In the thirteen years I've been editing professionally, I've had clients from all different levels of experience. Some come to me after having had several novels published traditionally, and some seek me out after completing their very first book.
Nine times out of ten, I can spot a first-time novelist because of certain tells in the manuscript that don't appear as often in work by more experienced authors. Here are some habits to avoid so you can seem like a seasoned writer no matter where you are in your career.
Overwriting/stating the obvious
Using too many words to describe something implies you haven’t learned how to self-edit, which is an important part of writing. I see the following most often.
Unnecessary mention of body parts: shrugged her shoulders, nodded her head, blinked her eyes, clapped his hands, kicked with her leg, held her hand in his (where else would he hold it—in his mouth?). I'd also say both of her hands is long-winded, when her hands or both hands would do. We all know how many body parts we have, what they do, and where they're located, so pick the right verb and eliminate the body part altogether.
Obvious location of things: the sky above, the ground underfoot, the weather outside. Unless a character is God, or walking on his/her hands, or has a wind machine in his/her house, readers know where the sky, ground, and weather are in relation to that person.
Obvious directions: fell down, lifted up, raised up, lunged forward. The simple verb will do, because you can't fall up, lift or raise down, or lunge backward.
Extra steps in describing actions: She reaches out and pulls him to her. You can't pull someone to you without reaching out first. I’d say “reach” is almost always redundant when it’s followed by another verb, such as in these sentences: She reached up and smoothed down her hair or She reached down and grabbed her bag from under her seat. Another example of including too many steps: She gets in the car, starts the engine, and drives away. We all know she started the engine before driving away. She probably also closed her door, put on her seat belt, put the car in Drive, and pressed the gas pedal. Don’t bore readers with details they already understand.
Obvious adverbs: crept slowly, rushed quickly, gripped firmly, hollered loudly. The adverbs in these examples are built into the meaning of the verbs so no qualifiers are necessary.
The following are the most common blunders.
Dialogue repeating what the narrative just stated: I looked at the picture and didn’t recognize the man in it. "I don't recognize him," I said. Put a period after picture and cut to the dialogue.
Awkward, unnatural dialogue: “You are upset I divorced him? I am surprised. After all, he likes to wear my underwear, and furthermore, he is a slob.” The lack of contractions makes this sound too formal, and when was the last time you heard someone start a sentence with “after all,” or say “furthermore” in a casual conversation? Make sure the dialogue fits the occasion and character. A lawyer making closing arguments should speak differently than when he’s having beer with friends, and a teenage crack addict shouldn’t talk like a sixty-year-old grandma. Read your dialogue out loud to check how it sounds. I recommend reading your entire book out loud to screen for any clumsy sentences.
Obvious dialogue tags: "I'm sorry," he apologized. Or: "Don’t ever do that again!” she admonished. The dialogue clearly indicates the speaker’s intent in both cases so the tags are redundant.
Fancy dialogue tags: she uttered, bellowed, chided, groused, etc. Said doesn’t need to be used for every line of dialogue, but when writers try too hard to avoid that word, its substitutions can be distracting. If something other than said is used—whispered, for example—have a good reason for it, e.g. the scene being intimate, or characters hiding in a closet from a killer in the house.
Too many direct addresses:
“Will I see you tomorrow, Butch?”
“I don't know, Luanne.”
“Oh, come on, Butch, say you'll be there!”
In real life, you can chat with someone on a plane for hours and never learn that person’s name because our names don’t come up that often in conversation.
Excessive dialogue attribution:
He and I sat in his car.
"Are you getting out?" he asked.
"I'm waiting until the tornado passes," I say.
"You’re a chicken," he says.
"At least I didn’t call for my mommy," I say.
When only two people are in a conversation, readers can figure out who said what. Attribution isn’t needed for every line.
This list isn't comprehensive, and contains copyediting issues rather than structural ones, but keeping these suggestions in mind will help tighten and strengthen your work.
What do you find distracting when you read?
© 2014 Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
Elyse Dinh-McCrillis is a writer and editor who has worked with authors such as Brett Battles, Richard Bard, Naomi Hirahara, Jordan Dane, and Laura Benedict. She specializes in crime fiction, and might stab you with her red pencil if you write things like "I could care less" or "I literally died." For more info, visit The Edit Ninja. She also blogs as Pop Culture Nerd.
We hope you enjoyed this edition of Writer Wednesday!
~ The Black Cat