The Editor’s Scalpel

Brief Housekeeping:

Some of you may have noticed a lack of updates this month. Due to school being school, I’ll be changing my schedule to post every other week instead of weekly. 

English: Diamond scalpel
I was seriously considering a photo of a scalpel leaning on a pig’s heart, with a caption about ‘yeah, that’s what it feels like’. Because I love you, here’s a diamond scalpel instead. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my experience editing, I’ve noticed I use two words more than any other: “comma” and “cut”. The former, being one of the most absurdly complicated elements of English grammar, already has a blog post dedicated to it. And then there’s the latter.

A double-edged sword

It’s a writer’s job to explain, to take that vivid picture in your head and use words to paint it in mine. That takes a lot of effort, a lot of detail, and a lot of words. Sometimes, though, those words can clutter the sentences, bog down prose, or otherwise get in the way of the image. We’re left walking a razor’s edge: too many words, and you risk overwriting. Too few, and you risk not being understood.

(That’s the last blade-pun, I promise).

You might notice the problem: it’s very difficult to identify that line in your own writing. After all, you already know what you’re trying to convey. For a matter like this, which is dependent on clarity and reader understanding, I recommend getting a beta editor to look over your manuscript and point out which sections are unclear or overwritten.

What is overwriting?

There’s different varieties, but these are the ones I see most often:

Purple prose — When the writing calls attention to the author instead of the story or characters. Often it comes in the form of waxing poetic at length about… anything, and it typically comes across as the author trying too hard to be fancy. That’s not to say good writing can’t be poetic, but you’ll often get a stronger effect with a single significant detail than with a paragraph-long abstract description.

Needless repetition — Sometimes it’s as subtle as using both a dialogue tag and an action beat for the same section of dialogue. Sometimes it’s characters repeating the same information to one another. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase being reused too frequently in a short space, when one or more of them could be replaced by a synonym. And sometimes it’s the same detail being given in two different ways.

Understood — “He reached down to his belt level, wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, tightened his grip, contracted the muscles in his arm and shoulder, pulled the weapon from his scabbard, and raised it into the air in front of him.” Or, once my scalpel has had its say: “He drew his sword.” There are a lot of secondary and tertiary details that readers will assume to be true when they’re given a little bit of context. The biggest offender: “he said, looking at her.” If two people are in a conversation, unless it’s explicitly stated they’re avoiding eye contact, we will always assume they’re looking at one another, because that’s the way people hold conversations (outside of movies and television, of course).

Unnecessary words –– Descriptors can often be trimmed if they’re understood. For example, “He sat down in the chair” can usually be slimmed into “He sat in the chair” (unlike “he sat up in the chair”, which indicates an entirely different action). Similar examples include “stood up” and “woke up“.

These are all things to give you ideas, but like all writing, it’s subjective. In the end it all comes down to whether that word or phrase helps to create a vivid image or emotion in the reader’s mind, or whether it’s just clutter. .

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