Editing: my four (well, five) writing weaknesses

Before we start, have you guys read my interview with the awesome Steampunk writer Jay Kristoff over at Aussie Owned and Read? If not, it’s here. Go on, I can wait.

An overworked train metaphor chugging away... (Image via Wiki Commons)

An overworked train metaphor, chugging away… (Image via Wiki Commons)

Since I finished my most recent work-in-progress, I’m back on the editing train, steaming my way from the tiny villiage Stream of Consciousness to the (hopefully) shiny metropolis Compelling Prose.

(Fact: sometimes “steaming” can also be applied as an adjective to my first drafts!)

One of the things that makes you a better editor of your work is to know your writing weaknesses—the crimes you commit against the English language when you’re caught up in the initial drafting rush—so you can spot and fix them. Here are a few of mine, to give you an idea of what I’m taking about.

I LOVE the word “that”. Love it. In my first book, there were hundreds of unnecessary uses. I’m getting better but it’s still a problem. I use it when it’s necessary, when it’s unnecessary, and when it’s just plain wrong—for example, when I should instead say “who”, I say “that”. Every time. When I finished my manuscript a fortnight ago, I did a search for the word “that” and checked each usage.

It took hours.

I describe impossible bodily actions. My characters’ eyes do all sorts of things they shouldn’t. They roam the room instead of staying in their sockets where they are meant to be, the cheeky little sods. So I search for “eyes” and make sure to change it to “gaze” (or similar) when I’ve used it in that context.

As an aside, I’ve seen a senior editor suggest the word “blush” causes a similar problem in first-person books. Blushing is actually a reddening of the cheeks, and the first person character can’t see her own cheeks to know they reddened; she feels her cheeks burn, but can’t see it. This editor consequently said not to say “I blushed”. One to watch out for.

I describe redundant body parts. “He shrugged his shoulders”; “she nodded her head”. Given these are the traditional body parts to use, mentioning them is redundant. The only time you should mention the body part in these cases is when the character is using an atypical part—for example, nodding a hand during a puppet show.

Likewise, saying a first-person (or close-perspective third-person) character “saw” or “heard” something is almost always unnecessary. Given they are telling the story, if you describe something to the reader it’s implicit that the character noticed it.

He said, she said. When I’m describing dialogue between two characters in the first person, I can go for ages without mentioning the name of the second character. It’s all “I said, he said”. My solution to this is, again, to search for the character name and scan through the section of dialogue. Word 2010 highlights any found words in yellow, so if I see a whole page with no yellow, that’s a sign it needs review.

Complex sentences. I love these too. I go nuts with the ands, commas, dashes and semicolons to link ideas together. Sometimes it’s not a problem, but other times—such as during fight scenes or other adrenalin moments—a long sentence slows the action down. When I edit, I find these scenes and chop the sentences up, sometimes even into fragments.

So, those are my main writing sins—and yes, you got five instead of four. Counting? Me?

What are your writing weaknesses?

11 Comments on “Editing: my four (well, five) writing weaknesses”

  1. loonytuney says:

    “So.” It crops up SO often (also in blog post comments, apparently). I’ve become better at adverbs but still use too many. Words like “looked” and “saw” and “felt,” which can often be better written. There are lots of things!

  2. Sceptimum says:

    Commas. I love the little suckers. They are the delicious chocolate topping on the cappuccino of prose.

    And, despite repeated study sessions, I can still never get the rules for apostrophes straight.

  3. ritazemgulyte says:

    You made me think… I should definitely find my weaknesses. For me the main ones I would say is punctuation. I just can’t get the rules of commas’. In my language we use it the majority of time. In English I always doubt whether it is actually necessary…

  4. Karen Soutar says:

    I’ve got some similar ones to yours! Using ‘said’ instead of a better word, or just leaving it out altogether. People sighing too much. I quite like dashes, too – I have to keep them to a minimum. See – there I go again! 😉 😉

  5. Huw Thomas says:

    Commas are terrible little things. I think they breed of their own accord when I’m not looking. Likewise words like ‘just’ and ‘only’. My characters also shrug far more than is proper…

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