Let’s face it: if Thanksgiving taught us (well, me) anything this year, it’s that there IS such a problem as “too much of a good thing.” Especially when that thing is my sister’s pumpkin cheesecake.
But back to writing: This post is about trouble areas that are easy to spot and not usually too hard to clean up. The best part? Cleaning them up can do marvels for the quality and “readability” of your prose.
These are things lots of people talk about. To be honest, I know I’ve talked about them before on my blog. But I figure it’s useful to revisit big points. Also, grouping old information in new ways can help us find new connections and learn new things.
1. EXCESS OF BACKSTORY
An excess of backstory? All at once? Yes, I’m talking about the dreaded information dump.
I happen to be queen of the info dump. While that’s not necessarily a good thing, it means I’ve learned how to handle them in my drafts because I’ve had lots of practice. So, what do I do when I notice I have an info dump, or a beta reader points one out to me?
- First, I question each and every detail that makes up the info dump (or I try to.) Is this point necessary? What does it add to a reader’s understanding of the story and the setting? Is that addition of value? Everything I can do without, I cut.
- Then, if I still have too much backstory chunked together, I see whether I can move a part of it somewhere else (preferably somewhere logical, considering content, and where it doesn’t sit too close to additional backstory revelation).
2. REPETITION OF THINGS THAT ARE EASILY REMEMBERED
I’m not talking about purposeful repetition here. I’m not talking about reminding a reader of one small of piece of the puzzle revealed earlier before you reveal a related piece that’s completely new (I love that as a reader!)
I’m talking about repeating, over and over, basic concepts that are important to the story: concepts an author can trust his or her readers to remember. The most flagrant example of this I can remember comes from college.
My twentieth century British lit class had to read a short story called “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad.
The story is about a captain (or maybe a lower ranking officer) on a ship who rescues a man from the sea and is shocked to find that they are–gasp!–pretty much doubles.
The narrator says things like, “I was looking at my double” and “I thought I was looking in a mirror.” “He could have been my twin.” And he doesn’t just say this two or three times. It is literally every second or third paragraph, and the main point of various paragraphs throughout the story.
I got SOOOOO annoyed I wanted to throw the anthology the story was in against the wall. This was my reaction to such needless repetition; it’s how readers generally react to this kind of situation:
“I’m not stupid, Conrad. These two guys look a lot alike. That kind of creeps the narrator out, especially at first. I GET IT. Seriously.“
It took me, as a writer, multiple drafts to learn I don’t need to patronize my readers. They’re cool, smart people more than capable of remembering the important stuff (when I hint that something is important) and making obvious connections.
3. ADJECTIVES (AND ESPECIALLY ADVERBS)
Writers are always telling other writers “don’t use adverbs whenever you can help it,” and the advice honestly cannot be repeated enough (regardless of what I just said about repetition, haha. Look a me being a big ole hypocrite.)
I’ve tried to be cognizant recently of adverbs, in particular, that I use after dialogue tags. I used to LOVE using adverbs after dialogue tags and they’ve become a nasty habit of mine.
What a character is saying should be well-enough crafted that a reader can intuit a tone of voice and an emotional state. If you need to imply volume, “yell,” “shout,” “whisper” and such are great verbs to use. There’s no real need for “angrily,” “loudly,” “happily,” etc. after “said.”
(And please…. please, for all that’s bright and beautiful, never, ever write “shouted loudly” or “whispered softly.” Using an adverb that your chosen verb makes redundant is the cardinal sin of adverb usage.)
Strong writing always opts for powerful, descriptive, and poignant nouns and verbs over a string of adverbs and adjectives. I can never pass up a chance to quote Stephen King in this: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Is that really where you want your writing taking you?
So, what are some of your writing flaws? Where do you have to rein yourself in because you have to tendency to go overback? What kinds of things do you find yourself trimming back when you edit? I’d love to get a discussion about this going.
Then we can realize we’re all in the same boat 🙂 After all, cutting excesses is just part of the writing process and nothing to feel badly about.
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy these posts about common writing tics. You can also sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page.