I’ve done several critiques recently, and I’ve also had something I’ve been working on critiqued. In the process, I’ve come across five errors that all writers need to keep in mind when editing their work.
1. Rushing through a scene
When working on early drafts of a story, getting the words on paper (or on the screen) is the goal. We want to see where the story is going, how it’s going to come together. Once that’s done, it’s important to go back through the story and look for scenes that need to be developed and those that can be cut from the story, shortened, or simply summarized.
One example I’ve read is where the writer has a character get up in the morning and go through all the normal steps of getting ready to leave for work. In several paragraphs, the character’s morning ritual of taking a shower, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, eating his breakfast, and leaving the house is detailed. Nothing really happens. Generally all of that can be summarized in one sentence. John rose at his usual time, and within twenty minutes was ready to leave the house.
On the other hand, what I’ve seen new writers do is take a highly dramatic scene and summarize it in just a few sentences. These are the spots to engage the reader. Show, don’t tell. Use the 5 senses and allow the reader to be with the characters, feeling their physical and emotional reactions, hearing the creaking door, smelling the stench, seeing the shadow, feeling the cold, and tasting the bile rising in their throats.
2. Telling rather than showing.
Again, this often occurs in a first draft. The writer wants the reader to know what he knows, but rather than working it in, bit by bit or through dialogue, or with the character discovering something that tells the story, the writer stops all action to take the reader aside and tell what has happened in the past. In a first draft, that’s fine. It’s a note to the writer that somehow or another, she needs to work this into the story. In later drafts of the story, it needs to be fixed.
3. Putting too many unimportant details into the story.
Often this occurs when a writer has, through research, discovered some marvelous facts and wants the reader to know these facts. Or the writer wants the reader to see everything in a room, tell the reader exactly what a character is wearing, how something works, or how to get from point A to point B. If all of the items in a room are important to the story, then, by all means describe everything. But if the writer simply wants the reader to visualize the room, either in its elegance or its shabbiness, then all the writer needs to do is describe a few items, ones the character stepping into the room would immediately notice.
Of course, there’s also the technique of hiding an important fact/weapon/item in a list of unimportant items, but this cannot be over used or the reader will begin to skip all detailed descriptions.
4. Too many sentence fragments.
Sentence fragments are often used in commercial fiction. I use them. Although I’m sure there are many English teachers shaking their heads when they come across sentence fragments, they can be effective, as long as they’re not over used. I read one piece just recently where the writer had six fragments in a row. There was no need for that many. The same effect could have been achieved by linking three or four of those together and adding a noun and verb. Rather than pulling me into the story, the fragments pulled me out of it.
5. Losing track of facts.
I know I’ve done this, changed a character’s name, hair or eye color, given him a wife then forgotten he had a wife later in the story. This is why it is important to read through a manuscript and make notes if necessary. Recently a vegetarian at the beginning of a story I read ordered a fast food hamburger by the end of the story, and in another story a meeting that occurred the day before suddenly happened just a few hours earlier. These are little errors, but they can draw the reader out of a story.
We writers don’t always see the errors in our stories, which is why it’s so important to have beta readers, critiquers, and editors read the work before it’s published.