Let’s Talk Editing! Part 2

Remember that making mistakes isn’t just normal, it’s unavoidable. During a first draft, you’re so busy getting the story down you’re not thinking about whether you’re echoing words too frequently, for example.

And in later drafts, you have a different problem. Say your story had a Yeti in the first draft that you decided to remove. In later drafts, your eye might just glaze over a brief side reference to that now-extinct Yeti over and over. That’s another reason why a fresh pair of eyes is always needed. To find those Yetis.

But the most common mistakes that go into a first draft are kind of intentional. When we’re first getting that story out, we don’t think about economy of prose; we want to be exciting, descriptive. In our heads, our characters don’t just “say” something, they growl, mutter, gasp, whisper. Or they retort it, mournfully… you get the idea.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes these terms are needed. But we often underestimate our ability to infer how something is said through the words themselves, or the circumstances they’re spoken in. Remember, context is king.

Anyway, let’s look at some more common mistakes I’ve come across…

Looking at something or knowing something: If you’re writing from Bob’s POV and Sue takes off her shoes, there is little reason to say “Bob watched her take off her shoes” instead of “Sue took off her shoes,” unless there is a good reason we’re paying attention to the act of Bob paying attention to Sue.

Same thing goes for knowledge. If Bob knows Sue wears a size nine, the only reason you would say something like “Bob knew she was a size nine” instead of “Sue was a size nine” is if for whatever reason that is information we don’t expect Bob to have. Maybe he’s stalking her?

Stage Direction: Turned, moved, crossed, etc…: Not every single movement needs to be described. The reader is playing out events in their head in their own way, and you can come across as trying to dominate the imagination if it’s abused.

Imagine a play. You have a script with a lot of stage direction on it, but do you think every time an actor walks across the room or turns it’s in the script? That’s the actor’s and the director’s interpretation. Watch the same play twice with a different director and a different set of actors (a real treat, by the way) and you will see two different interpretations. That’s what happens in the reader’s mind.

Toward: A subset of stage direction because it almost always follows someone turning, moving, etc. The problem with having someone walk toward an object is that we never actually see them get there. And describing them get there is just wasted narrative space. The other problem is that it makes the sentence feel like progressive tense even when it’s not. Speaking of which…

Progressive tense: An overuse of progressive tense (“-ing”) can weaken a story. While it is one thing to show someone “walking across the room” to convey a sense of movement to the reader, it is often far more effective if they “walked across the room.”

Note I say overuse. Progressive tense is useful, and sometimes unavoidable. But if you see it used a lot, ask yourself if the sentence can be rephrased.

Gaze: It is fair to say that if two people are talking, they are looking at each other’s eyes. That’s just human nature unless you’re autistic. Descriptions of one person looking at another should be reserved for when they clearly weren’t before, and for significant expressions.

Kill All Adverbs: Okay, you don’t have to kill ALL of them. But every last one of them needs to be eyed with suspicion and an itchy trigger finger. Stephen King’s On Writing covers this in more details, but the short version is this: Most of the time, they add nothing to the story. The context of your writing should convey what’s intended just fine without it. There are always exceptions, especially when an action runs contrary to the context, but for the most part, it’s one to the head and two to the chest.

I’ve got one last batch of advice to share with you, but we’ll save that for next time!

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