Editing Tips: Bad Advice

Any absolute rule about writing is bogus

I’ve gotten a lot of advice from other writers over the past fifteen years. When it pertained to imbalances in particular stories I wrote, or even to my general habits when they’ve seen several stories from me, I try to see how it can help me. I have a tendency to neglect voicing my POV characters’ thoughts, I have to work at using words that evoke senses beyond sight, and I have to let characters be less emotionally stable than me. I know these things.

I also make a number of legitimate style choices that sometimes get criticized for being unredeemably improper. Here is a list of some of the bad advice I’ve received:

Said said

You should limit your speech tags to said.

While I agree that it’s difficult (but not impossible) for someone to laugh while speaking:

“That’s ridiculous,” Joseph laughed.

You don’t have to limit yourself to:

“I know,” she said.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

After a moment, they said, “Bullocks!”

You can add some color to how something was said by varying your speech tags:

“I know,” she countered.

“I don’t think so,” he sobbed.

After a moment, they yelled, “Bullocks!”

Of course, if there is nothing special about the way a line is delivered, or just for variety’s sake, you can always pepper your prose with said.

in medias res

You must start every story in medias res.

I know that the pace of life has increased from the days when you could slowly introduce characters and settings over the course of a chapter or two before making the novel’s main plot complication known. I accept that.

However, there is value to showing how much a character’s life changes when an inciting incident occurs, and that is most easily demonstrated by showing a bit of the character’s normal life first. You also give the reader a chance to get to know the characters first to make the eventual rising action more engaging. I get the excitement of being thrown into a chaotic or action-packed scene at the start, but that sets a high bar for the rest of the story, and you’re unlikely to maintain that.

pointing

Never write in second person.

There is universal approval of the need for both first person (I did, we did) and third person (he did, she did, they did). But you will hear a lot of people tell you that addressing the reader directly (you did), except when you are using it as a frame for a third-person story (Let me tell you about) is doomed to disaster.

Something does seem strange about ascribing actions to the reader, I admit, but there are a couple of ways to make it work:

You probably woke up this morning wondering what the the day would bring. You went through your normal routine once you got out of bed, ate some breakfast, and, at some point, headed out into the world. If you encountered a woman begging for change, would you give some to her? What if she told you about some horrible tragedy she’d barely survived? You would have a hard time walking away and might second guess yourself for hours or days.

You can treat the whole narrative as a hypothetical situation, which storytelling is anyway. This is just a more obvious and immediate invitation to take part in the story. It is, however, difficult to keep up this conceit for long stretches without stopping occasionally to tell the reader a story within your story.

You work as a private detective. It doesn’t bring in a lot of dough, but it has hours you like and gives you a license to spy on other people, which, if you are being honest with yourself, turns you on a bit.

You can also make the reader a character in your story, giving them a fictional identity and telling them what they think, feel, and do. It is a frequent choice made by writers of noir fiction, and it actually could work in several genres. Again, it is an invitation to greater reader engagement.

Good Advice

I’ve been an editor for several decades, so I know when I hear good advice as well. There are some stylistic choices that are almost never a good idea.

Don’t info dump.

Interrupting your story to catch the reader up on stuff you should have been sprinkling in earlier is lazy. If you only do it for a sentence here and there, it may be forgiven, but beyond that, you are switching your reader to passive-absorption mode while you teach them stuff about your world or what’s come before.

The yet bigger no-no is introducing exposition through dialogue. In almost every case, you make the dialogue unrealistic, because you are likely to have one character telling another character something they both already know. If one character is really dumb or has been in a coma all of his or her life, you may get away with teaching that character about your world, but then your character loses credibility for being so ignorant.

Fill in your plotholes.

You can read more about this in my blog entry “Potholes and Plotholes.” In short, don’t wait to introduce something or someone until they’re needed in your story and don’t forget about intermediate steps that have to happen before something more interesting happens.

Maintain your style. Be consistent.

It seems common sense, but many writers will give great descriptive detail about their character’s home, but starve the readers for details about their car or office. If you have chosen to focus on one point of view, and then halfway through the book, you switch points of view, it will be incredibly jarring to the reader. Some writers have trouble even maintaining a consistent tense or narrative voice.

A good editor will help point these things out, but you can also seek feedback from other writers and avid readers. You sometimes have to filter prescriptive suggestions to get at the fault the person is trying to fix, and often personal tastes can be dismissed, unless you hear the same issues from three or more readers.

 

This is my third post on editorial tips. Check out the previous two: Editing Tips: Version Control and Editing Tips: Style Guides. And come back next week for a new post, “Editing Tips: Plot.”

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