One giveaway that I’m working on a manuscript by a fairly new writer (or with a writer who hasn’t worked with an editor before) is an abundant variety of dialogue tags.
Elmore Leonard advises writers to use only “said.” (Don’t know who Elmore Leonard is? Raylan Givens is shaking a finger at you and insisting you educate yourself. He’ll wait while you do so.)
I try to limit the variety of dialogue tags I use in my own writing and to limit them when I’m editing others’ writing, but I admit Mr. Leonard would argue I stray too often as I will sometimes use “answered,” “added,” and “replied,” among a few others.
With that said, consider this mess:
As writers, we like words, don’t we? We like the way they sound. We like stringing them together in long, elaborate sentences. We work hard to make our words say what we mean.
Sometimes, we work too hard. Sometimes, we just need to say what we mean and get out of our own way–and out of the way of the words themselves.
Today’s lesson has to do with cutting the fat and streamlining your writing in a way that enables the reader’s eyes to keep moving. You don’t want your readers to get bogged down in mucky, wordy sentences. Let’s give them some solid ground.
Consider the following fat sentences and the revisions I recommend:
ORIGINAL: I came up with the idea the second I noticed Megan hesitating. REVISION: I came up with the idea when Megan hesitated. OR The second that Megan hesitated, I came up with the idea. [Editor’s note: if you leave “that” out of the second option, it reads a little bit like there are two Megans.]
ORIGINAL: When I walked in the room, I noticed Sam looking at me. REVISION: When I walked in the room, Sam looked at me.
ORIGINAL: At the very top of the mountain, I noticed a blinking white light. REVISION: At the very top of the mountain is a blinking white light. OR I saw a blinking white light at the top of the mountain.
When I’m editing fiction, I always pay close attention to dialogue because it’s tricky. I usually see it go one of two ways:
- The writer tries to make it too formal.
- The writer tries to make it too informal.
Pretty basic, huh?
I’m editing a book right now that falls into the first category. The writer uses no contractions in the the dialogue whatsoever. For example, “I cannot believe you have been to the store already. I did not think you would get it done that fast.” (I’m making these sentences up, but using the writer’s style to make my point.)
Read that dialogue out loud. Go ahead. I’ll wait.