The Top 5 Editorial Mistakes I’ve Seen… and How to Fix Them, Part 1 of 5.
This month marks my fourth year as a freelance editor. In that time, I’ve been honored to revise captivating manuscripts; fact-check strange trivia (how long does it take for a ring to pass through a body, anyway?); and experience so much more.
As unique as my clients’ work is, there are still common editorial mistakes for which I’ve prescribed practical suggestions for revision time and time again.
I’d like to share the Top 5 with you, as a cautionary tale for your own fiction or creative non-fiction work. We’ll start with...
…specifically as it relates to the mechanics of storytelling.
I know, I know. “Show, don’t tell!?” you’re think-shrieking. “I’ve heard this a million times before!”
I’m aware. If you’ve taken a creative writing workshop or even a high school composition course, you’ve likely heard the advice: “Show, don’t tell.”
When we’re writing fiction or creative non-fiction, we want to show instead of tell, which translates to telling our story through a series of interconnected scenes, instead of summarizing the events that happen within them.
If a character needs a raise to pay the rent, the writer shouldn’t explicitly state, “Bob needed a raise to pay his rent,” at least not without also providing supporting details. Instead, she may place an important conversation between Bob and his work best friend in a coffee shop, where Bob explains that he’s having his second triple latte of the day at 10:00 a.m. after pulling an all-nighter with the quarterly earnings report.
So, yes, “Show, don’t tell.” You know that intuitively. But I’m here to explain part of the “why” behind this age-old adage. (Try saying that three times fast.)
So, why are we editors and writing instructors so fond of this advice?
Well, for one thing, summary runs the risk of assumptions and stereotypes, which your reader may not share with you.
Perfect example: I was once working with a writer whose manuscript explored adoption from the foster system. One chapter's goal was to explain that one particular character was not fit to raise a child, that the protagonist should do it instead.
However, the “unfit mother” character was introduced in a section that read more like rote summary than like a scene. This would have been problematic in and of itself – I as the reader cannot lose myself within a book without being anchored by supporting details like dialogue tags, descriptive scenery, and insight into character motivation.
But not only do supporting details anchor me and orient me within a manuscript, they also give me the keys I need to suspend my disbelief that the actions contained within, no matter how fantastical or hard to believe, are, in fact, true.
When the narration gives the reader few details, the reader will grasp greedily at whatever information those few details give her.
That’s what happened here. One of the only concrete details on the page was that the “unfit mother” character was a former victim of child abuse. Remember how I said summary risks assumptions and stereotypes? Well, as a result of my prior knowledge of child abuse victims, I as the reader didn’t feel disdain for this character. I felt pity, love, sympathy.
The writer needed to convince me of something counterintuitive and controversial.
They couldn’t rest on their laurels and assume the reader felt the same way about the character. This was a tall order that certainly wouldn’t be accomplished in a summary. To do this, I encouraged them to ground the introduction of the character in a scene full of concrete supporting details.
If I’m meant to see that this character is paranoid, entitled, self-absorbed, I need to be shown that, not told that. Show me her eyes, flitting around the landscape, ignoring the other person in the conversation, unable to land on one thing over another. Show me her cagey posture in folded arms, a reluctance to pick up her child. Let me hear her stories, hear how she complains about never having enough money but then how she brags about skipping work three days in a row.
Bottom line: I as the reader can argue with the believability of a character, a plot point, or something else if it’s presented on the grounds of assumption or tautology (i.e., “she’s bad because she’s bad”). But it’s much harder to argue against concrete details and literary facts.
Show, don’t tell. QED.
To fix this in your own work, read through your manuscript. Identify passages that have little description or dialogue. Be sure to build up description and dialogue that is purposeful and moves the story forward, while cutting the rest out. By doing this, you’re helping the reader suspend their disbelief in the story that you’re telling.
This blog post is an excerpt from Hatch Editorial Services’ “Plotting, Planning, and Publishing” course. For more writing and editing tips, order the four-part course – comprised of over 80 minutes of instructional lectures and 30 pages of workbook exercises – today.