revision 9-1-1: writing mechanics

I decided to classify this post so it applies to both PBs and longer works. If you’ve been following my Revision 9-1-1 articles, you’ve read a lot about “big” issues which crop up in manuscripts I’ve reviewed. But what’s contained in here is MORE IMPORTANT. Why? If an agent or editor senses you haven’t mastered the basics, your wonderful plot, brilliant characters, and awesome setting won’t matter. Remember how bitter and exhausted your slush-pile editor or agent might be? You could get slipped the form at page one! So watch out for these common pitfalls.

back-to-back-to-back adjectives

Yes, I will admit fantasy and historical fiction often has a very descriptive style. But this is what I mean (no matter what genre your book is)…

  • Example: The tall, white, spotted dog sat on a polka-dotted straw mat.
  • Solution: Examine your sentences. Might you find your sentence works just as well without a few of those adjectives? Yes, I think so. Why do adjectives irk people (including me)? They feel mechanical. Pushy. And controlling. And they can drag down your sentences. How quickly can a sentence like that be scanned without slowing your pace? Now picture four sentences like this with as many adjectives. OUCH! So pay attention! Your job is to provide TOUCHES of description, not necessarily the whole spiel. Trust your readers to have imaginations.

echo, echo, echo…

This is by far the biggest pain to correct and sometimes very hard to detect.

  • Example: I looked at him. “Look, Frank. If you want to look for suspects, than you have to look here.”
  • Solution: Can’t tell what’s wrong with this? Your ears need a workout then. READ YOUR MANUSCRIPTS OUT LOUD. It’s a lot easier to pick up on echoes that way. Eventually you will get so good at it, you will automatically fix them before you even write an echo down. Soon you will also learn six-thousand variants for the word look. I love the example above because I, myself, am a recovering look-aholic. A revised version of the above might be… “Look, Frank.” I picked up a book entitled BEST PLACES TO FIND SUSPECTS. “If you want to hunt someone down, this is what you read.”
  • Echoes can appear between sentences, paragraphs, and pages. So don’t confine your search to the sentence itself. Read the work aloud and listen for those echoes.

serial as, when,-ing killers

  • This is another variant of an echo. If you use a sentence pattern too often like AS I X’d, SHE Y’D. Or WHEN X Happened, Y happeend. Or I X’d, [INSERT VERB]+ing. It’s noticeable. You’re killing sentences with those echoes. Your reader will detect YOU. You don’t want to be detected. You want to be invisible so your reader can focus all his energy on reading your great book.
  • Example: I ran to the door, panting. “It must be Tony,” I said, opening the door. But standing in front of me was Rick, holding a gun.
  • Did you hear the -ing echo?
  • SOLUTION: READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. AND SLOWLY. Are you noticing you love AS, WHEN, and/or -ING a bit too much? AS, WHEN, AND -ING phrases are the most abused I’ve seen in free-tiques. Learn to vary your sentence patterns. Also, don’t be afraid to use SIMPLE sentence structures. And fragments (GASP!). They are just as acceptable as more complicated structures.

bum words

Check your manuscript for words that aren’t earning their keep in your sentences.

  • Examples: THAT, JUST, EVEN, Adverbs, Adjectives.
  • Solution: Cut them or cut them down. Only use them when they have value in your sentence. You’ll find your writing will sound much tighter when you lose the bums. Also you might discover some of these words echo as well. If you love the word THAT and JUST, chances are, you have a thousand of them in your book. Send those bums packing!

!@#@~!–improper punctuation (or questionable punctuation)

  • Classic punctuation mistakes mostly involve the comma. The most common one I’ve seen goes something like this…I ate, and went to the pool. Or…..The teacher, Mrs. Applethorn, called roll. The em dash, ellipse, semicolon and colon are also punctuation marks people can’t get a handle on.
  • Solution: Brush up, people! Elements of Style is a great resource for this. You don’t want an editor or agent (trained on detecting writing faux pas) obsessing over your errant comma. If anything, you want them impressed with your ability to insert a REAL em dash in your manuscript.
  • Granted, there are different standards for punctuation (especially for the comma). You can’t guess which standard the editor or agent will apply to your manuscript. So when in doubt, stick to one rule and be consistent throughout.

bad par
a
graph
ing

  • This is when the paragraphs are all over the place. The author hasn’t quite worked out when to start or end a paragraph. Paragraphing dialogue seems to be problematic for many writers.
  • Solution: Typically paragraphs change as speakers change and/or when the topic of discussion switches as well (like regular paragraphs). Read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or Elements of Style. Also, examine real books if you’ve got one of those situations where a character is thinking while someone else is talking. Learn how to use paragraphing to your advantage, not to your detriment.
  • Also, are all of your paragraphs GINORMOUS? What do you think an editor thinks when she sees an entire page that is only one paragraph? Long paragraphs may be a symptom of verbose or unclear writing. Tighten it up. Whack out the unnecessary. Restructure your work so the intent can be conveyed in readable bytes.

misplaced tags

  • This is when the action and the dialogue are reversed. Example: “This coffee is awful.” I sipped from the mug. Wow, seems obvious, huh?
  • I see this all the freaking time.
  • SOLUTION: Make sure you’re paying attention to what you’ve written. Place special focus on your tags. Especially ones that are actions. See if it reads more logically when you reverse the sequence.

tag frenzy

  • This is when the tags appear in every single line of dialogue. Or the tags are so distracting, it’s hard to pay attention to what is being said. What you get with too many tags is another variant of an echo. The words may not be the same but you’ll hear the “ping” and “pong” reverberating in your brain as you read it.
  • Example:

I opened the can. “I was thinking about trying out of the soccer team.”

Mom emptied the dishwasher. “That’s nice, honey.”

I fed Fido. “So can we afford my uniform?”

Mom wiped her hands on a rag. “I don’t see why not.”

  • SOLUTION: Space out your tags more randomly. Eliminate extras you don’t need. Watch for distraction. It takes an ear to get this right. So study real books. Learn from the masters. Read your stuff aloud until you’ve got this one down.

action fixations

  • This is yet another variant of an echo. Too much of one thing calls out the writer. Do you find your characters “shrug” a lot? “Swallow” too much? “Breathe” enough for the entire population of China?
  • SOLUTION: Vigilance is required again. Doing a “find” in WORD (Ctrl+F) will help you figure out if your MC swallowed only two pages ago. Watch for variants of the same action or from the same body part. I’ve noticed the “eyes” and “breathing” are very popular fixations. The “heart” is probably a close third. Again that is not to say you can’t use vital bodily functions in your book. Just don’t use them all the time. Change it up a little. Perhaps some of these actions could be substituted for unique thoughts. Left out entirely. Or changed up with a different body part? 🙂

concurrent actions which aren’t concurrent

  • Once again the -ing, as, and when constructions can do some damage to your writing.
  • Examples: Tripping down the steps, I landed in the bushes. Or. As I ran through the hall, I opened the door. Or. When I buckled my seatbelt, I started the engine.
  • Solution: Focus on what you’re trying to say. Take a quick look at your as and when clauses. Check out those -ing participles. Did you really mean that? Don’t be afraid to lose the when or the as or the -ing. Write two independent sentences or a compound one. Or at the very least, use the correct construction. The revised examples might look like this…I tripped and landed in the bushes. OR. I ran down the hall. I opened the door. OR After I buckled my seatbelt, I started the engine.

the obvious icky stuff

  • Most of you are pretty good about misspellings, so I won’t harp on it here. However, on occasion I do see oopsies on the first few pages. Granted, no one is 100-percent error free, but really work hard to make sure nothing silly like this happens, especially on those critical first pages. You don’t want the editor or agent to assume this is what the rest of the manuscript is like, do you?
  • SOLUTION: Have someone help you check. Don’t trust WORD to correct all your mistakes. Watch the tricky “it’s” and “its”, “your” and “you’re”, and so on. Read your work aloud, too.

What’s the big idea?

  • Mastering the basic mechanics of good fiction writing allows the editor or agent to focus on your story. It also prevents you from being rejected at Page One. Too much of something is usually not a good thing. Echoes, in particular, will call you out from the story. Thus, vigilance is required to ensure your invisibility (and your survival!). Read your work aloud. Be aware of common faux pas so you can send up the red flags when you read your own stuff. Get the help of writer friends. Finally, review your copy of Elements of Style or Self-Editing for Fiction Writers if you need to. A little awareness can go a long way.

Order WRITING FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS: A CRASH COURSE

Happy revising!

Cynthea

12 thoughts on “revision 9-1-1: writing mechanics

  1. Interesting about the reading out loud. Someone in my writing group suggested a text reader for those who found it hard to do so, there’s one on http://www.naturalreaders.com/ that can be used for free. Thought I’d pass it on for any other readers who are scared of reading to themselves like I am!

  2. Thank you so much for reiterating the things we’ve all been trying to tell writers all along. And it’s so true. If we don’t think the author can revise, it doesn’t matter how great the plot (or character, etc) is — we just don’t have the resources to work with it. I’m glad to have found your site, and I shall reccommend.

  3. A couple years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready for this advice or understood it very well. THANK YOU for your attention to detail, solutions, and assistance. I’ve read all the books and I have reached the final stages of my manuscript; your instructions are helping put some polish on those (hopefully!) final rough edges of my work. Blessings.

  4. When I was doing a round of editing I found concurrent actions. Crazy but easy to eliminate. I really enjoyed this post. It made me think about how I can improve my writing and then improve it more and more. It’s all about editing in the end.

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