Those writing mistakes are a revision gold mine.
One of the frustrations of writing is going to revise and realizing how many writing mistakes you’ve made. Repeated words, too many adverbs, weak verbs, static description, the list goes on and on. Revision is a humbling experience.
But hold on, all is not lost. Those mistakes tell us something about what we were thinking when we were writing the story. As Stephen King says, first drafts are supposed to suck. This is where we pour out the story without stopping to worry about whether we’ve used ‘loquacious’ three times in this chapter.
I view the mistakes we make in the first draft as markers, holding a place for us, so we can go back in revision and write something closer to what our brains had in mind. When we are in the flow is not the time to worry about speech tags, adverbs and the rest, though as we gain experience, we will learn to make a whole new raft of mistakes.
I want to look at the kind of mistakes we make in more detail and suggest what it is they might be telling us about the story.
Dialogue is an essential element in story. It is possible to write a story without dialogue, just as it is possible to write a story that is nothing but. However for the average book, it is part of the three legged stool formed by dialogue, action and narrative.
What often happens, especially with new authors is that the dialogue is reported rather than shown. ‘Mary and Sue discussed where to eat supper and decided the new Thai-Bulgarian Fusion place would be a good idea.’ This is missing out on the opportunity to use the dialogue to show character and plot development. This isn’t to say that we always show dialogue, there are times when the characters are rehashing what we’ve already heard, so glossing over it is fine.
One of the first things to look at in our dialogue is how we use speech tags. Most sources suggest we use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ and only rarely use other tags. The theory is that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ disappear like punctuation and don’t detract from the speech. This doesn’t stop some writers from having characters bark, whine, moan, sigh or laugh words. I see ‘greet’ as a tag, though it is a class of verbs which needs an object and is probably more properly used as a beat. Or the author uses adverbs to tell us how things are said, so people speak hurriedly, angrily, lazily and so on.
So what do these alternate speech tags tell us? They are our attempt to express the manner in which the words are spoken, to evoke the emotion of the dialogue. The goal of dialogue is to have the emotion in the words being spoken, not in the tags. Tags are a way of telling, not showing. What we need to do is examine the speech and work on putting that emotion into the words, or alternatively to use a beat to show the emotion through action or facial expression and body language. Beats are also a great alternative to endless lines of ‘he said’.
There are a couple of reasons beats are a better choice than speech tags whether alternative tags or ones modified by adverbs.
The first reason is they show where tags tell. With a beat you can set the subtext by internal thought, or through emotion show by physical reaction or action. They add depth that the dialogue alone can’t achieve. This is why we use all those alternative and modifiers, our brain is telling us we need to anchor this conversation in the character and plot of the book.
The second reason is to prevent the dialogue from becoming talking heads disconnected from the rest of the book. Beats allow us to show the setting, move the plot forward, reveal character, all while the characters discuss what to eat for supper.
There is something we need to watch when we use beats, and that is what I call empty beats. This is most often a two word beat. He smiled. He shrugged. He laughed. The problem is that they don’t really tell us anything new about the character or the dialogue. A favourite is to show the character nodding or shaking their head after their words indicate whether they agree or disagree. Most often these beats need to be expanded to show more of what is going on in the character’s mind.
We have all heard about the info dump. The large wall of text explaining some point the reader needs to know to get the story. The truth is the info dump is very rarely the best way to let the reader in on this information.
Very often, the information will show up in the appropriate place without the need to explain. The best place to insert information into the text is the last possible moment before it becomes relevant to the plot. If it is never relevant, you don’t need it. This is not to say that the info dump is a waste of words. It is a use tool for checking that the information needed does in fact show up at the right time. Even if it is information not needed by the reader, you as the author need to understand it in order to write the story.
Aside from the info dump, there are a couple of other ways we try to sneak the information into the story.
One is through dialogue. There is the ‘As you know Bob’ dialogue where two or more characters tell each other what they already know. Nobody talks that way unless they are being sarcastic. This is not to say you can’t hide the information in dialogue, but it needs to fill an authentic purpose. This brings us to the ‘Dumb Mechanic’ dialogue where one of the people does not know the information, and so it is new to them, and the reader. They need to actually not know for it to work, and it must only be information that they need in the moment.
Teaching and instruction is a form of the dumb mechanic, but needs to be used sparingly. Having an instructor begin the training of a newbie to sword play or other fighting technique is a good way to set up the basic terminology you are going to use later in fight scenes.
Another trick to slip information into dialogue legitimately is when a character needs to report on something to their boss or other person. A report needs to be detailed, and we can tailor it to say exactly what we need.
Authors also use internal thought to push exposition onto the reader. The character sits and thinks exhaustively about the history and customs of their land, only no one really thinks that way. We don’t stop and remind ourselves in orderly fashion of the information around us. What we do it think of the fraction of the knowledge that we need in that moment.
That is the secret of exposition whether it is broader knowledge of the story situation or backstory of the character. Drop it in hints at the moment when it is necessary to the plot. Very rarely is a substantial amount of information needed at a single moment.
When we spot info dumps or exposition in any of these forms, our task is to decide if it is necessary, then check to see that it shows up when it is needed. Odds are it appears naturally in dialogue or action without needing a lot of extra work from us.
One last thing to watch for is the temptation to explain a character’s motivation for an action or speech. Probably it is clear from the context, and it if isn’t, we can put something in to make it clear.
The main thing to keep in mind when it comes to information and inserting it into the story is we need to trust ourselves as authors. The necessary stuff is there. But we also need to trust the reader to get it without us laying it all out for them. Part of the fun of reading is connecting the dots.
Word issues include things like filler words – that, just, only, so, perhaps. They don’t add anything to the meaning of the sentence, but they slow down the story. Often we use the words out of habit, but they may also be a pointer to the need for more emphasis in that sentence. When we see the filler words, before we delete them and move on, we should ask ourselves what there is about that sentence which made us think we needed the extra word?
I use search and replace to replace the word with itself with track changes turned on. That will show us all 1497 times ‘that’ shows up in our novel, giving us the opportunity to reassess 1497 sentences to make them stronger. Use the same technique for other filler words, and we have checked a large portion of our writing.
Every author has a personal list of over-used words and phrases. Software like prowritingaid will highlight the most used words, but also two and three word phrases. These phrases may be habitual, but they are also a chance to reframe parts of our writing to make it stronger.
‘Seemed’ deserves a special mention in the list of over-used words. Most often it is used to hedge a character’s observation. We put it in because the character can’t actually know their friend is angry. The truth is we weaken our story by using it. Trust your character to know how to read the people around them. If they don’t know how to read the people or situation around them, you will want something much stronger than ‘seemed’ to show that.
The one place where ‘seemed’ is needed is when something is counter to reality. The floor seemed safe, but it collapsed under Bob’s weight.
Words which are similar to filler words and can be checked the same way are filter verbs. Filter verbs are verbs like ‘thought/felt/saw/heard’ and so on. They force the experience of the story through the character. Bob saw the car roaring toward him. We are seeing Bob see the car. What you want is ‘The car roared toward Bob.’ It is direct and immediate. In first person, or third person limited, the POV defines who is experiencing the world of the story. We don’t need to remind the reader it is being mediated through the character.
The exception, because there is always exceptions, is when the seeing/hearing etc is the result of a positive action by the character. ‘Bob listened carefully for sounds of movement, only hearing the scuttling of rats in the walls.’ He hears in response to his listening.
Weak nouns and verbs are another challenge. ‘Look’ and ‘walk’ often get adverbs attached to them to make them more effective. Walk briskly, looked angrily – that kind of thing. Once again search and replace is a way of checking, though it won’t pick up all of them. The goal here is to use a stronger verb, after all one can stroll, saunter, amble, stride, jog, or glare, stare, examine, scan etc. The weak verb is the easiest one to think of in the moment of composing the story, but they should be thought of as holding the place of a stronger verb.
One caveat is that we must be aware of the nuances evoked by similar words. A glance is different than a stare. A smirk is different than a smile. If you aren’t sure, check the dictionary meaning before you use it.
Nouns function in much the same way, though often it is about being specific. Hawk is more evocative than bird for example. If you are piling on adjectives, you may want to consider switching the noun for a more specific one.
When it comes to weak verbs, ‘was’ in all its iterations is king. The verb to be is a transitive verb, that is, it identifies one thing as another thing. ‘The leaf is green.’ It becomes a problem when was is used in place of an active verb. Anytime we can replace was with an active verb, we should do that.
‘Was’ also shows up in continual tense, that is ‘He was sitting.’ Continual tense is for when an action is interrupted, or when an action is carried on in the background. If neither of these conditions are met, we probably want the simple form of the verb.
‘Was’ is also part of the passive voice. ‘He was attacked.’ The simplest way of checking if we are writing the passive voice. The simplest test for passive voice is the zombie test. If we can add ‘by zombies’ at the end of the sentence and it makes sense, we are writing in passive voice.
Passive voice is not automatically evil and deserving of eradication, but it is used in limited situations. The first is when the doer of the action is unknown. ‘Bob was thrown down the stairs.’ If we don’t know who threw Bob down the stairs, and it isn’t important to know, passive voice is useful. The other case is when the action is more important that who accomplishes the action. If it doesn’t matter who threw Bob down the stairs, passive voice works.
What passive voice does is remove agency from the subject of the action. Bob has no choice about being thrown down the stairs.
The last place we tend to overuse ‘was’ is description. How often do we have our characters enter a room only to have a paragraph of sentences like ‘The room was large. Tables were covered with knick-knacks and dust. The feeble glow of the fire was hardly enough light to see the body splayed on the carpet.’ This is the character standing in the door and looking around at the room. That may be exactly what the character is doing, but such descriptions have the effect of stopping the action while the reader takes in the new setting. Usually we are better to have the character interact with the room to show what is important in the scene.
‘So many tables crowded the room they left little space for Bob to wind his way to the far end. Each bump sent knick-knacks clinking and clouds of dust into the air to tickle his nose. Stifling a sneeze, Bob knelt on the carpet where the dim light of a dying fire revealed a corpse staring reproachfully up at him.’
Whenever we can make description an active part of the story, we not only put the reader into the setting, we make the setting a part of the plot and it becomes like another character in that moment.
On last word issue – the over prevalence of pronouns.
‘He nailed the door shut. He ran down the hall. He skidded around the corner into the kitchen. He pushed the fridge in front of the kitchen window.’
It is easy in the heat of writing our draft to use a lot of pronouns. It is a quick way of getting the bones of the action into the story. However, we need to go back and take a hard look at any sentence starting with a pronoun. Action scenes are made up of more than a sequence of actions done by the character. A lot of pronouns suggests we’ve pulled away from the POV and are narrating the story. Our goal should be to pull in tighter and write the action, not the character acting.
‘He nailed the door shut before sprinting down the hall. His feet lost their grip on the floor sending him crashing into the mirror. Glass dug into his skin in the scramble to get into the kitchen and move the fridge to cover the kitchen window.’
Emotion is essential to a good story. The ability to evoke strong emotions in the reader can make the difference between the reader turning the page or not. Plot may start the reader, but emotion is what holds them.
The biggest mistake with emotion is to name them. ‘Bob is angry.’ Stating a character’s emotional state will not help the reader experience that emotion. The task then is to read through the story to find the places where we’ve named an emotion and look at how we can show it better. There are lot of resources on writing emotions, but the simple method of writing emotion is to write the effect of the emotion on the character. What happens to their body? How does their posture/expression change?
There is also a danger of using the same action to represent an emotion throughout the story. The reality is we react differently to emotions depending on the context, so anger won’t always cause clenched fists. Sadness won’t always result in tears. Work the context, and be prepared to make the emotional reaction of character ambivalent and complex.
As the song says, we are supposed to make mistakes. In writing those mistakes become place holders marking the spots our brain thinks need more work. Rather than getting depressed at the sheer volume of mistakes we need to correct, we should view this as an opportunity to assess and strengthen a significant portion of our work.
I have always found that as I am hunting down the repeated words or static descriptions, I find other things to work on. By the time I’ve been through the manuscript the three or four times needed to check all these things, I’ve not just fixed these issues, but areas where the plot is weak, or characters are acting strangely.
Working on these ‘mistakes’ is a gold mine for revision and will make our writing much more powerful.