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This is a guest post from Annette Lyon, author, freelance writer and editor.
As a writer, I’ve been edited, so I know how it feels. Most of the time, I’ve had talented editors, but periodically I run into an editor who tries to change my voice and personality rather than doing their job by polishing my work. So when I’m on the other side of the fence, wearing my editor cap, I work hard to maintain a client’s voice and vision while making their work even better.
My publishing credits include seven novels, a cookbook, and over a hundred articles. My editing work has included writers who run the gamut of experience and skill, from wet-behind-the-ears beginners to New York Times bestsellers.
Over and over, I find many of the same things cropping up in manuscripts. Below are five of the most common issues and how to fix them.
1—Point of View Intrusion
This weakness usually shows up for writers who know enough to use point of view but who don’t yet have it mastered. It’s also telling instead of showing. POV intrusion is when we’re told that a character is experiencing something rather than the reader experiencing it right along with the character.
Tom heard a truck rumble past on the street. He smelled its smoky exhaust and noticed the driver, a twenty-something young man wearing a baseball cap.
If Tom is the POV character, we’re already in his head. We’ll figure out that if we’re shown a sound, smell, or sight, Tom is the one who heard, smelled, or noticed it.
Search for sensory verbs like saw, heard, smelled, and felt, as well as other POV intrusive words like thought, realized, and noticed. Cut them out and create stronger sentences (with showing details!) to draw the reader right into the scene:
A truck rumbled past, belching a cloud of exhaust. Tom coughed and covered his nose as the college-aged driver adjusted his Yankees cap.
Too often, writers begin sentences with it. This happens a lot when explaining how a character feels (once again, telling instead of showing). At the end of the sentence, we find the definition of it. The result is a weak construction:
It made Jenny sad when Mike walked by without saying hi the day after they broke up.
At the beginning of the sentence, we can’t empathize with Jenny because we have no idea what it means—what is she sad about? Flip the events around to show them in the order they happened, and do without using it. Then add more showing detail:
The day after the break-up, Mike walked by without saying hi. Jenny’s fingers curled around her purse strap, nails digging into her palms as she willed herself not to cry.
3—Would as Dead Wood
Any kind of dead wood—extra words that don’t pull their weight—should be on your chopping block. Would in particular tends to be one of the most common dead-wood verbs:
Every day after school, Mom would bake me cookies. I would sit at the counter, and I would eat the warm chocolate gooeyness. I would feel loved.
Instead of drawing the reader emotionally into the scene, would keeps the reader at a slight distance from the events. Cut the word altogether and use plain past-tense verbs for snappier sentences:
Every day after school, Mom baked me cookies. I sat at the counter, eating the warm chocolate gooeyness and feeling loved.
4—There Was/Were (Is/Are)
99% of the time, a sentence beginning with there is/are/was/were, is weak. Often, a filler that gets shoved in for good measure:
There are twenty important tasks that need to get done by the end of the day.
Take out “there are” and “that,” and then simplify the entire sentence:
Twenty important tasks need to be done by the end of the day.
Much better. The sentence could be strengthened further by getting rid of passive voice (who needs to do the tasks?), but this is a great start.
5—Talking Heads and Floating Thoughts
These two culprits are variations of dialog. Talking heads is when we have characters interacting, but we don’t have much beyond their words and a few speech tags. We might as well be listening to a radio show or two disembodied heads, because as readers, we can’t see the details of where we are.
The scene could be happening in a diner, a classroom, a laboratory, the Alps—or Mars, for all we know. In addition to missing out on setting details (show us the greasy smell and cracked seats in the diner, the equipment and chemical odor in the laboratory, the vistas on the Alps). We also don’t see facial expressions, actions, thoughts, or otherwise experience what’s going on. Adding contextual details is key to showing.
Similarly, floating thoughts happen when the writer gets on a roll with internal monologue. While a character’s thoughts can be a great tool for propelling the story, developing character, and more, internal monologue must be used wisely.
Too often, writers begin scenes in someone’s head, thinking . . . and thinking and thinking. Three pages later, we finally discover that they’re in a hospital bed or at the pool hall or standing before a headstone. Get us into the action right away. That means setting the scene and introducing action—and action almost always means conflict.
Don’t stress over these things while drafting; let your creative side take over and explore during that phase. Just remember to keep these elements in mind when you come back for revisions. Some of them are big-picture issues, and others are on the sentence level, but they’re all important.
Eliminate these common problems from your manuscript, and you’ll be leagues ahead of your competition.
Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother's typewriter. A cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English, she has had success as a professional editor and doing newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is creating fiction. Band of Sisters, her seventh novel, is about five women who come together during their husbands' deployment to Afghanistan.
Her newest release, a cookbook called Chocolate Never Faileth, is a delicious departure from fiction and the culmination of over 5 months of test kitchen craziness and fun.
In 2007 Annette was awarded Utah's Best of State medal for fiction. She has received three publication awards from the League of Utah Writers and is a two-time Whitney Award finalist. She enjoys chocolate, knitting, and her family, not necessarily in that order.