Monday, November 22, 2010

Ctrl + F Your Work (but still hire us…)

By: Dianna Calareso, WITS writer and editor

Often when I return a manuscript to a client with my revisions and general comments, I hear back, “Oh, I can’t believe I did that!” or “I can’t believe I missed that!” or “I feel so stupid!”

Do not feel stupid. Ever. We are here to help you, and we are that odd type of person that just loves digging in and fixing the tiny things that make a huge difference in a manuscript.

But if you’d like to learn a few tricks of the trade for self-editing, read on. I believe that a good, thorough self-edit makes a writer more self-confident, more prolific, and more eager to make the big revisions, the ones we still hope you’ll ask us to do!

*Nota bene: All of the below examples are mistakes I have not only seen in many manuscripts, but made on my own. If you fall into one of these categories, do not lose heart – we’ve all been there! This is not to push you deep into despair, but to offer a very easy escape from common writing traps.

Ctrl + F: This incredibly simple “find” feature will help you rid yourself of those terrible filler words (really, just, very, etc.). Filler words are a common sickness of the first draft, because the writer still hasn’t taken full authority of the piece. These fillers tell the reader, “I’m not quite ready to come out and say what I need to say, so chew on these words while I work up the confidence.” You don’t need them – do a simple word find, delete, and voila! I suggest using this feature for other common piece-killers, like most adverbs (especially added to the end of dialogue tags), pet names (you know, sweetheart, it’s just so annoying to read, babe), and my two least favorite word constructions in the English language (described below).

Adverbs: These are almost always unnecessary. Yes, I know that sometimes you absolutely have to describe the appallingly rude way he shouted or the beautifully designed gem-encrusted sword sheath. But by definition, isn’t a rude shout always appalling? Isn’t a gem-encrusted sword sheath obviously beautiful? My point is not that adverbs are bad, but that they are often repetitive. Read the two examples: “I hate you!” he shouted angrily as he threw the book across the room. “I hate you!” he shouted, throwing the book across the room. The clues “hate,” “shouted,” and “threw the book” tell the reader this character is angry. There’s no need to coddle your reader to remind him/her that hate, shouting, and throwing are signs of anger. Trust your reader! And then Ctrl + F the adverbs away.

Pet names: I’ll be brief with pet names, because I know some of you will disagree with me: I hate them. Now and then, a simple “honey” works between two people in a relationship, or between a parent and child. But if you include a pet name in every interaction, your reader will not only be annoyed, but more importantly, distracted. Think about going out to dinner with a couple. You are all talking, but they never use each other’s real names – only “honey,” “sweetie,” “babe,” and “sugar bear” (blech!). Are you absorbing everything you could from the conversation? Or are you thinking you’d like to throw rocks at your friends? Even if your reaction is not that violent, you will find this kind of interaction distracting – and distraction takes away from the real story you are trying to tell. Ctrl + F, sweetheart, so I can focus on the story.

Began to: This phrase (and its ugly sister “started to”) is possibly my biggest pet peeve as an editor. “She began to walk towards him. He started to drive. She began to start thinking about beginning to look away.” No! “She walked towards him. He drove. She looked away.” Ahh…isn’t that refreshing? See how clear, confident, and direct those sentences are? There are few cases when “began to” and “started to” are truly necessary, but most of the time they are weak fillers that tell the reader you’re not ready to let your character make her own decisions and walk towards somebody. Begin to start trying to think about beginning to start deleting these extra words (using an easy Ctrl + F search for “began” and “started”). Get to the action!

Was –ing: He was crying, she was looking, they were thinking, he was walking, she was talking. While this construction can be effective (if you are setting up one character to be interrupted by the action of another, for example), it can also slow down your writing like a barrel tied to the back of a shark (Jaws? Anyone?). Immediacy in writing is important because a) readers are quickly bored and distracted and b) readers are quickly critical of writers. Fair? No. But true – you need to sell yourself as the ultimate authority on the piece you are writing, and immediacy is one of the most effective ways to show that you are there, you know the story, and you can tell it better than anyone. Use Ctrl + F to search for “was,” and whenever possible, make the verb immediate. Instead of “he was looking,” “he looked.” Instead of “she was thinking,” “she thought.”

I’m a writer, too. I have my favorite writing styles, quirks, and yes, adverbs. But as an editor I want to see your best writing come through on the page, instead of bogged down by extra words, distracting names, and self-conscious verb constructions. This type of editing will allow you to submit a more polished manuscript, allowing us to get past the nitty-gritty and into the joyous work of fleshing out characters, revamping plot lines, and cleaning up chapters. That’s the real fun isn’t it? C’mon honey, I know you can do it!


Grandpa Shayne said...

I was beginning to start thinking that these examples might just really improve my writing. I have not really thought about many of these guidelines before, but they really make sence, "Hunny Bear." :-)

Seriously, a helpful article. May I suggest using generic terms like "Find" rather than computer specific keyboard shortcuts, as they are different on Macntosh (which 21%+ of people use).

Yvonne Perry said...

Too funny, Shayne. I use a PC for working at home and a MacBook when I travel. The "Command" key on the Mac is the same as Ctrl on Windows-based machines. The letter F is the selected key on both.

Anne R. Allen said...

Oooh--two great ones I don't see mentioned that often! Thanks! "Began to" is one of my own first draft issues.

And yes--those nicknames. Some drafts are harder to follow than Russian novels when different people call the same person different names. I once read a whole manuscript thinking there was a character named "Sugar," who turned out to be the heroine by a different name.

Yvonne Perry said...

I need to go over my manuscript in progress and nip some honeys in the bud.

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

Thanks for the visit. My! You do have a lot of blogs. I wonder how you manage to keep up with them. I have 4 and find it difficult to keep them all going smoothly.

Author Guy said...

I'm not much of a one for pet names, and I like to think I notice when I'm sticking adverbs, so I don't. My biggest flaw is the use of was, were, had, that, and lots of other words that my publisher hates. She has a technique which will change the background color for all instances of such words so you can see them easily throughout the MS. It's a useful editing tool for me to use ctrl-F and find each one, and rewrite the sentence to use a stronger construction. Another one to look for is using dialog tags and punctuation incorrectly.

Marc Vun Kannon