Editing Workshop Part 5: Too Much or Too Little?

4:55 pm - by anitamumm

Tools_smLast March, I offered a workshop series in honor of National Novel Editing Month—the revisionist’s answer to NaNoWriMo. Unfortunately, the folks behind NaNoEdMo have had to declare a hiatus this year, but I’m hoping many writers out there are forging ahead anyway. To cheer you on, I’ll do a couple more installments of my editing workshop series. And I have to say, now that I’ve launched my own editing career, it feels like a special treat to share some of my experiences with you.

Today, I’ll focus on two of the big-picture issues I’ve seen frequently, both as an editor and in my literary agency days.

Problem #1: Too much information. This is perhaps the most common problem in early drafts, whether you’re a seasoned writer or a novice. TMI happens when a writer over-explains or includes information not essential to world-building or moving the plot forward. It’s that thing that causes you to yawn when reading your writing partner’s first draft. Remember that in a tight, well-written novel, every single sentence serves a purpose—there is no room for extra fillers. This is also one of the most painful issues to correct, because it involves taking a pair of pruning shears to your hard-earned word count! For example, let’s say you decide to describe what your character is wearing. No problem—if it helps us understand something about her that we didn’t already know (she overdresses to cover her insecurities, she changes that low-cut top after picturing what her mother would say, etc.). It becomes a problem when we get a play-by-play of her entire make-up routine, when we already knew from earlier examples that she is fastidious. In that case, it’s best to trim the scene to a couple of well-chosen details, or cut it entirely.

How to gauge this in your writing? Consider this: a whole lot of overwriting happens when an author is trying to get to know his characters better. A helpful exercise is to sit down and free write (set a timer if it helps you stay focused), listing everything you know about your character. When you are finished, think about which behavior traits or items of description about her appearance are most essential for a reader’s understanding of who she is. Then choose a handful to weave into your story. It’s not that the rest of your material was a waste of time or words—they helped you get a clearer picture of your character so you could fine-tune her for your readers.

Problem #2: Hold on, you’ve lost me… In some ways, this issue is just the opposite of the previous one. It happens when there isn’t enough transition information for readers to orient themselves in space and time. Transitions are important whenever there is a scene change, whether the story follows a linear timeline or jumps back and forth, as in flashbacks or separate threads set in different historical periods. If you change scenes within a chapter, that has to be crystal clear to the reader. When you start a new chapter, readers need a well-placed cue to let them know whether it’s still the same day, whether the character has moved to a new location, etc. Sometimes it’s tempting to omit essential information to avoid seeming too obvious or committing the TMI mistake. But it’s better to err on the side of clarity than to leave readers scratching their heads—remember that your audience is flying blind unless you supply the radar. Here is an article that shows how to create elegant transitions that don’t call too much attention to themselves; it focuses on flashbacks but parallels can be drawn for simple scene changes as well: http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/qp7-migration-fiction/3_tips_for_writing_successful_flashbacks

Often, the best way to catch missing cues in your writing is to set your manuscript aside for a bit. Coming back to it after a few weeks will allow you to see it more like a stranger would, and then you can start filling in the gaps.

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Ready to get serious about your revisions? I can help! For more information about my editing rates and services, send me an email at anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I’d look forward to hearing more about your work. 



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June 5, 2014