Junk Words and Ego Deflation

As of this morning, I am one-fifth of the way through the first revision of Omnipotence. The process to date has been humbling. I’ve discovered several peculiarities of my drafting style which simply must be terminated. With extreme prejudice.

I routinely make jokes about my red pen, invoking as much carnal imagery as I can cram into a single idiom. Right now that carnage doesn’t feel particularly figurative. It’s real. I’m cutting and slicing my way through this manuscript like a Mongolian horde.

In the interest of deflating my ego, and in assisting others in their personal quest for the perfect manuscript, I thought I would share some of my personal editing bugbears which earned particular attention from my keyboard’s Delete key this week.

Or whatever your favorite editing tool might be... I'm not here to judge.

First is the infernal ellipsis. It seems I’ve developed a love affair with this peculiar punctuation mark. My manuscript is positively riddled with ellipses, but only in dialogue. I suspect this is due to my style of drafting, in which I pause when scripting dialogue to reproduce the pattern of speech as I hear it in my head. I won’t beat myself up too much over this. If anything, it indicates a real sense of prosody is weaving itself into my dialogue. However, a comma does the job just as well, but with an air of propriety and ease on the reader’s eyes.

Second, I’m running into weak verb structure. Again, I feel this is due to the sense of halting pace that comes with discovering the story during the first draft. However, most of the action is being watered down with the likes of the following:

“Nigel managed to set the coffee mug down before his knees buckled.”

“Horatio started to dust off his flintlock pistol as Lydia began removing her dress.”

These verbs are circling their sentences like fruit flies over a bowl of mangoes. It’s clunky and drags down the pace of the scene. How much better would it be to read:

“Nigel set down his coffee mug before his knees buckled.”

“Horatio dusted off his flintlock pistol as Lydia removed her dress.”

Much better. I feel like we’re getting to the point with greater efficiency.

Thirdly, the diabolical dialogue tag! Most writers I know have received a measure of advice at some point, guiding them towards the creative use of dialogue tags. Recently, I saw a photocopy at a community college Writing Center with a list of 100 synonyms for the word “said”, meant to encourage students to flower up their tags.

Unwise.

“Look at that!” Joe Jack bellowed alarmingly.

“Wow, that’s unbelievable!” Billy Bob sputtered.

Anna Rae mused, “It’s aliens, ain’t it?”

“Well, what else could it be?” Joe Jack grumbled in annoyance.

Horrid, isn’t it? To begin with, the use of adverbs in dialogue tags is almost never a good idea, for two reasons. First: there are ways of conveying the emotional context without using an adverb. “She barked” conveys the timbre of her speech better than “She said sharply.” Second: it’s even better to allow the dialogue to convey the context. Take a look at the last line of dialogue above. The phrase “in annoyance” is perfectly pointless. It’s quite clear that Joe Jack is annoyed. Why clutter the prose?

Dialogue in a scene with two characters doesn’t require dialogue tags to any great extent. A scene with multiple characters benefits from an economical portion of tags to keep the speakers straight. But in all cases, the perfect tag is the tag that the reader doesn’t notice.

Well, it is time to grab my revision machete and plunge into the manuscript once more. I will leave you with a quote from French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” 

Image credit: scottchan

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