Whatever type of writer you are, there are steadfast self-editing rules. Myself, being an fiction writer (mostly—at least that’s how I fancy myself), I know the basic checklist of rules: use your thesaurus and dictionary, read your work aloud, use the active voice, watch your sentence rhythm, use the spell/grammar check, and on and on… Then there’s the find/replace tool to help with repetition. Make sure you don’t start sentences with the same words. Blah blah blah. We know the rules. And we should obey most of them—they do help. A lot. But they still get on my nerves sometimes. (I don’t like authority so much.)
Well, recently I received some professional edits back on my novel and I realized there are rules that stand out more than others. Ones that aren’t always as obvious, aren’t talked about as much, yet make a huge difference in your work. I revised fifteen pages of my book, and the following maxims are the ones I found the most useful.
I’m not one who believes all adverbs are bad. I like a little extra description. I don’t shy away from purple all together. But, I did learn that there is a time and place for adverbs. Now I know when they really, truly should not be used. Don’t use them when a stronger word can be used. Period. Don’t be weak and say “walked quickly.” Say “hurried” instead. And rather than “walked purposefully,” use “strode.”
But, I do have a line about a shadowed fountain. The line originally told of a dimly lit fountain. Here, an adverb works. But dimly lit doesn’t even hold a candle (not even a flickering, dimly lit one) to shadowed. Especially when given the context. Shadowed is a much better word for the story, trust me. But fountain by itself—that just doesn’t work. So yeah, watch your adverbs, but I don’t think it’s necessary to drown or kill all your darlings. Just keep them in check.
If something doesn’t happen in your story, why tell of it? Here’s an example — Option A: ”Sophia* didn’t even acknowledge Jonathan with a glance backward as he grumbled about her being late again” vs. Option B: ”Sophia ignored his grumblings about her being late again.”
It made perfect sense (to me, at least) to use Option A, but once someone pointed out that telling the reader about something that didn’t happen was, well, pointless, I quickly agreed. (And yes, I would cut quickly out of narrative, most likely, but I kept it here because, well, I can. The realization was quick!) But really, why describe something that doesn’t happen? Keep it simple.
Which leads to the next thing I learned should not be used…
Try doing without without. It’s a useless word. I had a line that started, “Without thinking, she stopped and called out.” Well, if she didn’t think, why say it? The sentence is now, simply, “She stopped and called out.” Tells the reader the exact same thing without bogging anything down. Watch for things that you, as a writer, may be thinking of as possibilities yet you don’t enter them into your story as action. If the ideas or actions do nothing but cross your mind, don’t bother the reader with anything about those non-actions. Keep them off the page. In every possible way, even as a character’s thought, or lack of thought.
Overwriting/Leaving Things Out
All right, so I just told you to leave out things that don’t happen, but it’s also important to make sure that you’re not picturing things in your head that do happen yet you don’t include them because it seems so obvious to you. You should describe every bit of the action so a reader can become immersed. So the reader can feel like it’s happening to him/her. Or that s/he is at least watching it.
I have a part where there are two people in a car already and two more join them. But only the three are mentioned. So when the fourth popped his head into the action, it jarred the reader. I added a simple sentence, “Marjorie tilted her head in a way to let Sophia know it wasn’t just the three of them in the car.” (It wasn’t somebody Marjorie and Sophia really wanted around.)
After I edited that bit, I realized it was overwritten. So then I changed it to, “Marjorie tilted her head in a way to let Sophia know the three weren’t alone in the car.” Those extra couple words told the reader nothing more than the most recent version does, and those words add up to slow down the narrative.
Same with this part about Sophia walking into a building. What’s important about the scene is the dialogue and the feelings between the two characters. Not that “Sophia pushed the door handle with her elbow.” Who cares about that?
Don’t overwrite, yet don’t leave out things that are important. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s important, so pay attention!
Yes, I know. I know. This one is well-known and obvious. But I had to throw it in here… I couldn’t bring myself to stop at just four rules. And as many times as you hear it, are lectured about it, are told how to show and not tell, it’s still something that should always be in the front of your mind while writing. Because, again, readers want to feel they are a part of the story. They don’t want simply to read of it as though it’s a in a history textbook (unless, of course, you are a textbook writer—if that’s the case, feel free to ignore me!).
I know you all know this one, but I’ll give a quick example anyway. Because it’s that important.
In one part, I had written the sentence, “Donovan gave her a condescending look.” Really? Wow. That’s exciting. How did he do that? Well, this is how — “Donovan looked down at her and cocked his head.” Yeah, doesn’t seem like a phenomenal change, but with the rest of the paragraph, it’s more than obvious to the reader what he’s doing, and now we know more of how Sophia feels. We (yes, I read my own stuff, how else can I edit?) are more in tune with what she’s going through at the moment due to Donovan’s actions.
— All right, I do believe I’m done preaching. Well, almost. There’s one last thing that ties back into the first. Mark Twain once said something about the word very. It’s a given not to use it. But he suggested that you replace it with a certain curse word (no, not that one!) and you’ll realize how ridiculous it is. Hmmm, now I have to go back and edit this. I hope I didn’t put a very in here somewhere. But if I did, you won’t know because I’ll follow my Mr. Twain’s (Clemens’ — whoever’s) advice and delete it. Very is bad. Very bad.
*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Since winning her first writing competition, Eden Tyler, has only fallen more in love with the written word. She uses her English and Psychology backgrounds to create depth to her stories while contributing to and running websites about writing. This is what fulfills her, along with working as an freelance author as well as an editor at Etopia Press — nothing beats being able to write and edit in order to put food on the table (and that ever-essential roof overhead) for her family.