Is everybody enjoying our ongoing self-editing series? Or, if enjoy doesn’t precisely capture the emotion current swelling your breast at the prospect of another installment of it, may I at least assume that everyone’s been learning a little something each time?
As I mentioned in passing last time, the art of self-revision is so difficult to teach that many writing gurus eschew it altogether –- and not merely because there is no magical formula dictating, say, how often it’s okay to repeat a word on the page or how many summary statements a chapter can contain before Millicent the agency screener rends her garments and cries, “Enough with the generalizations, already! Show, don’t tell!”
Although experience leads me to believe that the answer is not all that many.
Also, there’s just no getting around the fact that professional readers — i.e., agents, editors, contest judges, agency screeners, editorial assistants, writing teachers — tend to read manuscript pages not individually, like most readers do, but in clumps. One after another. All the livelong day.
Why might that affect how someone reads over time? Well, let me put it this way: if you saw the same easily-fixable error 25 times a day (or an hour), yet were powerless to prevent the author of submission #26 from making precisely the same rejection-worthy mistake, wouldn’t it make you just a mite testy?
Welcome to Millicent’s world.
If you’re at all serious about landing an agent, you should want to get a peek into her world, because she’s typically the first line of defense at an agency, the hurdle any submission must clear before a manuscript can get anywhere near the agent who requested it.
In that world, the submission that falls prey to the same pitfall as the one before it is far, far more likely to get rejected on page 1 than the submission that makes a more original mistake.
Why, you cry out in horror – or, depending upon how innovative your gaffes happen to be, relief? Because, from a professional reader’s point of view, common writing problems are not merely barriers to reading enjoyment; they are boring as well.
Hey, don’t shoot the messenger. Blame the sheer repetition.
In not entirely unrelated news, today, I shall be acquainting you with a manuscript problem frequently invisible to the writer who produced it, 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 in any manuscript, statements of the obvious. You know, the kind that draws a conclusion or states a fact that any reader of average intelligence might have been safely relied upon to have figured out for him or herself.
I heard some of you out there chuckle ––you caught me in the act, didn’t you? Yes, the second sentence of the previous paragraph IS an example of what I’m talking about; I was trying to test your editing eye.
Why do I want you to develop a sensitivity to this kind of statement? Well, let me put it this way: any sentence in a submission that prompts Millicent to mutter, “Well, duh is a likely rejection-trigger.
Yes, all by itself, even if the rest of the submission is pretty darned clean, perfectly formatted, and well-written to boot. Read on to find out why.
I mention that, obviously, because I fear that some of you might not have understood that in a written argument, discussion of a premise often follows hard upon it. Or maybe I just thought that not all of you would recognize the difference between a paragraph break and the end of a blog.
Rather insulting to the intelligence, isn’t it? That’s how Millicent feels when a sentence in a submission assumes she won’t catch on to something self-evident.
“Jeez,” she murmurs indignantly, “just how dim-witted does this writer think I am? Next!”
Lest that seem like an over-reaction to what in fact was an innocent line of text, allow me to remind you: 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 irritable reactivity. Keeps the old editing eye sharp.
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. Even – and I tremble to inform you of this, but it’s true — if the self-evidence infraction is very, very minor.
Don’t believe me? Okay, here is a small sampling of some of the 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 seemingly 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. The assertions of the obvious on a larger scale 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 this 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 of a submission or contest entry, they can be genuine deal-breakers.
So here’s a little self-editing tip: you’re better off cutting ALL of them — and yes, it’s worth an extra read-through to search out every last one.
That’s true, incidentally, 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 Millicent has just finished wrestling with a manuscript where the obvious is pointed out four times a page, how likely do you think it is that she will kindly overlook your single instance amongst the multifarious wonders of your pages?
You’re already picturing her astonishing passersby with her wrathful comments, aren’t you? Good; you’re getting the hang of just how closely professional readers read.
The trouble is, virtually all the time, self-evident 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 only very 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, marking passing time as it moved. Jake ate his pie with a folk, alternating bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry 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 ollallieberry 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 91-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.
Heck, a brave self-editor might even go out on a limb and trust Millicent to know the purpose of plowing and to understand the concept of an ongoing action, trimming the paragraph even further:
The round clock on the wall clicked loudly with each passing second. Jake alternated bites of overly-sweetened ollallieberry pie with swigs of coffee. Farmers came into the diner, exhausted from tearing the earth into neat rows. Even after they had left, Jake’s wait went on and on.
That’s a cool 47 words. Miss any of the ones I excised, other than perhaps that nice bit about the seedlings?
Fair warning: self-evidence 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, it’s in your interest to do so.
In fact, given how much obviousness tends to bug Millicent, it will behoove you to make a point of ASKING your first readers to look specifically for instances of self-evidence. Hand ‘em the biggest, thickest marking pen in your drawer, and ask ‘em 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. If the room is too dark, I might pull the cord on my lamp to turn it on. After I am done, I might repeat the process to turn it off.
You never can tell; I’m wacky that way. Keep up the good work!