The Red Pen: Save Yourself from Seven Deadly Writing Sins

Okay, bear with me. Here’s a first draft:

FIRST DRAFT:

She was clearly dolefully miserable. “How . . . how . . . how could you?” she sputtered out in a voice that was icy with shock and rage.

He sank down into the couch and rubbed his temple, framed by thick, salt and pepper flecked hair, as he winced. “I never meant for you to find out!” he groaned.

“It’s so much money. How can we ever recompense him for such an enormous amount of money?” she cried.

He made his two hands into two tight fists and rested his chiseled forehead upon them, closing blue-green eyes. “I don’t know,” he sighed mournfully.

Yeah, I know. It’s bad. But if you’re reading this, your first drafts are probably a little rough around the edges too. (If your first drafts are publishable, you’re one in a billion, and I hope you’re enjoying that huge pile of money you must be sitting upon!) But there’s a method to the madness: this cringe-worthy draft is a good illustration of seven deadly sins you might be committing in your own writing—sins that, with a little careful self-editing, can be easily overcome. Ready to free yourself from the chains?

Caught Slave Slavery Handcuffs Sin Crime Non-free

Sin #1: Modifier abuse

If she was clearly upset, would you really have to say it? If the amount of money wasn’t enormous, would they be reacting the way they did? If he’s sinking into the couch, doesn’t that imply down? Aren’t fists already tight? Get rid of modifiers that glut your writing.

Sin #2: Belaboring the obvious with punctuation and repetition

With 3 hows, ellipses and italics, you’ve made your point—in fact, you’ve overmade it. Let your scene play out without hitting your reader over the head with conspicuousness.

Sin #3: Soap opera attribution

People say things. Leave the sighing, groaning and sputtering for the soap operas. Keep dialogue tags simple—or better yet, make your writing so clear you don’t always need them.

Sin #4: Pointless physical description

Is it important that we know about his salt and pepper hair, his chiseled forehead or his eye color? It’s nice to leave something to the reader’s imagination, after all. If that level of intensive physical description doesn’t propel your plot or deepen your characterization—nix it!

Sin #5: Over telling

The dialogue and her body language show the reader she’s shocked and enraged. Of course he made his hands into fists—what else are you going to make into fists? (Also, why tell the reader he’s making his two hands into two fists? Doesn’t just the plural word hands imply there are two?—I mean, unless you’ve got some kind of mutant changeling with plentiful hands who can morph them into multitudes of fists, in which case you might want to specify numbers.)

Sin #6: Big words

We know you have a great vocabulary, but now is not the time to show it off. Dolefully miserable is overkill (besides, doleful means about the same thing as miserable, anyway). Recompense is ridiculous, unless you’re writing a Regency bodice-ripper. Avoid stilted language.

Sin #7: Settling for your first draft

First drafts are just works in progress, and a good writer knows that. Have the humility—and thick skin—to acknowledge and change what’s not working. Surround yourself with supportive writers and editors who challenge you as much as they cheer you on.

IMPROVED, TIGHTENED UP SECOND DRAFT:

“How could you?” Her voice was ice.

He sank into the couch and rubbed his temple, wincing. “I never meant for you to find out.”

“But the money. How can we ever pay him back?”

He rested his forehead upon a fist, closed his eyes and sighed. “I don’t know.”

It’s not perfect yet, and there’s a lot on the cutting room floor, yes—but think of it as more space for your story!

 

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Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and college level.

 

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