Thursday, March 19, 2009

Details, Details, Details

Sometimes we get so caught up in the pace of a story we race along without considering the meanings of some of the details of the narrative. We write what seems to fit, and if an editor does not catch the little mistakes we probably won't. Most of the time as we are re-reading our own work, we again get caught up in the story and miss those quirky details.

This came to mind recently as I was reading a book from a best-selling author. The pace was terrific, the story tension was high, but darn if some things didn't catch me up short. For example:

"He wouldn't go down without trying." Trying what? It was like the author forgot something here.

"He picked up one of the newspapers on his desk. The stack remained untouched." If he picked up a newspaper, the stack was touched.

"Again, the light flashed, this time bringing only darkness." Is that not contradictory?

"They rolled out of the doors as the barrage of bullets peppered the metal body like hail banging on a tin roof." Nice analogy and use of sound, but I couldn't help but wonder what metal body the bullets were hitting. Earlier in the scene it had been established the characters were in a car, but that reference was so far removed from this sentence it needed to be clarified again.

"Sloan shook the thought." Huh? There is something to be said for terse writing, but this is a bit too terse.

We have to be careful not to use words and phrases that don't really say what we mean because they can really detract from a good story. Ferreting out these quirks is a tedious process at times and probably the least enjoyable part of the writing game, but it sure is an important part.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest books are One Small Victory and Play it Again, Sam. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. When she is not working, Maryann loves to play "farmer" on her little ranch in the beautiful Piney Woods of East Texas.

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  1. Good info Maryann - and another reason to find beta readers who seek perfection and are not afraid to use their red pencils on your work. Char

  2. For me the best way to find those things in your writing is to leave a piece to sit long enough that you've forgotten it a bit. Suddenly those things just pop out at you. Of course, you can't always find everything so fresh eyes are important.

  3. This was a timely post - I have noticed this kind of error in my writing at times. It is jarring when you notice it. Often it it skimmed over by writer and readers, but when a reader does notice it can break them right out of the story.

  4. You're right. We know what we mean, but we need to make sure the reader also understands.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Good post, very apt for where I'm at now. Gotta catch all those little things.

  6. Thanks to all of you for taking the time to stop and leave comments. I know there are writers who think they no longer need to be edited if they have had several books published, but it is my thinking that we all need editing. Like Char said, we need someone who is deft with a red pencil to find those mistakes our eyes will skim over.

  7. I have really been enjoying your posts every week, Maryann! It is funny how caught up in the story we get that we neglect to really analyze things like this. That's one of the reasons it helps to have a strict critique group that can give you both plot and editorial feedback.

    I also agree with what you said in your comment too. There are a number of well-established writers who think they don't need editing anymore, and that makes me sad. To get so caught up in your own work you won't let anyone help you improve it. It's one thing to listen to advice and another entirely to do everything suggested. Anyway, I digress!

  8. This is the sort of thing that can easily happen when changing or cutting out things in your ms. Even reading the changes afterwards may not alert you to continuity errors and absurdities. The whole thing is planted in your brain forever. Good editors are pure gold.

  9. Excellent post, Maryann. The English language is filled with ambiguous and multiple-meaning words that are so easy to overlook in our writing. It takes either psychological distance by the writer over time or an unexposed reader to see them. I wonder if this is something that crit-partners should add to their list of things to look out for. [e.g. your example of 'body' - could be body of a car or a human body]


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.