Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

Kristen Lamb just hit me over the head. I’ve been contemplating an issue with my fiction writing lately, namely the balance between “poetic” description (of scenes, characters’ appearance, sex, etc.) and maintaining straight-forward clarity to allow my reader to build her own visual as the story unfolds.

Often I think I’m illuminating my reader, when merely I’ve employed “qualifiers”—See below why qualifying is akin to spoon-feeding the reader.

Sure, we’ve all been transported by lush, decorative (adjective-heavy) explorations of setting and of senses awakened (and wouldn’t we love to leave such a lasting impression on our beloved reader?)

And not so coincidentally, there have been fast-moving stories, tightly wrought and to the point, and when we put the book down, we walked away with a firm idea of character and place, without the author ever having spelled it out. How can we, as fiction writers, achieve balance?

As Lamb points out, “Editors are like engineers. We look at a writer’s race car (the manuscript) and look for parts that will cause drag, slow down momentum, or cause so much friction that a fiery crash or a dead engine is inevitable.” Those superfluous words slow the reader down—the adverbs and qualifiers, and nasty instances of showing instead of telling—amount to treating the reader “like a moron,” Lamb says in her post, Deadly Sin #7.

Lamb throws us a bone, bless her; “I would wager that most of us do not sit up all night thinking of ways to treat our readers like they’re stupid.  Yet, it is a common
problem, especially with newer writers who are still learning the craft. All of us can slip into these nasty habits, if we aren’t mindful.”

Let’s look at highlights from Kristen Lamb’s post:

Offender #1—Adverb Abuse

Here is a news flash. Not all adverbs are evil…just most of them. Adverbs are notorious culprits for stating the obvious. “She smiled happily.” Um, yeah. “He yelled loudly.” As opposed to yelling softly? To be blunt, most adverbs are superfluous and weaken the writing. Find the strongest verb and then leave it alone.

The ONLY time an adverb is acceptable is when it is there to denote some essence that is not inherent in the verb.

For example: She whispered quietly. Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly?

Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? The adverb conspiratorially tells us of a very specific type of whisper, and is not a quality that is necessarily implied by the verb.

Offender #2—Qualifiers

It is really unnecessary to qualify. We get it. Using qualifiers is similar to adding in needless adverbs. If we have just written a scene about a heated argument, trust me, our characters don’t need to “slam the door in frustration” (yep…got it) or “scowl with disapproval” (uh-huh) or “cry in bitter disappointment” (gimme a break).

The qualifiers add nothing but a cluster of extra words that bogs down the prose.  If someone slams the door right after a heated scene of arguing, the reader gets that the
character is angry, frustrated, upset.

Like adverbs, it is perfectly okay to use qualifiers, but it’s best to employ them very sparingly (and only ones that are super awesome). Allow your writing to carry the scene.

Dialogue and narrative should be enough for the reader to ascertain if a character is angry, hurt, happy, etc. If it isn’t, then forget the qualifiers and work on the strength of the scene.

What are your thoughts? What makes you put down a book? What methods transport you?

Kristen Lamb’s best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer. Lamb’s methods teach you how to make building your author platform fun. She helps writers change approach, not personality.

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4 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

4 responses to “Editing Fiction for Intelligent Readers (No Spoon-feeding Allowed.)

  1. Author Kristen Lamb

    Thanks for the shout-out and for spreading the luv :D. If it makes you feel better, I LOOOOOOVED ellipses and italics and internal dialogue. My first novel was infested with all these mistakes. I learned by making mistakes. If we aren’t failing we aren’t trying ;).

    • Thank you for the inspiration! Your website is a treasure. I agree about the mistakes. I often feel as though tips such as these are a barometer for how I’m improving (or need more improvement) as a fiction writer.

  2. Thanks for this! As an editor, I’m always looking for great articles that explain various grammar and/or writing steps well. Yours is definitely one of them! (Linking back to you…) 🙂

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