I’ve been editing for a few years now, and the same issues come up again and again. Here are the five most common:
Unnecessary dialogue tags
It is best, on the whole, to stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. There are a few reasons for this. Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, or, possibly worst of all, ‘interjected’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. A dialogue tag is only there to identify who has spoken. It shouldn’t need to tell the reader anything else. The character’s words, their actions and their situation should be sufficient.
It’s really only necessary to include physical description if it is relevant to the story. If you do want to have some physical description, then rather than have the details all together when you introduce a character, intersperse them gradually through the narrative, using actions/dialogue etc. For example:
She shook her head, her dark eyes flashing.
‘What do you want?’ he asked, pushing a strand of his unruly curly hair behind one ear.
This way, you continue moving the story along without holding the narrative up.
Bear in mind too that you don’t need every detail of every movement. Your readers can fill in the gaps. Your reader doesn’t need to be told every move a character makes. Give enough information to build a scene, show what’s important, and let your reader fill in the details.
Be very careful of using exposition. Exposition is important in a manuscript – it gives us vital background information about a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their beliefs and motivations as well as context and prior events. But the crucial thing about exposition is that it needs to be handled very carefully – it’s the way that you do it that matters.
You need to ‘show’ your reader information, not simply ‘tell’ them. This way you ‘expose’ the back story without being boring. And some of the best ways to do this are through dialogue, conflict, revealing a character’s thoughts and using physical props such as newspapers, letters and emails.
For example, have your characters talk to each other about events that have happened, what those events meant to them, how they felt and reacted to those events. But you need your dialogue to be realistic. Don’t use it as a way of dumping information. And make sure your characters never tell each other things they already know – it’s obvious that this is for the benefit of the reader rather than a natural part of their conversation.
Too many adverbs
Adverbs modify verbs. If you’re using an adverb to modify a verb, then ask yourself why you need to. Is the verb not doing its job? If the verb alone can’t tell your reader how someone or something is doing something without an adverb, then is it the right one to use?
John walked quickly down the street.
You want your reader to know how John walked, so if he’s walking quickly, then say so – right? Well, no.
John hurried down the street.
One word instead of two – tells us exactly how John is moving.
She totally, completely accepted that her work needed editing.
Neither of those two adverbs is needed. Just say:
She accepted that her work needed editing.
(Actually get rid of ‘that’ too!)
There are also adverbs that are totally redundant.
The fire alarm rang loudly.
How else would it ring? It wouldn’t be much use as a fire alarm if it rang quietly.
And if it is ‘clanging’ then ‘loudly’ is also redundant – the word ‘clanging’ implies loudness.
Similes and metaphors
A clever, well-thought out simile or metaphor can add a deeper meaning to your narrative. It can give your reader a new way of looking at things. But similes and metaphors need to be handled very carefully indeed. Only use them if they add something new or interesting to a description. Otherwise, they jar and only serve to remind the reader that they are reading a book. You are crafting a world that your reader needs to believe in in order to be invested in your story. As with dialogue tags, an awkward or clichéd simile brings them out of that world that you have carefully constructed. A clunky metaphor will do the same.