The Nitty Gritty Pt. 2
Last week’s blog post focused on four of the eight editing tips I went over in the editing process (a blog post from four weeks ago). This is the nitty gritty pt 2. For part one, go here. Just like in the last part, I’m going to go through four more major killers one’s writing, explain why it is so bad, and give samples and revisions. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Nitty Gritty #1: Adverbs
Adverbs are those pesky little words ending in –ly. Adverbs modify verbs or other adverbs. While they are not inherently bad, we should avoid them because one of the best things about the English language is that there is always a better word. Rather, a more specific word. Let’s look at some basic examples so that you can get the point.
Old: Romeo ran quickly.
While this is a nice little sentence, it can be even better. What is to run quickly? Well, running quickly is a sprint. So, in the revised version we can just say…
Revised: Romeo sprinted.
Old: The teacher heard one of the students talking quietly to another.
Again what is to talk quietly? Well, it’s a whisper. So, we can just say…
Revised: The teacher heard one of the students whispering to another.
Trickier adverbs to get rid of are words like: very, never, always, sometimes, seldom. These are tricky ones because they don’t have an –ly so they aren’t as easily noticeable as the one I just used. Nevertheless, when evaluating a sentence, ask yourself, do I really need this word here? Chances are you probably don’t.
Old: He was very happy with the grade he received in his writing class.
First, this is an emotion (happy) so I would recommend showing it instead of telling it anyway. But, even if we took out very, is there really that much of a difference? We could say “jubilant” or “elated” instead of “very happy.” Again, most times there is a better option.
Revised: He grinned from ear to ear when he saw the grade he received in his writing class.
The other words like always or never are certainly words that can change the entire meaning of a sentence. They are very powerful words that should be used carefully because you are no making the sentence an all or nothing. I would be careful using those words. You can find more on adverbs by going here.
Nitty Gritty #2: Dialogue Tags
One of my favorite pieces of advice that I can give budding writings is on dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are necessary for people who write prose. It can appear in poetry, too, but often times this is not typical.
Here is an example of a strand of dialogue I had from a previous draft of my novel. In this scene, I have the main character, Zain, his brother, Jamaal, and their mother, Brisine. All of the characters are about to eat a nice dinner together.
There are many things wrong with this exchange of dialogue. Many writers think it’s necessary to say said after each piece of dialogue. It’s not. In fact, your writing should be good enough that you should barely need dialogue tags when having a conversation. Also, there are some inconsistencies here, and, I noticed two pesky little –lys (dismally and mutely). Let’s get rid of those.
Okay, so in this draft I took out the adverb and I put an adjective dismayed. Instead of mutely I put that Zain “followed along in his mind.” This implies silently. A little better. I took out “his mom changed topics” in the last line because we know it is her already. At the end of the dialogue stream she refers to her Zain by name, so why shouldn’t she also refer to her other son by name as well? Also, we know it has to be her because Zain had just spoken and she uses Jamaal’s name, leaving her the only other option available. Even with all of these makeovers, it still isn’t good enough. It can be so much more effective. How? The secret weapon: Action Tags.
The Nitty Gritty #2A BONUS—Action Tags!!!
Action tags are a great alternative to break up the monotony of dialogue tags. Not only do they keep the story moving, but through action tags, we know who is speaking which makes things like “Sally said” redundant in nature. It helps us paint a better picture, and as I mentioned before, this conversation is taking place at dinner, but I only show Zain reaching for food once. What more can we do here?! Well, let’s take a look at the scene above, but with action tags put in.
This is dramatically better than what I had previously. I am actually showing a dinner scene now. The very first two lines of dialogue “said” or “asked” is nowhere to be found. Instead, Jamaal stuffs his linen into his dress shirts collar (this shows that he’s perhaps more mature, more elegant, than his younger brother who just throws the linen aside). In addition, Zain throwing the linen aside and sighing shows his dismay, so I don’t need to say it.
The next big change is when I took out: “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m hungry.” Zain reached forward for the food. Instead of saying these lines, I show it. I make his sentence shorter previously and not grammatically correct. “Scrawny kid. No muscle. Not sure…” Immediately after, he reaches for the food, so I don’t need to convey he’s hungry, that’s already shown in his action. It also shows him trying to do something else not to talk. Zain’s mother swatting his hand away shows her authority as a mother figure, and I no longer need her to “remind” them. She made that very clear in the action.
Next we have “followed along in his mind.” vs. “followed along in mute devotion.” While one may claim there is not much difference here, there is quite a bit. Remember, his mother is just about to pray. When we pray, we give devotion. Using that specific word, along with it being mute, shows that Zain doesn’t pray. In fact, in the previous sentence, following along in his mind, may show the reader that he knows the prayer, just chooses not to say it.
Another new thing that’s been changed is the mother clearing her throat. This tells us she’s about to speak, so I no longer need a dialogue tag there. Also, I change “Zain” to “Z”, showing the mother’s affection for her son and his struggles in being a trainer and failing his test.
At the end of this, the only dialogue tag that actually managed to stay around is “Yeah,” Zain lied. But, I do get rid of “No, Jamaal” because we know that it is his brother he is thinking about because the brother asked the question in the last statement, as it’s a new piece of dialogue (conotated by the new paragraph) and the mother was just before, and we see Zain right after, so it must be Jamaal by process of elimination. I need to keep “lied” in there because it’s powerful. It shows Zain hiding something from his family.
Finally, look at the word count. Compared to the first example, I have less words. Sure, I have a few more words than the second example, which has the least, but that is okay because I am showing now, not telling, as I mentioned in the post last week, that typically requires you to type more words. It’s essential, then, that we eliminate the words that we can and where we can, so that we can expand upon the places that we need to.
Moreover, I think we all can agree that this scene is much more intriguing to look at then the previous ones, am I right? That is the importance of focusing on the nitty gritty folks.
Nitty Gritty #3: Words like have or do
This one is rather particular, but like the other tips, I mention this because there is usually a better word, or a more powerful action verb that we can use. Let’s just take a look at a few quick examples.
Old: He did his homework.
Revised: He finished his homework.
Again, both are acceptable. There is no difference in word count, but, personally, it’s my belief that finished is a stronger word than did. It actually shows us an action. In fact, it tells us he completed his homework. In the first sentence, we don’t know if he’s actually completed his homework or just did a little bit of it.
Old: When she left him, she took everything he had.
Revised: When she left him, she took everything he owned.
Again, my personal opinion is that owned is a much better and stronger word than had in this case. Finally, if we want to use both of them in an example:
Old: “I suppose it will have to do. Commence.”
Revised: “I suppose it will suffice. Commence.”
In this example, I am dropping word count by using a more specific word to take out both have and do. Also, the tone is still there, so the meaning hasn’t changed.
Nitty Gritty #4: Words like something, thing, stuff, obvious and beautiful
To understand why these words are so bad, let’s go through each of them individually. Well, besides something, thing and stuff which is essentially the same thing. (Or, should I have said word there?
Old: He grabbed something from the safe and rushed out, ready for her.
This sentence conveys absolutely nothing.
Revised: He grabbed the engagement ring from the safe and rushed out, ready for her.
Revised: He grabbed the gun from the safe and rushed out, ready for her.
I just totally changed the meaning of the first sentence dramatically with replacing something with engagement ring or gun. The former, shows that this individual is going to propose. At least, hopefully builds suspense for that. The latter shows he and this woman are in an argument and something bad may happen, creating suspense and tension.
Old: Obviously, we should invest more in our children’s education than in the country’s infrastructure.
Revised: We should invest more in our children’s education than in the country’s infrastructure because our children are the future.
Using the word obvious in the old sentence makes the sentence sound a little boastful and arrogant. Also, there is no details to back it up. Furthermore, if it’s is obvious then we don’t need to say the word to bring attention to it. Instead, we should delete the word obvious and then provide a reason for our claim.
Finally, the word beautiful. Look at this old sample from my second novel below, and try to imagine it.
Old: Eska turned around and looked at Tundra’s naked body covered by sheets, lying in his bed underneath the dawning light. There, exposed in the moonlight, she lay still, serene, beautiful. (30)
What did you imagine? Did you imagine a Victoria’s Secret model? Was Tundra someone young or older and more mature? Did you imagine someone fat or fit?
The problem with the word beautiful is that it is subjective. As the saying goes: “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” What is beautiful to one person, may not be beautiful to the next person. So, when using this word, if we use it, we should also be defining that standard of beauty. In revising that selection, let’s also use some of the aforementioned techniques to clean it up a little more.
Revised: Eska turned around. Covered by sheets, Tundra’s naked body lay in his bed underneath the dawning light. She wasn’t pretty—pronounced wrinkles and a scar on her cheek took her beauty from her—but she was loyal, and to Eska that was beautiful. (43)
Did your opinion of this woman’s beauty dramatically change? Perhaps you thought that she was younger? Not so, in fact, she has “pronounced wrinkles” telling us that she is older. (She is above 70 actually if you’re curious). Next, there is a scar on her face. Surely that isn’t someone who is beautiful, and Eska even confirms that she isn’t pretty. None of that matters, though, because to Eska loyalty is the most beautiful thing.
And, that is that, folks. You now have eight awesome techniques that you can use in your writing and editing to really get into the nitty gritty. I hope you enjoyed them because I know I enjoyed teaching them. However, in doing these posts, it has made me revisit the question: Why I Write. Stay tuned. You will find the answer out next week. Until then, happy writing and happy editing.