Steamy Brown Coils and Vibrating Boners . . . or Why Your Writing Sucks and How to Fix It
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain.
Strong writing is lean writing.
Because writing is 10% writing and 90% rewriting.
That’s a fact of fiction you can’t skirt round no matter how well you navigate.
Either deal with it or find a new profession.
Because nobody’s first draft of anything is great.
Which is why Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of everything is shit” for good reason.
Because it’s true.
For all of us.
Yeah yeah, I know I know. You’re the exception to the rule because you’re a genius tortured artist — at least that’s how you want everyone to think of you — and passion fuels the wild abandon of your glorious muse while you write and, of course, editing anything you’ve already penned to page is intolerable blasphemy because such abuse will dull its brilliant artistic flare.
Hold on a sec while I take a trip back to the 80’s so I can gag myself with a spoon.
Get over yourself, because you’re not a genius tortured artist, and corrective editing only improves your writing. There’s nothing special about you. You’re the same as the rest of us insignificant bipedal monkeys. Only you enjoy writing interesting lies and calling them stories.
But don’t get all bunched in the swampy crotch because your first drafts are steamy brown coils. All of our first drafts are steamy brown coils. That’s where rewriting and editing come in.
But first adhere to one of the three golden rules of assured excellent writing: Write First, Edit Last (the other two rules of this holy trinity are: Show Don’t Tell; and: Omit Needless Words; the three partake in manaja twa).
Now that we have the ‘write first’ part out of the way and your turd of a first draft is finished, it’s time to take out our mental knives and perform some editing surgery via mass deletion.
I’m assuming you use a computer to write instead of a literal pen and paper because it’s not 1830 and digital typewriters exists. Load up that steamy brown coil you call a first draft and hit CTRL + F. Welcome to Microsoft Word’s ‘Find and Replace’ pop-up box (this is assuming you use Microsoft Word, of course, which you should), your best editing friend. Click Replace, type the specific words below into the ‘Find what’ box, then type ??? into the ‘Replace with’ box. Now grit your teeth, swallow your fragile ego, and click Replace All.
After your brutal editing butchery you then begin your first draft’s first rewrite by restructuring your ???-containing sentences.
So what are these specific pesky words requiring mass deletion and why should you bother?
1. Seem (seems, seemed).
-Seem in all its forms is awful. Either something is or it isn’t. Seems implies insecure writing and indefinite description because you’re avoiding explicit depiction for vague suggestion. The wind seemed to wail and moan through the swaying willows? No! Either the wind wailed and moaned or it didn’t. Stop being so damn dubious and just tell us the damn information already. If you’re unsure then I’m unsure, and unsure writing gets tossed for a better book, because using Seem is similar to asking that indecisive loved one we tolerate by thinnest margin, “Where do you want to eat tonight?” and their constant reply as always: “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” Ugh! Precise writing bleeds confidence, and confidence inspires respect. If you wish to gain a better fix on the Seem annoyance then take a favorite scene you’ve written and insert Seem before every one of your character’s physical actions. Now read it over, and after you’ve finished throwing up you’ll understand why Seem in all its forms is so irritating and ridiculous.
-Characters Start or Begin all the time in bad writing. He started hearing. She began thinking. Blah blah bleh blah! Only have a character Start or Begin something if it’s a physical action interrupted. (example: Eliza started walking away — until Mark snagged her to halt by the arm.) Otherwise someone either does something or they don’t.
-Actions happen in real time because that’s what actions do and why they exist, which makes Suddenly and Abruptly redundant. Whether I punch you in the face or Suddenly/Abruptly punch you in the face, it happens the same either way — fast and painful. An easy method to imply how ‘Suddenly or Abruptly’ an action happens is to provide it its own paragraph. Also, picture a slamming door. Does the door take several minutes to slam shut? Of course not! Suddenly/Abruptly is implied by the action verb imposing upon the noun. ‘The door suddenly slammed shut’ vs. ‘the door slammed shut’ is redundant because ‘slammed’ already ensures you know the action is performed Suddenly/Abruptly.
-Both present vague description better replaced by stronger words. Very big? No! Instead use Colossal or Gigantic or Substantial, or a hundred other available synonyms. Really small? No! Instead use Tiny or Minuscule or Insignificant, or a hundred other available synonyms. Thesauruses exist for good reason.
-Injecting character filters is bad writing and worse description. Bad writers use them because good writing is hard work. Stop being lazy. And stop having your characters feeling or seeing or hearing something indirectly to the Reader and just describe it already directly. Character filters also interfere with Show Don’t Tell because you’re Telling us what’s happening through the filtering senses of a character instead of Showing us what’s happening round and to them.
6. Would Be Able To
-This passive voice 2x4 swung upside your head is simple to remedy: replace it with Could. ‘Nuff said.
-Even more vague than Really and Very. Describe the ‘stuff’ or the ‘things’ instead, because if you don’t care enough to describe it then we don’t care enough to read it. As well when you tell us Stuff or Things clutter a table, we can’t imagine it, or we do but not what you’ve intended. Be specific or don’t waste our time. We bought your novel to fill our imagination for us, not write your story for you.
8. Like . . .
-Never use Like similes because better description always exists, as well 99% of Like similes provide their own redundancies. (they fought like cats and dogs; he slept like a log; her eyes shined like the stars; etc . . . Stop comparing and start showing. *Also note the As-As replacement for Like similes: as sweet as honey; as strong as an ox; as blind as a bat; as cold as ice; etc . . .).
-The main problem with Had is repetition (as well it implies actions already performed and thus static instead of current). Often a character will reflect upon a particular past event because you wish to insert some backstory, and to ensure you know the Reader knows it’s backstory you inject Hads all over the place and into every sentence for the entire paragraph . . . or worse for multiple paragraphs. And therein lies your crucial mistake. Instead, either leave Had out altogether or put it in the first sentence only then leave out the rest of your Hads because the first Had provides enough to imply past reflection throughout the remainder of said reflection: ‘Donnie Limper remembered the day he had broken his leg. He had run home from school, had slipped his foot into a snakehole, and had twisted his ankle something fierce before he had tumbled and snapped his leg.’ Yuck! And much better: ‘Donnie Limper remembered the day he had broken his leg . . . running home from school, his foot slipped into a snakehole and twisted his ankle something fierce before he tumbled and snapped his leg.’
10. Was (were)
-I wrote an entire blog on this terrible passive poison in Irritating Pricks. It’s the #1 killer of great fiction so I placed it here at #10 because I’m unpredictable that way. Was is poison to almost every sentence it infects. Delete it at all costs and learn to restructure your sentences without it and I guarantee you’re writing will improve beyond measure.
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” — also Mark Twain
Get with the times, Marky Mark, because nowadays ‘damn’ is not the page-stopper it used to be. Neither is the F word rhyming with Luck, but Mr. Twain has a point.
Weak words diminish the value of your writing. Poor words possess better alternatives. And bad words are prime candidates for deletion.
We tend to write how we speak, such is natural, and some of us don’t speak ‘damn’ well. Let alone the plethora of state-of-being verbs rampant in passive-voice writing (Is, Am, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, Been, Have, Has, Had, Do, Does, Did, Shall, Will, Should, Would, May, Might, Must, Can, Could) though you won’t rid your writing of them all, nor should you, but delete as many possible while restructuring your sentences with stronger words.
Asides the 100 most common used words in the English language (a, about, all, also, and, as, at, be, because, but, by, can, come, could, day, do, even, find, first, for, from, get, give, go, have, he, her, here, him, his, how, I, if, in, into, it, its, just, know, like, look, make, man, many, me, more, my, new, no, not, now, of, on, one, only, or, other, our, out, people, say, see, she, so, some, take, tell, than, that, the, their, then, there, these, they, thing, think, this, those, time, to, two, up, use, very, want, way, we, well, what, when, which, who, will, with, would, year, you, your) us writers repeat a whole slew of words with mad abandon and through habitual practice.
Some of them are useless filler words (that, just, only, really, slightly, almost, seemed, perhaps, maybe, simply, somehow, absolutely, basically, actually, now, sort of, kind of, a little, very) best deleted or replaced.
Some are vague in their weak description (big or small, good or bad) or create redundancies (actual fact, add an additional, added bonus, advance preview, basic fundamental, basic necessities, brief summary, circulate around, close proximity, collaborate together, during the course of, each and every, end result, exact same, gather together, integrate together, introduce for the first time, lag behind, may possibly, new beginning, new innovation, past experience, reason why, revert back, separated apart, still remains, truly sincere, unexpected surprise, unintentional mistake, usual custom, whether or not).
Respect your readers by honing your craft.
Because if you don’t care then we won’t care.
Bonus Round: AND STOP WRITING OUT CHARACTER ACCENTS!
Just stop it already.
I know you think you’re being cute and clever but you’re not.
I could write an entire book on how irritating having to read through a character’s paragraphing accent spelled phonetically is.
I’m in the middle of an engaging scene, my imagination is waxing fantastic, my heart’s racing, my boner’s vibrating and —
You see what I did there?
My ‘vibrating boner’ just killed your reading pace.
Because it’s jarring.
And so too most readers cannot stand having to read a character’s accent ad nauseam. A ‘muh’ instead of ‘my’ or ‘yew’ instead of ‘you’ and so on and so forth.
Here, you try:
Henry said, “Yeh, but muh Pappaw said heeduv went tuh thuh store an fetched thuh milk hisself but fer thuh wagon’s busted wheel an thuh herses need sum new shooing. An on toppa that he canna walk on accounta hiss swelled foot frum thuh rains so he axed me tuh fetch it fer him. Yew unt to come? I cud yews thuh cumpnee.”
Did you understand even half of what Henry said?
I don’t either and I typed it!
That’s an exaggerated example, mind, but my point’s proven.
Instead of phonetically spelling your character’s ‘charming’ accent out every annoying time they speak, describe it as possessing a southern Texas twang or that their S’s stretch a bit overlong or they roll their R’s or possess a lisp or what have you, then continue typing their dialogue as normal. Or if you must, provide an example of their accent through an opening sentence or two then allow its suggestion to carry us along while you type out the rest of their aberrant speech as normal.
Because abnormal speech kills reading pace.
It jars and slogs and slows because our jolted brains aren’t used to reading such abnormal dialogue. Hearing it is one thing, reading it another.
Spelling out a character’s accent is similar to the infamous example of a character ‘ejaculating’ their speech, or my vibrating boner.
And Happy Writing!