Revision Trick

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One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

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There’s a little thing that writers do that bugs me: It’s called a frame. Basically, it’s everything around the necessary information that doesn’t really help your reader understand anything, it’s just superfluous. Here’s an exaggerated example to prove my point:

She saw with her eyes that there was an elephant standing impossibly in the castle’s ballroom.

Or you could simply say:

An elephant stood, proud, tall, and incongruous, in the middle of the castle’s ballroom.

Frames are everywhere. And they are all fat, so trim them. Every time you describe that your character saw, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted something, see if you can’t drill into the more essential information of the sentence and cut out the unnecessary words. Instead of, “He smelled the cakes fresh out of the oven and they filled the room with warm cinnamon,” focus on the latter half of the sentence to set the mood. (And kudos to you if you’re using all five senses in your writing, including taste, smell, and touch, which often take a backseat to sight and hearing!)

No matter if you’re telling your story in first person or third, you are basically saying, “This is what my character experienced” when you write a picture book or novel. There’s no reason to keep saying, “She experienced such and such,” which is basically what you’re reminding your reader of each time you use a frame. Simply get straight to the such and such. It’s a small trick (and therefore a short post) but it will make your writing that much leaner and cleaner.

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Big Revision

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page.

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective.

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards.

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

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Say what? Bear with me here a moment. I want to talk about something I’ve been noticing a lot: third person-style narration in the first person. It’s easier to illustrate than to explain. It goes, for example, like this:

My gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. My heartbeat quickened and my pupils contracted with fear. I leaned back against the wall, the muscles in my torso tightening, my mouth drying out, my legs ready to spring into action. With my breath coming in short, shallow gasps, I prepared myself to attack.

Now, this is a subtle one to pick up on, I think. Can you figure out, from this sample, what I might mean? I’m referring to a style of narration that is more commonplace (and appropriate) in the third person. When you’re writing in the first person, you are immediately inside your character’s head, heart, and body. When you’re in third person, even if you’re in very close third, you’re on the outside of the body, seeing it from a bit of a bird-eye view.

Descriptions like the one I’ve written above are in first person (within the body) but seem oddly outside of it. This most often happens with physical descriptions/actions. I fear I’m not making a whole lot of sense, so I will try another approach. Imagine you’re telling an anecdote to your friends. You’ve got them wrapped around your finger as you’re describing a scene, say, the last time you were thrown a surprise party. Do you say, about yourself, “My gaze shifted to the corner and my mouth dropped open to discover Uncle Eddie wearing a party hat”?

That doesn’t sound very natural to me. If I were telling a story to a group of friends at a party, I would say something like “I looked and saw” or, if I’m feeling really fancy, “I glanced over.” When I’m in first person, it feels oddly distancing to say, about myself, “my gaze shifted.” I also wouldn’t say “my mouth dropped open.” I’m not watching myself on a video tape and narrating what’s happening. “To my shock” or “shockingly” would be more first person-appropriate.

To further illustrate, let’s put the above passage in the third person:

His gaze shifted to the corner of the room. A shadow seemed to move. It hadn’t been there a moment ago. Jake’s heartbeat quickened and his pupils contracted with fear [I have problems with writers relying too heavily on physical symptoms and gestures to convey emotion, but that's another post for another day...]. He leaned back against the wall, the muscles in his torso tightening, his mouth drying out, his legs ready to spring into action. With his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, Jake prepared himself to attack.

Now, it’s not a perfect paragraph, and it still has a lot of cheap physical symptoms cluttering everything, but it sounds much more natural in third to my ear because we’re observing the character from the outside. Sure, we can’t see his muscles tighten or his heartbeat quicken from a true bird-eye view, but the tone of this piece is that of an outside observer. That same tone doesn’t work when the observer is in first person, talking about their own body.

This is one of those more subtle notes that I give, but I’ve found myself giving it a lot lately. Sure, it’s probably less fancy to adhere to true first person tone when describing physical events (the boring “I glanced” vs. the sexy “my gaze shifted”) but I think it’s more authentic. On a related note, I’ve also been giving a lot of writers pointers about overwriting, making things more complex than they should be, and showing off. This is one example of prose where I think we should all strive for a bit more simplicity.

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When I’m editing manuscripts, I often notice that I fall into trends and phases. There are things I pick up on more than others these days, and those things haven’t always been the same. The more I read, the more I notice, and the deeper I get into my own understanding of novel craft. That’s why it’s always interesting to me to analyze the kinds of notes I give across manuscripts, the things that a lot of writers are doing and why they work, or don’t.

Here’s a note I’ve found myself giving very often in recent months: Stimulus first, then reaction.

Here’s an example of what I currently see in manuscripts, something random that I’ve written:

“Jeez! You scared me,” Anne said. Howard was standing in the kitchen, holding a butcher knife.

In this snippet, we get Anne’s reaction to Howard first, then we finally figure out what the reaction means: Howard is standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife.

The effect is jarring for the reader, but not in a good, suspenseful way (which I think is what the author intended). We get something that doesn’t seem to fit (reaction) and, instead of reading, we are now scrambling to figure out where the reaction belongs (to the stimulus). It takes the reader out of the story.

Now, I know that some people like to build suspense by giving a reader the reaction, then making them wait for the big reveal of what the stimulus is. This fails more often than it works because of the aforementioned confusion. And you’re likely going to reveal what caused the reaction within a sentence or two anyway, so is the payoff of withholding really worth it?

The same goes for introducing a character with dialogue instead of putting them in the scene first. Here’s an example:

“What’s going on, party people?”
I looked up. John was going around the room with a beer in one hand, slapping sloppy high-fives with the other. What a tool.

Once again, we’re left to play catch-up and try to figure out who uttered the phantom dialogue. It would be much more effective to say:

John barreled into the room and slapped a round of sloppy high-fives, spilling beer in his wake. “What’s going on, party people?” he yelled.
What a tool.

We know exactly what’s going on, the stage is set, all the players are in place. When it comes time for John to speak, we know the who and the why and the how of the situation.

When you plunk a new character into the scene or when you’re building a moment of surprise, remember that clarity is king. Give us a linear progression that goes from the stimulus to the narrator/main character’s interpretation and reaction.

That’s what we do as human beings. We see, interpret and react. Why should our characters or our storytellers be any different?

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There’s something I want to say, just in case there’s anyone out there waiting to hear it from a professional: it’s okay to play around with your manuscript and try stuff, even if it doesn’t work.

You’d be surprised by how many people write or type something and think they’ve created a permanent thing. Ideally, your words will be permanent in the form of a printed book someday. However, until you get to that stage, every single word you write is very malleable, deletable, inflatable, and very much alive.

I get questions along these lines ALL THE TIME:

Should I write in present or past tense?
Should I write in first or third person?
Should I include a flashback about my character’s dead mother/father/sister/goldfish?
Should I have more dialogue or description in this scene?
Should I work in one POV or in multiple?
Should I start my chapters with song lyrics?
Should my character go to the abandoned mine or the abandoned warehouse to encounter the flesh-eating zombies?
Should I write a prologue? (Hot topic. I’ll have to post exclusively on this at some point.)

Lots of these questions get sent my way. Lots of questions I can’t answer. Lots of questions you probably shouldn’t be asking anybody but yourself, since it’s your story and only you know the best way to tell it.

The liberating thing is, you don’t always have to know the best way to tell it from the very beginning. If you tell it one way–in present tense, say–and figure out that it’s not working…switch tenses. Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt. Yeah, it’ll take work on every single page and in every single sentence. Yeah, there’s the possibility that you’ll hate past tense even more than  you hate present tense.

But at least you you tried. At least you went into the lab and found out firsthand. You played around. You experimented. You really shouldn’t be afraid of burning through some words (a million bad words, in fact), even if it doesn’t work out. It’s true that you could spend months trying something–another POV character, for example–that totally bombs. And you have nothing to show for all that work you did. And your manuscript is still not right. And all the Ben & Jerry’s has gone missing from your freezer and you still haven’t caught the dastardly thief who broke into your house and stole it.

The only way you’ll know whether something works or not is by sitting down and doing it. You may, per the above nightmare scenarios, figure out that your idea was a pretty lame one. Or you may stumble upon something that makes your book richer, better, more like the perfect book that’s shimmering in your imagination.

The worst thing you can do is write words once and think you’re done writing them for good. Those words could be great words, sure. But there could be other words that are even better. The only way you can find the exact right words is by trying things, playing, letting loose.

Whenever you’re shopping for something really important, you have to try a lot of losers to find the winner. It’s no different with all the parts that make your novel come together (characterization, description, plot points, scenes, POV, voice, tense, etc.). So this is your invitation, in case you were waiting for it. Take the fear out of it and try the thing that’s been nagging at you, the thing your gut is curious about. Go ahead.

Remember, despite all the rejection, the creative upheaval, the ice cream binges, the end-of-publishing-as-we-know-it news…writing is supposed to be fun (at least most of the time). If it’s not, you might not be experimenting and playing enough.

It’s like people who don’t cook without tasting. Is my mole sauce spicy enough? Does it have enough chocolate? Does it go well with the chicken? Don’t just stand over the pot asking yourself these questions…get a spoon and dig in. If it’s not working, adjust or throw it out and try again. I don’t trust a cook who doesn’t taste as they’re creating, nor do I trust a writer who won’t experiment.

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I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend! Now — *cracks whip* — back to work! Just kidding. But we are wrapping up Revision-o-Rama. Of course, I will continue to talk about revision topics on the blog but not in this concentrated way.

Since there are a bunch of smaller things that didn’t warrant full posts but that are still fun and important to do. I call them Brainstorms and Tips. Read on!

100 Declarative Sentences

This is a great brainstorm tool, and it’s really hard. This works best with a character or a setting that’s giving you difficulty. Maybe your critique group thinks it’s thin or flat or unconvincing, or it just doesn’t feel right to you. Concentrate on this place or this person and write 100 declarative sentences about her, him or it. Sounds simple, right? Well, it really calls into question how well you know what you’re writing about. A declarative sentence is just an informative sentence that states a fact. Let’s say I have a character called Claire who isn’t working for me. I would start my list:

  1. Claire plays JV tennis.
  2. Claire likes to eat ice cream but only after she wins a game.
  3. Claire wishes she had long hair like Abby does.

Etc. etc. etc. A lot of it will feel like you’re just riffing. You’re making things up. You’re improvising. But you’ll come up with some great surprises, like quirks of a character that you never thought of. Then, around sentence 80, you will feel like you will never finish this stupid exercise. And you will hate me. And you will probably give up and watch some TV. So it goes. But the point here is that you’re thinking of the place or person as something real. Declarative sentences are simple and informational. It will force you to think about things you haven’t been considering yet.

Who knows if you will use all of the 100 things you come up with? But the truth and beauty of fiction always lies in the specifics. Here, you have an opportunity to come up with specifics, quirks, tidbits and other things that will flesh out your character or setting and make them seem more real, more significant. Some of my favorite details about a character or place, the ones that stick with me long after the book is over, are small things like this. That Claire has the purple nail polish chipped off the big toe on her left foot. That Bellmeadows, the town where Claire lives, has three car dealerships but no gas station. Character and setting are in the details. Force yourself to come up with some. You’ll get maybe 10 or 20 new things to add throughout your manuscript.

Boring and Ambiguous Words

In my slush pile, I get a lot of queries that use boring and ambiguous words. What do I mean? Here’s an example (an amalgamation of all that is bad, one it has pained me deeply to write):

Johnny learns a mysterious secret at the beautiful Temple of Adventure that will change his life forever. Shadowy conspirators push him into a meaningful choice — and there’s no going back. When Johnny is faced with the truth, dangerous circumstances propel him to a thrilling and exciting climax that will leave readers begging for more.

Huh? What? What is this book about? All I have are general words that are meant to hype me up but they’re all fluff. Just like a booming announcer’s voice during a movie trailer that’s trying to tell me a story, it’s all dazzle and no substance. There are some words that are so general that they mean nothing. Or they mean different things to different people. What one person finds “beautiful” or “thrilling” isn’t the same across the board. Using some in a query or manuscript is okay, but I’m seeing a lot of paragraphs that resemble the above. If I read a paragraph full of generalities and ambiguous words, I really have no idea what your plot is. Plot is made up of specific events, not hot keywords. Avoid these words in your query and in your manuscript. Specifics are key. What does “beautiful” look like to this character? How does that character react uniquely to something “exciting”? Use instances where you’d normally use a boring or ambiguous word as an opportunity to show us something about the characters you’ve created. Striking out these blah words also goes a long way toward adding to voice.


Filters are phrases like “I think” and “I see” and “in my opinion” that dilute your prose. They’re most noticeable in first person but appear in third person, too. For example, it’s a lot more wordy to say, “I saw a dog bounding across the lawn,” than, “A dog bounded across the lawn.” Obviously, the narrator saw it, or they wouldn’t be describing it for the reader. Same with, “I thought her hair looked stupid.” That’s weak compared to, “Her hair looked like a skunk had set itself on fire.” The “I thought” and “I saw” just lessen the impact of what follows. Of course, you’re allowed to say things like, “I thought I saw a ghost,” if they’re important to your plot, but try and weed filters out of your ordinary prose. Tangentially, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers put: “… blah blah blah, I thought in my head.” Yes. Obviously. What else do you think with? Your elbow?

Reading Aloud

As many readers have mentioned in comments, a nifty trick during revision is reading your manuscript aloud. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, you sometimes lose your voice doing it, but you catch so many things you never would’ve caught before. My favorite thing to do — during workshop and critique sessions — is to actually have another person (or, you know, if you’ve got such a patient person at your disposal at all times) read your manuscript or parts of it to you. This is extremely instructive. You hear it in another voice (one that’s not inside your head) and you get to see where you reader stumbled or seemed to get caught up in certain sentences. You get to see if another voice makes the prose come alive (which means it has voice of its own) or if it lies flat on the page and makes your reader start droning. Very useful stuff!

The above are just a few tips and brainstorms that you can use. There are literally millions of writing exercises, books, methods and other authorities that you can study on the subject. I’ll name some of my favorites in my next post (and the last for Revision-o-Rama, boo!).

In the meantime, you can find more tips in previous blog posts. Here’s a post about why to avoid the word “suddenly” in your writing, and here’s another post about a nifty and quick revision trick that will help you see your manuscript in a whole new way. Feel free to leave your hot tips and brainstorming ideas in the comments.

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There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times. Unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off a quick explanation for why writers generally should stay away from the word “suddenly.”

“Suddenly” is a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They whallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see.

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

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Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop.

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Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

1) Dialogue/Tag Redundancy

This is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad writing. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

2) Choreography

Writing a novel sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china). You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

3) Adverbitis

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing. Adverbs and the other kinds of tagging errors I’ve discussed here just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

Recap: How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about writing good dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. This is advice for writing good anything: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.
  5. Bonus: don’t play the name game!

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

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