Through these long months of self-editing I have learned a terrible truth: words lie. You are simply trying to write what you mean, and those darn little things lie to you. Ok, maybe not “lie” in the classical sense,but I am an overwriter, and as I edit I have come to see the glaring places in my own work where I attempted to explicitly state what I intended rather than let the narrative itself imply my message.
I’m not sure if that introduction made any sense, so I’m going to jump into my first (of many) examples from Chapter 19 of my WIP. I have juxtapositioned here the original line and then my edited line. I have not at all changed the substance of this line, but only the wording itself:
OLD (20 words): Suddenly, the shouts of elevation turned to cries of panic and a dark shadow passed over the beams of sunlight.
NEW (18 words): A dark shadow passed over the beams of sunlight and the shouts of excitement became calls of panic.
Notice something? If you said, “the old one is stupid and the new one is better” than you’re certainly on the right track. Let me share what I see: The old version of this line is not inherently bad – I think you will be able to see what I was trying to do when I wrote it. I wanted the moment to be fast paced, exciting – and I wanted this thing here to be happening suddenly. So, that’s exactly what I wrote, a thing happening “suddenly”. But, when you read both sentences side-by-side, which one feels sudden? The second one, right?
So, “suddenly” lied to me. It didn’t make my original sentence ‘sudden’ – a paragraph break can do that – it only made my sentence longer, anything that takes longer to read is going to feel longer. So, that’s what I want to take a look at today, writing not in a way that explicitly states how the reader is supposed to read something, but simply writing it so it reads the way it should feel. Of course that’s easier said than done, but let me give you a few more examples from my good ol’Chapter 19 and we’ll see if that’s at all helpful:
OLD (102 words): Kura threw herselfdown as the centaur whinnied and slid to the side. Kura hit the ground, hard,and held her breath as several black bolts sailed over her head. She whirled around frantically; Aethan and Triston had dropped to the ground as well,Aethan nearest to her and covering his head. As if in answer to the arrows two flashes of silver passed over Kura’s head, flying in the other direction. Renard stood behind her, his arm outstretched. Kura scrambled to her knees,turning forward, as the two archers clatter to the floor, each with a knife sticking from their face.
NEW (71 words): Kura threw herself to the ground, hard, as several black bolts sailed over her head. They were answered by two flashes of silver which came flying from the opposite direction, and the two archers clattered to the floor, each with a knife stuck in their face. Kura whirled around; Aethan and Triston had dropped to the ground behind her, but Renard stood at the end of the corridor, his arm outstretched.
I honestly don’t know what happened in my first attempt to write this scene. The old version is overly specific, to the point that whatever’s happening in the moment is obscured by my over-the-top prose. In the new version, however, I cut 31 words (30% of the original paragraph) but still managed to contained all the same information – and the result is I quickened the pace.
OLD (33 words): There was an intensity in his narrow, black eyes as he held Triston’s gaze, and Triston knew already from the way this man carried himself that he was a leader among his people.
NEW (26 words): There was an intensity in his narrow, black eyes – a casual authority that shows only in those long accustomed to leading – as he held Triston’s gaze.
This is a great example of being too specific. What I wanted to show in this sentence is the emotion of the character Triston is talking to, and then the fact that Triston can see this character is a leader among his people. In the old version I pretty much just threw that out there, point blank. That is boring and tedious to read, if the reader wanted a list of facts they would have picked up a text book. The new version is a bit more vague, uses less words, and leaves it to the reader to read between the lines.
OLD (168 words): A soldier was waiting at the top, his sword drawn; Idris screamed, ducking back against the wall and at the same moment Kura leapt forward, bring up her own sword to meet the soldier’s stroke. The man stumbled back, pushed off balance by Kura’s block, which gave her the chance to lunge forward, thrusting her sword into the unprotected space where his shining, metal chest plate met his leather pants. The man gave a cry of agony and fell forward as Kura withdrew her sword, and with the same swing she struck him across the head to end the noise. The soldier’s painful cry still rang in her ears, however, and she turned back with a grimace towards her friends. They had all made it to the top of the stairs but had stopped at the landing, Idris, N’hadia, Triston, and Aethan coming farther into the corridor as Renard took up the rear, holding his bloodied sword in one hand and dragging Chagan’s limp form with the other.
NEW (130 words): A soldier was waiting at the top, his sword drawn; Idris screamed, falling back against the wall as Kura leapt forward, meeting the soldier’s stroke. The man stumbled, losing his balance on the stairs, and Kura thrust her sword into the unprotected space where his metal chest plate met his leather pants. He gave a cry of agony, clutching at his leg, and Kura struck him across the neck, ending the noise. Still, the sound echoed in her ears and she turned away, smothering a grimace. Idris, at her side, breathed a sigh of relief. N’hadia, Triston, and Aethan were making their way up the stairs behind her. Renard took up the rear, his bloodied sword clenched in one hand as he dragged Chagan’s limp form with the other.
And here is an overwriter at her finest. The old version is a mess of extemporaneous details and overburdened sentences. The new version is slick, clean, and fast-paced while keeping all the very same feel and circumstances as the original.
Well, I hope my mistakes and how I have chosen to correct them can be helpful to you in your own self editing process. This is something I only came to realize rather recently in my writing journey, but sometimes saying precisely what you mean is actually incredibly cumbersome and/or boring. We read because we want to interpret side-ways glances, extrapolate from the details – simply put, we read so we can feel the moment, not so someone can narrate something while also telling us how to feel.
So, what do you think about my ideas here? What have you learned about writing while self-editing? I would love to read your thoughts and opinions in the comments!