Last month I dashed off a few thoughts on revision techniques and offered you one of them to consider. Then I considered it and decided there was more to be said.
The technique I suggested was all about replacing “He thought he would read the paper” with “He would read the paper” (if he can’t read it right now), or simply “He read the paper.” In other words, write as if life is right there on the page, breathing, rather than about to happen.
Hesitant writing, which is how I think of it, can creep in while I’m finding my way through a story. I do my best to remove it from my work because I like to put my readers as much in my characters’ place as possible. Even if I weren’t writing for kids, I’d probably do that.
But a writer might easily choose to use what I’m calling hesitant writing if it was their intent to distance the reader from the character’s most interior self. Suppose the character is the villain of the piece, but your reader isn’t supposed to know that yet—we decide to keep the reader at arm’s length.
Revision is all about making the right choices.
That said, streamlining is always a good idea, and always leads me to further streamlining. I use the search feature to find words I can eliminate. First to go are the lazy writing words: “very” is a common one. “But” and “and,” as the first word in a sentence, are good words to remove when you find them, then reread to see if that clarifies your statement or makes it ambiguous. Ambiguity demands that you put the word back.
Too general descriptors like “some” or “most” and “thing” can help keep us moving right along as we’re chasing a thought, but it helps to be more specific in revision mode.
You might be thinking this is superficial stuff, and it is. But editors see a lot of it, and it’s refreshing for them to come across a manuscript that isn’t bogged down with a lot of words that will have to be edited out or that inspire questions like “What kind of thing?” Today’s editors are busier than ever, and a clean manuscript tends to rise to the top.
My favorite search is “said and.” As in: “Not for me,” Tim said and passed the pup to Miller, who wanted to pass it along too. This can be abbreviated to “Not for me.” Tim passed the pup. . . It’s a favorite because it’s one of the run on phrasings that is easiest for me to fix, and to see good results on the page: a cleaner, more free-flowing text.
I also watch for unnecessary commentary on my part. This usually shows up in dialogue tags, like these, plucked out of a handful of romance novels:
. . . “I thought so,” she said, with a smug smile.
“. . .and that’s why you were late,” he said, satisfied to have made his point.
. . . “I knew it had to be something,” she said, in an outpouring of sympathy.
. . . “Never again,” he said, making the words an angry snarl.
Occasionally, this commentary is useful and even well written. It’s sometimes a necessity if your characters aren’t face to face, but are talking on the telephone or texting. But if I find it springing up all over the place, I worry that my dialogue is getting lazy.
Start by removing the comments and read the scene for how the text might express the sentiments just removed. Sometimes a physical gesture is more telling. Here’s a fix for the smug smile: “I thought so.” She minced away, telegraphing superiority in every click of her heels.
You get the idea. Can you fix the other three?
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but most of us have our own set of lazy words, oft-repeated bad habits, and you probably already know what yours are.
Of course, there are deeper revision techniques, but I find these are a good place to start. A streamlined manuscript makes for a livelier read, and makes it less of a slog to rewrite when the time comes.
Because, of course, there’s (drum roll) time in the drawer.
It’s the hardest technique to use.
But what we do after “time in the drawer” is what I’d like to talk about next month. Till then, happy new year. If you missed Miranda Paul's blog from the holiday week, read on. She has a list you shouldn't miss.
Audrey Couloumbis is the Newbery Honor-winning author of Getting Near to Baby. She sometimes writes sad stories with a happy ending, and she's published by St.Martin's Press, G.P. Putnam, and Random House. Look for her books at your favorite bookstore.
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