How authors can avoid the endless revision/rewriting trap. Editing loop:How to identify it, how to get out, and when to let a project go
Overused words will ruin your prose
Every writer has words or phrases that habitually show up in their work. Like a verbal tick, writers insert them without even thinking. They become fillers when we need a beat in dialogue, or a crutch when we’re not sure what the character should really be doing. They badger the reader by constantly drawing attention to themselves, forcing the reader to see the prose, rather than the story. Don’t let overused words ruin your novel.
Identifying an overused word
I recently finished a book by a well-known author, published with one of the big five, everything we all want to be, and I noticed something strange: the people in this book smiled.
They smiled for deception. They smiled sarcastically. They smiled to calm their nerves. They smiled when they wanted to gloat over a victory. They smiled for just about every emotion, except happiness. And just like that mole on the end Grandpa’s nose, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop.
I’m not sure if I noticed it because it was used in such a peculiar way or because I listened to the book rather than read it. (If you haven’t listened to your WIP read aloud, I highly recommend it. Nothing will point out bad writing faster than having it blared out your laptop’s tinny speaker by that lady who answers the phone for your credit card.)
After noticing this peculiarity, ever time I heard the word “smiles,” it was like being smacked in the head. It yanked me right out of the story and doused in a mad dose of the giggles. So I started thinking about it. This person is a well-known author, light years ahead of me, was I just imagining this thing? I had to know.
The Kindle app has the ability to count the specific instances of a word in an MS. I typed “smile” into the find bar. Result: 153. Spread out across a 400-page novel that meant someone smiles on average every two and a half pages, which for some words would not even be noticeable. But these instances weren’t spread evenly through the book. They clustered together appearing as many as four times on a page. Nearly every time two characters interacted, they smiled at each other at some point during the conversation. The smile had become a crutch: a habitual word choice inserted without thought.
Word crutches are something most writers have
Word crutches appear in places where the inner ear senses something is off in the prose. Either a beat is needed between lines of dialogue, a paragraph is too short, or a non-POV character needs a moment to think about something.These crutches bog down a manuscript and make it feel repetitive, or in the case of this particular book, paint an absurd picture where despite pints of blood and gore, everyone is perpetually grinning.
More often than not a good CP will find your crutches. However, they will likely not become apparent until well into the MS. So if you’re only passing out your MS in chunks, you’re missing an important opportunity.
Scrivener also has a built in text analysis tool. Select a document. Project> text statistics. You can even organize the list by frequency.
Once you’ve analyzed your text and found a few candidates, do a “find” in your word processor (I used Word. If anyone knows how to make Scrivener display the number of matches without replacing the word, please let me know) Be sure to click the “find whole word” otherwise it will include all the instances where your word appears as part of another word e.g. “port” in “support” Although you may have to run the search twice to account for plurals or verb tense.
Let’s take a look at a few examples from my MS.
Ex. 1 Mouth.
85 This is a maybe. This isn’t a romance, so this seems like an excessive use of a word that doesn’t come up much in daily conversation. I’m going to go back and make sure that it isn’t being used in the same way, or in some strange way that draws attention to itself.
Ex. 2 Eyes
272 This one is definitely a problem. I noticed it originally in my first draft. My supposedly adult MC was constantly rolling her eyes, which made her come off as a snot-nosed tweenager. But it looks like my characters are still spending too much time staring at each other.
Another good one to search for is “look,” since this can indicate you have too much telling in your descriptions.
But wait, I have 5000 “The’s.”
Little words that are used frequently in daily conversation get a free pass e.g. articles the, a, an, common pronouns, and even the dialogue tag said disappear on the page. And to some extent other frequently used words. The opposite is also true. The more unusual the word, the more your reader’s ear will pick it out. The same goes for words that evoke a strong reaction. How may times do you think your MC can use vomit before it begins to sound stale?
Can I just fix it with a thesaurus?
No. Simply subbing one word for another will not fix an action that has become habitual in your manuscript. If I change half the “shifted his eyes” to “shifted his gaze,” it isn’t going to change the underlying problem that my characters are standing around staring at each other. The crutch word is just the symptom. If I fix the real problem: my characters need to be doing more, the crutch word will disappear on its own.
The next time you read through your MS look out for habitual phrases, actions, and overused words. Taking time to eliminate these from your prose will keep it feeling fresh through the entire story.
If you found this article useful, please share it with other writers on social media. Thanks!
What they are, why they are bad, and how to fix them
In a play, stage directions are the non-dialog actions the actor must perform. These can be used to mark entrances and exits, or they can be pantomimes of actions or emotions used to set up dialogue. Here is an example from the opening of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible:
Reverend Parris is praying now, and though we cannot hear his words, a sense of confusion hangs about him. He mumbles, then seems about to weep; then he weeps, then prays again, but his daughter does not stir on the bed.
While this is appropriate for a play, long passages with multiple actions strung together don’t work in novel writing.
“Julie, what have you done?” I shout at my sister. I race to the table and pick the figurines up, examining each one. I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. “I told you not to play with these.”
In novels, “stage directions” are sections where the author begins listing a character’s visible actions without giving the thoughts or feelings associated with them. These actions lose their significance because the reader is never told why they are important. As a result, the reader is bombarded with useless information, unable to discern which actions are meaningful.
In novels, anything reported to the reader must be significant. For this reason, listing all of a character’s actions (including insignificant actions) actually creates distance. The reader never gets to see the character’s thoughts and feeling and is, therefore, left outside. A character’s thoughts and feelings are half your story, don’t forget them.
Consider the previous example with the internal dialogue replaced:
“Julie, what have done?” I shout at my sister.
No, no, no, no. I race to the table and pick up the figurines, examining each one. This is so bad.
They aren’t broken, thank God, but he’s gonna know she touched them. He’s gonna know we were in here.
I start setting them in their proper places, nudging them back into their exact spots, making sure they are exactly perfect. Please, please, please, don’t let him notice. Please, God, please.
“I told you not to play with these.”
Internal thoughts can completely change the story.
How to fix stage directions
Once you have located a section of stage directions, isolate it. Take each action and create a complete MRU. (Motivation-Reaction Unit)
Since action is part of the “reaction” portion of the MRU, you will have to work backward and find the cause. (motivation)
(Input) Motivation- what caused the action? Sensory input: see, hear, smell, etc. Can also be a sixth sense or an internal motivation
- Feeling: involuntary (visceral responses: heart race, stomach drop, etc.) (show emotions)
- Thoughts: internal dialogue
- Physical Actions
If you cannot create an MRU for each action, then you don’t need them all. Pick the most important, and let the reader assume the rest.
Input- The sun glinted off the ring (vision)
- (Thought) His ring, the lying, cheating jerk
- (action) I threw back my covers, got up from my bed and stormed across my room. Then, I grabbed the ring and flung it across my room.
There are too many actions. Most can be assumed by the reader.
In the first sentence, we only need “stormed across the room.” In this passage, the reader already knew the character was in bed (this was before the excerpt) So if she stormed across the room, she couldn’t have done that unless she also threw back the covers and got out of bed. In the second sentence, we only need “flung it across the room.” We can assume she picked it up. (Now, if she used mental telepathy to will it into her hand, that would be significant.)
First Revision- (Action) I stormed across the room and flung the ring across the room (Uh oh, echo)
Final Version- (action) I stormed across the room and threw his stupid ring as hard as I could.
Input: It pinged against the wall, then, vanished into a pile of old junk.
Output: (Thought) If only getting rid of him could be that easy.
Input: A beautiful image popped into my head.
Output: (thought) Maybe it can be.
In the final version, each MRU is complete and only the most meaningful actions are given. This will help build trust with your readers because everything in the book is important. Readers will appreciate that you are not wasting their time or insulting their intelligence. Letting readers make assumptions is a sneaky way of engaging their interest.
Don’t write stage directions in your novel. Give readers only the details they really want to know.
If you found this article useful, please share it with other writers on social media. Thanks!
Have something to add? Leave a comment. I love hearing from readers.
The best ways to ruin your first chapter
Most writers know that a novel needs a great first line, but what happens after that? So many beginnings fall into the same problems. While identifying clichés is simple enough, that isn’t going to guarantee a successful opening. Many opening chapters suffer from structural problems that prompt a complete rewrite or even tossing the pages in the bin. Don’t ruin your first chapter with these mistakes.
Most issues fall into two main categories: unnecessary scenes (scenes that don’t move the story ahead) and info dumping.
In a recent submission, the two main characters spent four of the first ten pages engaging in chit chat.
“Hi, I’m Julie” was immediately followed by paragraphs about jobs and seen any good movies lately. I don’t enjoy this when I’m at parties. In an opening to a book, when I have nothing invested in the characters, this was a kiss of death. Small talk is not interesting. Every day I take my daughter to the bus stop and for five minutes I talk to the other parents about riveting topics like the weather, how adorable the last school project was, or whether the “sports team” will win the game. See, you are already bored. There’s no story here. Small talk has no place in your opening pages.
How can we fix this?
Assuming you can’t simply cut the pages, find a way to add conflict to the story.
Two people having a polite conversation over coffee with nothing at stake isn’t interesting. We need to add some conflict. Let’s try this scene again in a different setting. What if Julie is now speed-dating and she’s had her eye on one guy who is nearly at the end of the line. For twenty minutes she’s had time to stew and get nervous.
He sits down and smiles at me in that apologetic, this is so awkward way. It is probably the most awkward thing I’ve ever done. Waiting for a little buzzer to let us know it’s time to talk. Who came up with this idea? It’s ridiculous, and what kind of idiot am I for agreeing to do this? I try to swallow down the bubble of tension forming in my chest. The buzzer rings.
“HiI’mJulie!” busts out of my mouth in a monosyllabic blur.
A mocking little twinkle appears in his smoky gray eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Please, just let me die right here.
In the new example, we have a conflict. Julie wants something: to impress this guy. But something stands in her way: her inability to conquer her nerves and speak coherently. Bonus: the conflict is relatable. Who hasn’t gotten tongue tied when meeting someone new?
Without conflict, there is no story. You cannot simply list events in a person’s day and call it a plot. Conflict is the essence of plot. I don’t care how witty the banter is, if there’s no conflict, it isn’t interesting. Fix it, or dump it. You don’t need dead weight pages drowning your story.
A simple mistake to find and fix is Character Soup.
Do not introduce your entire cast in the first chapter. Remember, we are meeting these characters for the first time. The first chapter needs to be reserved for introducing your main character, (or if is dual POV, two) and one other important character. (antagonist, love interest, best friend etc.) But NO MORE. I once read an opening chapter that introduced 9 characters, by name. I had no idea who was who, or who was important. It was a disaster.
What to do instead.
Eliminate any unnecessary characters from the scene.
The beginning of the book is not the time to take roll at school or crowd surf at a party. If you can’t eliminate these extra people, keep their influence to a minimum, and keep the focus on your main character and that character’s current conflict.
Don’t name people who aren’t in the scene:
If the MC is eating grandma’s cookies, just call them grandma’s cookies. Don’t give grandma a name, and please, don’t launch into a paragraph and a half describing grandma and the time you spent at her house and…
Don’t name or describe extras
Just like in movies, these people are just part of the setting. While in real life you should definitely treat the girl making your mocha latte as an actual person, in your book, she is part of the scenery. She doesn’t need a name or more than a sentence of description. Bonus: use that description to really tell us something about your MC.
The barista had a wicked row of hoops running up her left ear. I’m so doing that when I get paid on Friday.
The barista had an appalling amount of scrap metal attached to her face. Good Lord!
Which one of these women had to dye her hair silver?
Let your reader get familiar with a character before introducing more people. I don’t want to have to make index cards to keep the cast straight.
People who will be important later
If you can’t move them, give them a name and a quick title or a meaningful trademark (like a peculiar habit) that will help readers identify this character later. But nothing more. i.e my friends, mom, my boss. No backstory or long speeches. Keep your focus on the main characters and the main action. You can save mom’s judgy comments for a later scene.
Character description dump
Avoid the temptation to describe secondary characters in multiple paragraph form. A quick, meaningful description is best. Readers don’t want to know the sister’s eye color, hair color, nose shape, etc. Focus on something distinctive, like how annoyed your main character is when her sister chews her nails.
The backstory dump.
Go back to your scene’s conflict. If I don’t need to know the backstory to understand the conflict/stakes then leave it out. I don’t care about your character’s childhood trauma. Even if it’s relevant to why she freezes up socially, I don’t need to know that in the first scene. Save this for later.
What to do instead:
Cut any backstory, yes, all of it, then reread your scene. Better yet, have someone else read the scene. If it still makes sense, the backstory is unnecessary. The missing information can become a question that propels the reader forward. Why does this character freeze up socially? If you’ve hooked your reader, she will want to read more to find out the answer. Only add back what is necessary for the scene to make sense.
This is where the “show, don’t tell” axiom can get writers into trouble. Building setting through showing can get tedious for readers. (Especially in opening pages.) There is nothing wrong with using a quick line of telling to ground readers in a setting so the real story can begin.
It was a Sunday morning in the very height of spring -Franz Kafka opening line of The Judgement
Writers can also avoid the setting dump by showing one small part of the setting and letting it imply the entire scene.
It was the smell, that particular blending of human waste and unwashed bodies that named this place an asylum.
Worldbuilding info dump
Long paragraphs of world building will kill your pacing. Don’t let your character stand in the middle of the sidewalk and describe what he sees around him.
The tall buildings are all covered in LED advertising. My grandfather told me that you used to be able to see the actual glass when he was a kid. A ping sounds in my ear from the iChip in my brain. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear about today’s offers?” Before I can say no, a long list of groceries plays back from a creepy automated voice.
While it’s an interesting world, there’s no story here. Instead, use conflict to build your world.
Tall buildings covered in LED skins assault me with advertisements. Everything shouts: buy me, you want this, I will fix your problem.” Unless it can call me a tow, then no, it isn’t going to fix my problem. I never should have bought that space cruiser. Thing’s been nothing but trouble.
From the sidewalk, a Chinese woman insists that her moisturizing cream took twenty years off her face. I step on it. A ping sounds in my head. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear…?” The battery dies halfway through. Stupid iChip. I can’t believe I forgot to charge it. What kind of idiot forgets to plug in their brain?
Notice how the second example introduces the setting, the conflict, and we learn the character is a whiny jerk. We get more information by combining them, and it doesn’t slow the pacing by stopping the action to describe the character or the setting.
Avoiding these common problems will help get your opening pages out of the slush pile and help you get that coveted request
Narrow your focus to the main characters and their immediate conflict. Use this to build your world and add only the back story that is essential for the reader to understand the immediate problem. Once you trim the extra information, your pacing will improve and the reader will know what is important. This is what you need in an opening chapter. Don’t make your story carry around extra baggage. The opening chapter has enough to do already.
Did you find this article useful? Please share it with other writers on social media