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The Editing Hour: The Basics

Now for our editing hour. Here are a few basics:

For beginning writers setting out write a short story, novel or memoir, there are quite a few enduring writing rules that can transform a mediocre piece of work into one that’s readable—in other words, a piece of crap into something kinda good. Here are just a few:

1. Avoid repetition. Don’t tell me the same thing over and over in different ways. Cut the fat. Pare the story down to the essentials.

2. Show don’t tell. We’ve all heard this a million times, but it still holds true. And part of the ability to do this is knowing how to differentiate between scene and summary. It sounds easy, but I realized that after 2.5 in an MFA program that I still didn’t know the difference. I was on the second draft of my memoir, writing what I thought was “scene,” full of detailed descriptions and even some dialogue, but prefacing it with “During winters we used to …” or some such phrase. It was all summary, and I didn’t know it. Drat! I had to rewrite it all.

3. Avoid adverbs (especially in attributions) like, “He said poignantly” or “She said plaintively.” The rule with attributions is most people don’t even read them, so a simple, “He said” or “She said” is usually better than “He declared” or “She whinnied.” (Can a woman whinny?)

4. Don’t use an odd word more than once in a book (if you can avoid it). Some writers LOVE certain words and they use them every chance they get and, if it’s an odd word, or a big word, a GRE word, it will really distract the reader from the story. When I review books, I find at least one word that is overused in almost every book I read. I may be a great book, and I’ll give it a good review regardless, but I want so much to phone the writer and say, “Delete the second (and third, and fourth) use of that word!” One example I came across recently: rueful. In this book, everything was rueful or said ruefully (even worse with the adverb!). Rueful’s a great word, but not when it’s overused. And this goes for phrases, too. After rereading my own book for the 80thousandth time, I realized that I had used the phrase, “I forced a smile” or variations thereof, five or six times. I deleted all but one or two.

5. Don’t write “on the nose”—for example, don’t use dialogue to tell us a character’s entire backstory. But don’t use dialogue to repeat something we already know, either.

6. Significant details—don’t throw in details just for the sake of adding description. Unless you’re just setting up the scene, use details to tell us something about the character. For example, if a pissed off character is looking at a shadow on the wall, she’ll probably see something sinister in that shadow, or describe it in a sinister way. A character in love for the first time will describe that shadow very differently. Use every detail as an opportunity to reveal something about your characters. One of my writing professors at Mills College, quoting one of her writing professors at Iowa, said that every line of a book should have three reasons for existing. If you can’t think of at least two, you’re in trouble.

7. More tips during our next Editing Hour. Meanwhile, remember that reading about the craft of writing is no substitute for gluing your butt to the chair and WRITING. Now go write.

4 comments to The Editing Hour: The Basics

  • I am so forwarding this post to some of my beginning writer friends–thank you for sharing!

  • Meghan Ward

    I'm glad it was helpful, Jade!

  • Great post, Meghan! A question about attributions: I've gotten conflicting advice about using "said" all the time, because it starts to sound so repetitive. I've been mixing it up with innocuous words like "replied" and "insisted", and wherever possible, I avoid attributions by introducing the quote with an action by the character. The rationale I've heard about limiting "said"s is that choosing innocuous replacements helps avoid the tedious repetition of "said" when reading aloud while not causing any distraction when reading silently. What are your thoughts on this?

  • Meghan Ward

    I agree with the advice you've heard. Using words like "asked," "replied," "responded" and "insisted" are good ways to break up the tedium without distracting from the story. Words and phrases like "declared" and "opined" and "said mischievously" should be banned, though!