Thursday, April 7, 2011

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

Recently, I decided the time had come. Although I have often asked friends to proof my manuscripts in order to find errors and suggest improvements, I decided to pay a pro for a thorough critique of my suspense manuscript. Why? Because, even though my writing often sells, I want to improve. How better to improve than to hire an objective professional to scrutinize a story and to point out my blind spots?
Let me mention up front that I wouldn’t hire a book doctor who was unknown to me. Rather, I chose a respected author and mentor who frequently speaks at conferences and “knows his stuff,” as they say. I told him not to pull any punches, that I wasn’t merely interested in selling my current manuscript. I asked him to point out mistakes, but especially flaws that I tend to repeat. He certainly did! In case you can benefit from my lessons, here are a few things I hadn’t realized about my writing:

My characters chuckle too much. When you write a novel in 30-minute spurts here and there, it’s easy to forget what you’ve written. As a result, too often my characters chuckled without my even noticing how frequently it was happening. (I used Word’s search function to track them down and changed some.)
● I occasionally repeated the exact same phrase twice on a page. For example: In my current story I have a truck that “braked to a halt” at the gate of a facility, then moments later, drives forward and this time “ground to a halt” inside it. How could I miss my own boring repetition? Somehow, I did.
● A few times I forgot to check my facts. Maybe you’ve been there: in the white-heat of creativity you type something, and you’re not quite sure it’s factual or not. “I’ll look it up later,” you think, and you continue writing. In my case, one such instance portrays a character flicking off the safety of a semi-automatic pistol—on a type of weapon that doesn’t even have a safety. (Groan. I shot myself in the foot by forgetting to check my facts.)
● Occasionally I still include wasteful words. For instance, “Dr. Kossler pulled out the chair and sat down.” In that sentence, “down” is unnecessary fluff. Although it’s possible to sit up, that conveys a different meaning. My German doctor should have simply walked to the desk and sat. That is only one of multiple words I wasted.
● From time to time, certain characters tend to say things that don’t quite ring true as normal conversation. Why? Because I, the author, wanted to tell readers some information, so I sneaked unnatural-sounding dialogue into my characters’ mouths. It doesn’t work. (Enough said on that subject; I’m zipping my lips.)
● More often than I realized, I begin sentences with the word “but.” This was a gigantic blind spot for me. Sure, contradictions arise, and “but” is a perfectly fine word; however, I got lazy and leaned on it too often. My revision is making greater use of “however,” “on the other hand,” “yet,” “although,” or simply reworded sentences.
● Without intending to, I occasionally allow alliteration into my sentences, which can result in a tongue-twister that draws attention away from the story. Here’s my worst offender: “The clouds resembled colossal clumps of cauliflower solid enough for a boy to clamber up.” (Huh? I wrote that? Sigh. Guilty, your honor. I won’t let it happen again.)

Although there’s no guarantee that my current manuscript will be published after I finish revising it, I’m glad that I made this investment at least once. By hiring a pro writer/editor to spotlight my errors and weaknesses, I’ve discovered ways to increase the quality of everything that Ill write in the future.
Did it hurt to subject my literary offspring to a book doctor’s poking, prodding, and criticism? No way! In return for my money, I received the equivalent of a treasure map. This marked-up manuscript provides a guide to upgrading my writing. The competition out there is fierce. I want my work to be as good as it can be, and there is no time for wounded pride. After all, what you don’t know about your writing really can hurt you—or at least your chances of getting published.
Okay, your turn: what kinds of repeated mistakes have you discovered in your manuscripts? By sharing lessons you’ve learned, you can help fellow writers who might still be committing them.
Rick Barry


  1. I'm currently working at shaving off the raised eyebrows. Also, glaring, staring have got to go. The other thing I do is put in those extra words. Good post, Rick. Thanks.

  2. I found that my main character cries way too much. I didn't see it but my critique partner did. Good post!

  3. I already have trouble making word counts, so don't tell me to cut unnecessary words.

    Seriously, though, these are all good suggestions. And like Rick, I am working on my tendency to start sentences with "but" and "and."

  4. How many times do you ask yourself, "Do I need to re-edit" in the day?
    Great post Rick! It's kind of like you can't find the location of the forest because the trees are in your way..

  5. Long ago, the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote his poem "To a Louse" after he saw one crawling on the bonnet of the prim lady in front of him at church. He concluded what a great gift it would be if only we could see ourselves the way others see us. I wanted to get that same gift for my manuscript--to see my writing as others do, not as I, the author, do. If I can achieve that, maybe my writing won't end up "lousy." ;)

  6. Working on my first novel. I've realized that others may view what I say differently from what I intended. Having fresh eyes, especially professional ones, is always a great advantage.
    Great post, Rick!

  7. Excellent post. I'm afraid I've been guilty of some of the same things :P

  8. Raising my hand for the "sins" of repetition and omission. It's those little words that will get you every time. My characters smile, grin and chuckle too much. Happy is one thing, but overkill is another. I'm working on it and trying to be more cognizant of it. Great post, Rick! Thank you. Blessings.