Editing Bootcamp: Smile and Nod



Polishing a manuscript might be tougher than writing the first draft.  When you’re in the middle of the wild abandon of creativity, pouring words onto the page and flinging characters into mortal peril without always knowing how you’re going to get them out again, it’s easy to push your inner editor into a cage and tell yourself that you’ll just get back to all those weird quibbly bits on the second pass.

But then you’ve got to make the second pass.  And the third pass.  And the fourth, and maybe even the fifth.  And then you realize that after focusing intently for three days on a single scene, choosing every exactly perfect phrase and gesture, you’ve already used the word “prevaricate” on the previous page, and twice in the last chapter, but you forgot all about it, and now you don’t know what to do.

We all have particular words that we’re in love with, and we all have natural rhythms to our writing that can become a little tedious when repeated time and time again across a long manuscript.  It’s really hard when feel like you’re just on the verge of getting things right, and then something silly like the overuse of a distinctive sentence pattern throws you off your game and jars your readers into wondering if you even noticed how many times Joe has whirled around in surprise in the last ten pages.

So what are some of the things to watch for in order to ensure that your writing flows smoothly, contains enough interesting variety, and yet still gets your point across?  Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to use too many adverbs in your writing.  I happen to love adverbs, so I’m not going to push that one.  What I am going to focus on is stage directions.

She smiled.  He laughed.  She nodded.  He sighed.  She looked down at her hands.  She shook her head.  These little ubiquitous actions can convey a lot of emotion when used properly, and they’re really good “spacers” when you want the reader to pause for thought before hearing what a character thinks.

It’s tough to cut out these gestures if they’ve turned into crutches for your dialogue instead of enhancements.  But your dialogue needs to stand on its own merits without the director’s megaphone.  If someone is laughing, the previous sentence should have been funny or embarrassing or silly.  If the joke is successful on its own, your reader already knows that the second character is going to laugh before she replies.  If it isn’t successful, there’s no point in saying “she laughed”, because no one is going to be laughing with her.

When I write my first draft, I often put in these stage directions to anchor the feeling of the scene for my own benefit.  They’re my own behind-the-curtain cues to make sure that I’m getting across the reason behind why he’s sighing or she’s shaking her head.  When I’m doing my editing, I make a list of words that I’ve probably overused (jumped, whispered, nodded, screamed, sighed, grinned, ignored) and do a targeted search through the entire document to see where I can cut those words or switch them up a bit without losing the meaning of the action.  When you’ve said the word “sigh” 72 times in your manuscript, you know there are some adjustments to be made.

I really strongly suggest this step (and I will use an adverb to do so).  You might want to use a word frequency tool to help figure out what your overused phrases are.  Variation keeps your readers engaged and your prose flowing.  It pushes you as a writer and helps you examine the strength of your dialogue and the emotions you’ve created  in every scene.  So take a few minutes to scan your manuscript for words that stick out and words that are way too common.  I guarantee your work will be better for it.


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