentence. We describe it as we see it unfold in our imagination, even if what we describe is physically impossible.
Lisa shut the door as she walked through the kitchen, dropping her raincoat over the chair as she reached for the phone to call Chuck about the meeting.
Lisa is doing multiple things at once here. She’s A) shutting the door B) walking through the kitchen, C) dropping a raincoat over a chair, D) reaching for the phone.

How exactly does she shut as door and walk through a kitchen at the same time? And how many hands does she have? She needs three here: one to close the door (though I suppose she could have used a foot or hip), one to drape the raincoat, and one to reach for the phone.

While I know a sentence like this isn’t meant to be taken as if everything was happening at the same time, it often reads as such when all the events are grouped together. X is happening as Y is happening. That’s the nature of as in this type of sentence. That can yank me right out of a story as I try to figure out who's doing what when. Try breaking up the actions a bit:
Lisa entered the kitchen, nudging the door shut with her hip. Rain dripped off her coat onto the bright tile and she sighed. Great. She’d have to mop that up right after she called Chuck. She tossed the coat over a chair, then reached for the phone.
This is more interesting, and it allowed me to add a few details about the kitchen to set the scene, and get in some internalization to show some of Lisa’s personality and emotional state. It becomes more than just a "get my character someplace" transition sentence.

A quick search for as can show you places where too much could be going on at once, or funny situations are occurring. They’re opportunities to clarify the work and find stronger ways to describe the scene.

2. She said, doing something while talking

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this type of sentence. It’s a perfectly good structure. The trouble comes when it’s used in nearly every line of dialog. Then it becomes clunky and sucks the life right out of the prose.
“Did Jane say what she found?” Bob asked, loading shells into the shotgun.

“No,” Sally said, shaking her head. “But then she never tells me anything.”

“That’s not true.” He frowned and set the shotgun down on the worn table.

“Yeah, it is.” She pushed her bangs off her face. “You’d know that if you paid any attention.”

“When don’t I pay attention?” he said incredulously, rising and coming across the room to meet her.

“When do you?” she whispered, so low he could barely hear her.
Feel how sluggish that reads? How awkward? Don't you feel like laughing at them for being so melodramatic? Try something like:
“Did Jane say what she found?” Bob asked, loading shells into the shotgun.

“No, but then she never tells me anything.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yeah, it is.” She pushed her bangs off her face. “You’d know that if you paid any attention.”

He frowned and set the shotgun down on the worn table. “When don’t I pay attention?”

“When do you?” she whispered, so low he barely heard her.
Feel the tension pick up? The focus returns to what they’re saying (and not saying) and the conflict between them than noticing every single bit of movement. When you see a lot of dialog/action sentences in a row, try cutting a few out. Odds are it’ll streamline the scene, pick up the pace, and kill any brewing melodrama.

3. Knew

Unless you’re writing a distant or omniscient narrator, telling the reader a character knows something is redundant. She's the POV, so if she thinks it, readers know she knows it. In most cases (there are always exceptions) cutting it makes the sentence feel more immediate and shown.
Maggie knew he’d never listen to her. This time would be no different from all the others.
What makes knew particularly dangerous, is that it's very easy to keep writing what the character knows and go on to explain things and start telling. It's feels like you're in the character's head, but often, you're not. It can be a subtle shift, but that slight difference in voice can be enough to start losing your reader. Try some internalization instead:
Maggie scoffed. He never listened to her. Why should this time be any different?
Knew is a good placeholder word for a line that could become internalization. Instead of telling the reader a character knows something, show it through their thoughts or actions.

4. Because

Because is a common explanation word, and often announces you’re about to infodump, tell, or drop in some backstory.
She pulled on her surgical mask, because no one went outside these days without one. Not since the Red Brigade terrorist group unleashed a virus three months ago that had claimed half the city.
Hear that thud? That’s the sound of flat information hitting the reader’s ears. Because is another placeholder word that highlights an opportunity for character development and world building. A moment where you can show how the POV character sees the world around her and how she feels about it, all while imparting important information to the reader. Try fleshing it out like:
She pulled a surgical mask out of the box by the door and frowned. Only six left. Better hit the store on the way home. No way was she running out. Half the city had already learned that lesson.

She tucked the straps behind her ears and wished the last three months had never happened. The deaths. The fear. The virus.

Damn Red Brigade.
You should have a much better sense of this woman and this world now. It’s not just cold facts about the situation, but a person who’s been through it and has a strong opinion about it.

5. Things started or began

I'll admit this one is a pet peeve of mine, and many folks won't be bothered by it. But I like to point it out because it's one of those areas where you might be writing it without really thinking about what you're writing.
Bob started to walk toward the truck.
Exactly what is Bob doing? He's not walking, he only "started" to walk. Which is what? Lifted on foot? Took a step?

Unless the intent is to show something being interrupted, started or began doesn't actually show the action. It almost has an inherent "but" there.
Bob started to walk toward the truck, but Jane caught his arm and stopped him.
It also implies the POV knows the duration of the action. This is the start of the walking, and the narrator knows when the ending of the walking will be.

If taking out the started to or began doesn't change the meaning of the sentence, perhaps the sentence is better off without it.
Bob walked toward the truck.
None of these suggestions are written-in-stone-rules, but if you have a manuscript that feels off, or is getting that frustrating "It's not grabbing me but I can't say why" feedback, it could be worth checking to see if any of these are weakening the writing.

How do you feel about this list? Do any of these things bother you? What are some things that pull you out of a story?

52 comments:

  1. Brilliant advice, Janice, and so much needed during revision! Thanks!

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  2. I've been writing for a long time and I still slip back into these. Thanks for the reminder. :)

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  3. Good things to watch for - thanks.

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  4. More great advice. These are the little things I tend to overlook. Thanks Janice.

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  5. Thank you! #2 is especially helpful, because I think I'm guilty of that in any "two people going through action" scene.

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  6. I love these little tips. It's also kind of validating to know I have most of them in my quick edits sheet. I was only missing 'because,' but you can be sure it will make it's way there now. :) Thanks, Janice.

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  7. One of your all-time best essays...in my mind...because you hit on the most common, subtle screamers that dull narrative.

    Kudos

    - Mac

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  8. Great advice. I went through my writing recently and tried to pull out 'distancing words' like knew...and thought, and watched and noticed. All good words to double check.

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  9. #3 was a big eye opener for me...but every single one was a big help! Thanks so much!

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  10. Great post. I've bookmarked this one for use in revisions.

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  11. Wow, great examples. Thing is, sometimes we KNOW these rules, but seeing them illustrated -- and to such smart effect -- is much more impactful and instructive. Thanks!

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  12. Love this list! Your examples always come across crystal clear.

    Thank you!

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  13. Good advice! Being aware of these things can help with sentence rhythm too.

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  14. Great advice! I'm editing at the moment and need to do a check for all five.

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  15. Gah! The "started to" and "began" drive me nuts in my own writing. I'll be sitting there staring at that darn phrase thinking, "There has GOT to be a better way to say this!!!" Thanks for illustrating some alternatives!

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  16. Great advice Janice, thanks.
    The 'started to' is one I've become militant about recently, after my editor pointed out how daft it sounded, but they all bear thinking about, all the time!
    Cheers
    Mike

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  17. Love this! Thanks. You write such an awesome blog! I've learned so much reading it. You really know how to teach not just what to do/not do by the why behind it as well.

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  18. Janice, thanks for freshening my memory. Have a great week! :-)

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  19. So guilty of these in my current WIP! Book marking for future revisions. Thanks so much!

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  20. Great list and examples of how to write it better. I confess I have too many "as" in my manuscript. Thanks for showing me how to get rid of them.

    And I still use your redundant word list.

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  21. LOVE lists like this. I have a running list of naughty writer words, and I'll add these. Thanks!

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  22. Egads these are seriously helpful. Have some reading and updating to do.

    Thank you!

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  23. Some great advice for those who are in the editing stage. I loved this post so much that I shared it on my Blog Love Monday. :)
    http://simplyscribblings.blogspot.ca/2013/02/bloggedy-love.html

    Thanks for sharing!!

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  24. Great rules! Your comments on "as" and "when" stuck with me ages ago and now anytime I go to use it, I think about it first. The "began" and "started" doesn't bother me as bad. I have found there are times they apply, but then again, now that I've read your column, I notice them all. LOL.

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  25. Thanks all! I see I'm not the only one who loves lists :)

    No matter what level you write at, they're still helpful. Either it's something new to learn, or a good reminder of something to check on. I use them myself.

    Haley, thanks! That means a lot to me. That's the philosophy of my blog :)

    Natalie, cool! I might have to put together a post on just the lists so it's easy for folks to find them.

    Julie, LOL naughty writer words. That's a great title.

    Karen, thanks! Appreciate the shout out there.

    Suzanne, that happens to me all the time :) It's like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see everyone driving it.

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  26. Love this! Simply, easy tips for those annoying habits that sneak into our writing. Thanks!

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  27. Thanks for these tips. I like how you give examples on how a writer can rework these sentences. Very useful information. Going to print these out. Thanks again. :)

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  28. I just started re-reading one of my favorite novels. I haven't read it in a while and was surprised, and disappointed, that it wasn't sweeping me into the story world as I remembered. It took a few chapters, but I realized the problem. The story is written in First POV and the main character would always "know" what the other characters were feeling. The author had not given me any visual clues to go along with the MC's "knowing". I'm still reading it, because a well loved story, even with flaws, is comfort, but I'm disappointed with the writer.
    A reading peeve for me, is head hopping. I'll immediately put a book down if the author has me bouncing back and forth in character's heads.

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  29. 2unpublshedgirls, that's so sad your favorite book came up lacking :( I'm always afraid to read old faves for that reason. Though ti does show you've improved as a writer if you caught that :)

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  30. Excellent blog. Just what the book doctor ordered! Plan to link to it in my blog and for my writing class. Thanks.

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  31. This is terrific but I wanted to add that for picture book writers, the illustrator helps carry the weight, showing a lot in pictures. This means you only need to include what the illustrator can't.

    Another issue is that showing often takes more words, which can be challenging with today's short picture book word count lengths.

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  32. PS I hope there are some picture book people here : )

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  33. Thanks for this list, Janice! I'm very guilty of No 2 in my writing, so I'll definitely be more aware of it from now on - and how to fix it. :-)

    Much appreciated!

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  34. Mira, great tips for PB writers. And I do believe we have a few here, so they're appreciate those!

    Dee Dee, happy to help! I think #2 is the most common, so you're not alone there :)

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  35. Mira, great tips for PB writers. And I do believe we have a few here, so they're appreciate those!

    Dee Dee, happy to help! I think #2 is the most common, so you're not alone there :)

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  36. 'As' and 'while' plagued my first book. Cutting them made a big difference, and I rarely use them at all anymore. One that still ets me is 'saw'--I edit it out constantly. Of course the character 'saw' something--if it's through his/her POV, we wouldn't know it if they didn't see it!

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  37. Classicista, totally! On the bright side, you know about it so you can check on it when you revise :)

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  38. Thanks for sharing such great advice. I confess I'm guilty of some of these but have taken notes and will try harder lol!

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  39. Wow. So many small things that make such a huge difference! I'm really going to have to go word by word through my draft to catch these little buggers. Thank you so much! Can I follow you through my own blog somehow? You're articles are wonderful!
    www.fromonewriter.blogspot.com

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  40. Charlie, we all are, so no worries :) And first drafts don't count. We can be as messy as we want there.

    Lilmisslondon, thanks! You can subscribe through email or the RSS feeds. Both of those links are on the left-hand menu, under the table of contents lost. I don't think there's any way to follow me through your blog.

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  41. Yes, yes and yes! I find myself flagging these words ALL the time.

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  42. Great list. I hope I never forget these tips. Thanks :) Maribeth

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  43. Seriously helpful post. About to go do a search and find right now. Thanks for the tips!

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  44. Thanks guys! I love lists, especially when editing. There's just something satisfying about them.

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  45. Wow !! what a great your five tips.I always search this type of tips in online and today I got them from your post.

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  46. Excellent advice! Thank-you; I'll be returning to this page again.

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  47. Good advice. ^ ^ A couple of these I knew, but other's I didn't.

    Stori Tori's Blog

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    1. Glad you learned something new. Hope they help!

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  48. Thank you so much my writing is a lot clearer because of this list :-)

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