Stating the obvious

Before I get to today’s installment of the self-editing saga, here’s some worthwhile browsing for those of you who are planning to enter your work in a literary contest, well, ever: the ever-interesting Missy has posted a judge’s-eye view of poetry entries on her blog, the Incurable Disease of Writing. The judge’s perspective is so very different from the entrants’ that it really must be experienced first-hand to be fully comprehended, but Missy does a great job of giving writers an inside peek.

Her timing couldn’t have been better. Today I shall be dealing with a manuscript problem that is frequently invisible to the writer who produced it (myself included, I’ll readily admit), yet glaringly visible to a professional reader, for precisely the same reason that formatting problems are instantly recognizable to a contest judge: after you’ve see the same phenomenon crop up in 75 of the last 200 manuscripts you’ve read, your eye gets sensitized to it.

I’m talking, of course, about those most cut-able of sentences, statements of the obvious. If you’ll take the trouble to read on, I shall give you an example.

I heard some of you out there chuckle — you caught me in the act: the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of a self-evident proposition. Knowing that I am a writer addicted to giving examples, where else would my faithful readers look for further explanation other than later in the text? To the PREVIOUS paragraph?

Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to give you a peek into the professional reader’s world: when you’re reading in order to catch mistakes — as every agency screener, agent, editor, and contest judge is forced to do, faced with mountains of submissions — you’re inclined to get a mite testy. Liability of the trade.

In fact, to maintain the level of focus necessary edit a manuscript really well, it is often desirable to keep oneself in a constant state of reactivity. To a professional reader in such a state, the appearance of a self-evident proposition on a page is like the proverbial red flag to a bull; the reaction is often disproportionate to the offense. Some things professional readers have been known to howl at the pages in front of them, regardless of the eardrums belonging to the inhabitants of adjacent cubicles:

In response to the innocuous line, “He shrugged his shoulders”: “What else could he possibly have shrugged? His kneecaps?” (Insert violent scratching sounds here, leaving only the words, “He shrugged” still standing in the text.)

In response to the innocent statement, “She blinked her eyes”: “The last time I checked, eyes are the only part of the body that CAN blink!” (Scratch, scratch, scratch.)

In response to “The queen waved her hand at the crowd”: “Waving ASSUMES hand movement! Why is God punishing me like this?” (Scratch, maul, stab pen through paper repeatedly.)

And that’s just how the poor souls react to all of those logically self-evident statements on a sentence level. It’s the assertions of the obvious on a larger scale that send them screaming into their therapists’ offices, moaning that all of the writers of the world have leagued together in a conspiracy to bore them to death.

As is so often the case, the world of film provides some gorgeous examples of the larger-scale writing problem. Take, for instance, the phenomenon film critic Roger Ebert has dubbed the Seeing-Eye Man: after the crisis in an action film has ended, the male lead embraces the female lead and says, “It’s over,” as though the female might not have noticed something as minor as Godzilla’s disappearance or the cessation of gunfire or the bad guys dead at their feet. In response to this helpful statement, she nods gratefully.

Or the cringing actor who glances at the sky immediately after the best rendition of a thunderclap ever heard on film: “Is there a storm coming?”

Taken one at a time, such statements of the obvious are not necessarily teeth-grinding events — but if they happen too often over the course of the introductory pages, they can be deal-breakers. You’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth a read-through to search out every last one.

Yes, even if your manuscript does not fall into this trap very often. Remember, you have absolutely no control over whose submission a screener will read immediately prior to yours. Even if your submission contains only one self-evident proposition over the course of the first 50 pages, if it appears on page 2, and everybody’s favorite agency screener, Millicent, just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that Millie will kindly overlook it amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?

You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you?

The trouble is, virtually all the time, these obvious statements appear to the writer to be simple explanation. Innocuous, or even necessary. But provide too much information about a common experience or everyday object, and the line between the practical conveyance of data and explaining the self-evident can become dangerously thin.

I’ve been using bald examples so far, but let’s take a look at how subtle self-evidence might appear on a page:

***The hand of the round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry with swigs of coffee from his mug. As he ate, farmers came into the diner to eat lunch, exhausted from riding the plows that tore up the earth in neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. The waitress gave bills to each of them when they had finished eating, but still, Jake’s wait went on and on.***

Now, to an ordinary reader, rather than a detail-oriented professional one, there isn’t much wrong with this paragraph, is there? It conveys a rather nice sense of place and mood. But see how much of it could actually be cut by removing embroideries upon the obvious:

***The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened Ollieberry pie with swigs of coffee. As he ate, farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows for the reception of eventual seedlings. Even after they had finished eating and left, Jake’s wait went on and on.***

The reduction of an 85-word paragraph to an equally effective 59-word one may not seem like a major achievement, but in a manuscript that’s running long, every cut counts. And the shorter version will make the Millicents of the world, if not happy, at least pleased to see a submission that assumes that she is intelligent enough to know that generally speaking, people eat pie with cutlery and drink fluids from receptacles.

This is one of those areas where it honestly is far easier for a reader other than the writer to catch the problem, though, so if you can line up other eyes to scan your submission before it ends up on our friend Millicent’s desk, do. Hand your first reader the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask her to make a great big X in the margin every time the narrative takes the time to explain that rain is wet, of all things, that a character’s watch was strapped to his wrist, of all places, or that another character applied lipstick to — wait for it — her lips.

I am now going to post this blog on my website on my computer, which is sitting on my desk. To do so, I might conceivably press buttons on my keyboard or even use my mouse for scrolling. You never can tell.

Keep up the good work!

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