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The Devil's in the Detail...At least when it comes to polishing a manuscriptHaving recently completed an edit on a very well-written manuscript, a point was driven home to me on the importance of crafting every single word we write. Precise, active words make the difference between a pretty egg and a speckled robin's egg, between "he played the guitar" and "he strummed the guitar."
- adjectives - Generic descriptions like gorgeous or kind don't really go far in describing that flower or girl. But if you choose words that show why that flower is pretty or how the girl is kind, the reader will grasp your meaning better. I will like a girl with "hands rough from constructing a Habitat house" more than a will a "generous teen with a heart of gold."
- verbs - The first level of verb editing is to make sure that you've used the strongest verb possible for your action without going over the top. We don't need people "exclaiming" in dialogue tags, but too much walking and turning and looking gets boring as well. One of the reasons adverbs get a bad rap is because they are often used to support a weak verb. However, when a stronger verb is chosen, the adverb is no longer needed.
In a higher level of edits, the skilled writer will also consider character development in choosing their verbs. Anyone can sigh or smile or turn or look, and in some manuscripts (mine!), characters do this hundreds of times. However, only will a librarian stack an armload of books to cart off to the shelves, or an entomologist pin a butterfly and spread its wings for display.
- POV words - If writing in deep POV, you usually will not need to say "he thought," or any of the sensory verbs such as "he heard," "he saw," "he smelled," etc. You can simply show it happening and eliminate these weaker words. Instead of "He heard the children's laughter from outside," you could simply say "The children's laughter floated in from outside."
- over-used words - We all have them. These words can be found in any of the categories mentioned above plus others. Verbs like sighed, smiled, glanced, turned, stepped, laughed. These are our crutches. They are easy to use, comfortable, and often necessary. But sometimes they can point to less than exciting action taking place. Look behind these words to the setting and action of your story. If you're using these comfort-verbs too much, does it mean you need to kick your action up a pace? Can you take your characters to a more interesting setting where better action can be found?
- Then there the throw-away words that slip into our manuscripts often without our notice but don't carry their weight in presenting a strong text. Qualifying words like just, quite, very, rather. Or compound structures like "started to" or "could have."
- subtext - Subtext comes in many forms and can be somewhat hard to define. But overall, subtext is anything hinted at below the text of a manuscript and not laid-out obvious for the reader to discover. Subtext can reveal hidden emotions, motivations, relationships, clues. Subtext can also carry theme in a way that would come across as preachy if presented above text. And this is where precise wording can be so beneficial.
Say you're playing with a character seeking redemption for past wrongs, and this character is a heart surgeon. You could choose words that play on cutting open hearts, surgical changes, forgiveness and mercy throughout your manuscript without belaboring the point. For subtext, these words would not be part of a speech on redemption, but rather subtly inserted in common action and dialogue...that still carries the message to the heart of the reader.