The One Piece of Editorial Advice I Most Commonly Give Authors

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Stock Photo by Oliver Thomas Klein

Over the past year or so, I’ve line edited dozens of manuscripts, many by novice writers. If I had to choose one piece of advice I’ve offered more often than any other, it’s this:

Trust your writing ability.

What does this mean? These authors clearly had enough faith in their skill and imagination to complete a manuscript: a first draft, a second, a third… But many of the mistakes I encountered were linked to “overwriting.” I think this is rooted — in part — in reluctance to trust ones own writing ability and, at the same time, to trust the reader.

Here are four examples of mistakes that can be avoided, in part, by trusting your skill as a writer.

1/Dipping Into Every Character’s Point of View

Third-person point of view  (where the protagonist is “he” or “she” rather than “I”) can be handled in several ways. Usually third-person limited point of view is used. The narrative sticks with one person’s point of view at a time, switching perspectives only between scenes.

While in a certain character’s point of view, the reader is only privy to what that character knows. He isn’t aware of what’s happening in another room, and he can’t delve into others’ thoughts (unless he has telepathic ability).

This example comes from an unpublished manuscript:

Father Samson laid Mira’s hand in Domhall’s. The prince clutched it a bit too hard then relaxed his grip. The harp music began to play again. When the music stopped, words were spoken, honoring the One God worshiped by Prince Domhall’s people. As the homily dragged on, the fear inside her twisted and writhed more vigorously. She forced her mind to shut everything out for a moment.

Readers are aware of what Mira experiences through her five senses, such as the music and the sensation of the prince clutching her hand. We are aware of her thoughts and feelings. But we don’t know what’s happening outside the room or what others are thinking and experiencing. We don’t know what her bridegroom is feeling. We aren’t allowed outside Mira’s mind.

Another form of third-person point of view is the omniscient point of view, in which we are not limited to the mind of a single character. It’s as if the story is being told by an all-knowing narrator. This approach can work, but it’s exceptionally difficult to pull off.

In manuscripts I review, I often see a scene primarily narrated through the words and thoughts of a main character in which the author unexpectedly slips into the minds of other characters. Sometimes this is simply a mistake, and sometimes the author does it intentionally to ensure that the scene captures all the feelings in the room.

Here is an example of a scene written from an omniscient perspective, trying to capture everyone’s thoughts and emotions:

Mira glanced around the room. Her father’s mood was ebullient. Looking at his daughter, dressed in her wedding finery, gave him a flash of pride. The match between his daughter and the king’s son was the greatest achievement of his life. Maren stood beside Father with her oldest son, Nico, who had just celebrated his eighteenth name day. His arm was wrapped around his mother’s waist. She pondered, with delight, the doors this match could open. A position for Nico at court and advantageous matches for all her daughters. Mira’s brother Stefano looked at her with a trace of sadness. In those moments after Mira had been wed to a stranger, he saw only the fear and loneliness in her eyes.

There is a lot going on in this scene and, while it offers some insight into the characters, readers are likely to experience this as “head hopping” — it’s a bit overwhelming and disorienting and doesn’t give us the chance to connect with any of the characters. Furthermore — and this is where trusting your skill as a writer comes into play — it eliminates the opportunity for subtext. The point-of-view character isn’t given the chance to infer what others are thinking and feeling, and the reader is given no wiggle room for interpretation.

This version, sticking with Mira’s perspective, is a bit better:

She glanced around the room. Her father’s mood was ebullient. Of course it was—this was the great political achievement of his life. It didn’t matter. She had given up trying to please him many years ago. Aunt Maren stood beside Father with her oldest son, Nico, who had just celebrated his eighteenth name day. His arm was wrapped around his mother’s waist. They both looked unreasonably happy—they’d probably gotten a head start on the hundred barrels of expensive wine Father had laid aside for this event. Her brother Stefano was looking at her with a trace of sadness, no–gods forbid–pity.

We don’t know what other characters are thinking — we have only Mira’s interpretations, right or wrong, and this increases our connection to this character. It also gives readers a bit of room for interpretation — for example, why does Mira’s brother pity her? Perhaps this scene should be pared back even more, giving readers more room to read between the lines.

Trust yourself as a writer. You have the skills to convey a great deal through your words and observations, without letting us into the mind of every character in the room.

2/ Conveying All of a Character’s Emotions & Reactions

In the same vein, another common mistake is trying to tell readers everything a character is feeling either directly (Marcus was furious) or through dialogue (“I am so angry with you!” Marcus said). In real life, people seldom spell out their emotions and reactions so clearly. The same is true in literature.

As a general rule, when you tell readers what a character feels, it comes across as artificial. It also leaches the story of depth, nuance, and subtlety. It’s almost always better to let readers infer a character’s feelings from her actions or from the context.

For example, in this snippet:

Hector was becoming increasingly fearful because he had heard El Patron had become very violent; people were dying for very little reason.

It isn’t necessary to tell us Hector is afraid. The context makes this clear. Doesn’t this work just as well?

Hector had heard El Patron had become very violent; people were dying for very little reason.

Another example:

After she received the news, Kaitlyn was depressed. She returned to dinner table and, without a word, she took a few bites of her dinner and pushed her plate away.

Explaining that Kaitlyn is depressed feels a bit heavy-handed, doesn’t it? Isn’t this better?

After she received the news, Kaitlyn returned to dinner table. Without a word, she took a few bites of her dinner and pushed her plate away.

In addition to hitting the reader with an explanation that lacks nuance or subtlety, naming characters’ emotions constricts the reader’s experience. Without the limitation of a convenient label (“furious, fearful, depressed”), readers have to think a bit. This gives us the opportunity to delve deeper and experience the character’s reactions more fully and empathetically.

3/Dialogue Tags That Explain the Dialogue

By the same token, because they’re afraid they haven’t conveyed their characters’ reactions and emotions clearly enough, many writers feel the need to explain their dialogue. For example:

“I can’t believe we’re going to be staying for an entire week!” Amy said excitedly.

or

“Don’t move!” he snarled.

Please don’t weigh down your dialogue with unnecessary adverbs and impossible dialogue tags. (It is virtually impossible to snarl your words.) 🙂 This is just another form of trying to convey all a character’s feelings, and it usually makes the writing seem amateurish.

Some examples of dialogue tags that explain the dialogue:

“I am so sorry,” he apologized. (We just heard him apologize — we don’t need to have it explained. :-))

“Hello,” he greeted.

“I left the box on the table so he’ll see it as soon as he gets home,” she explained.

“How dare you talk to me that way!” he chastised.

“This is the worst food I’ve ever eaten,” she complained.

“If you make a sound, I will shoot you,” he threatened.

As a general rule, stick with “said” and let your dialogue speak for itself.

4/Overdoing it on the Stage Directions

As writers and editors, we usually want readers to see a scene the same way we see it. Sometimes that prods writers to try to convey all the action so we see every movement, as if we were watching a movie. This often leads to sluggish scenes like this:

She left the doctor’s office, got into the car, and turned the ignition. Then she drove the winding two-mile route back to her house…

Unless something interesting happens as she’s getting into the car or on the ride home, readers are likely to get bored with this. There is nothing wrong with wrapping up the scene in the doctor’s office then “fast forwarding” to the next scene: “When she got home…”

I often see scenes like this:

He needed to talk to Millie — maybe she’d have the answers he needed. He dialed the phone and waited for Millie to answer.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Millie. It’s John. I have a question for you…”

Why not skip the mundane bits?

When he had her on the phone, he said,”I have a question for you.”

Keep in mind that a novel or short story is not a movie. It’s a movie turned inside out. When watching a film, you see most of the action (right down to picking up the telephone), but — unless there is a voice-over narration — we have to infer what characters are thinking and feeling. In a story, we get inside the character’s head, but we fill in much of the movement and action ourselves.

Trust your ability to create vivid, lifelike scenes without a lot of stage directions. When editing your work, trim out unnecessary lines where people drive from one place to another, open and close doors, get in and out of cars, hang up their coats, walk from one room to another, and so forth. Readers will automatically fill in these details, without even thinking about it, and they’ll appreciate the quicker, smoother pacing.

What “overwriting” errors do you run across when editing your work? When reading published fiction?

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