In Part 2, I talked about two ways in which writers may overwrite:
—unnecessary use of characters’ names
—repeated words and phrases
In this last part I’ll finish up this series by talking about three other ways writers overwrite:
—unnecessary dialogue tags
—wordiness in general
—unnecessary repetition of information
(3) UNNECESSARY DIALOGUE TAGS
I see unnecessary dialogue tags quite a lot, usually but not exclusively, from newer writers. These come in a couple of forms.
In the first case, the writer adds extra tags or inserts tags that aren’t needed at all.
“I’m sure it will work,” Jane said, and then she added, “but I’d be more comfortable if we had more time to test it.” (DELETE “and then she added”)
“Yes, she will accompany us,” Harry said. Pausing, he added, “It took some convincing, but she finally agreed.” (BETTER: “Yes, she will accompany us,” Harry said. “It took some convincing, but she finally agreed.”—HERE THE TAG ITSELF CREATES A NATURAL PAUSE.)
“Okay, here’s what I’m going to do, buddy,” John said. “I know someone that can help us. She has,” he briefly paused and let out a long sigh, “special talents.” (BETTER: “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do, buddy,” John said. “I know someone that can help us. She has…” He let out a long sigh. “…special talents.”)
For me, the most egregious of these involve telling words in the tag (explained, affirmed, stated), or worse, adverbial ones (responded sadly, said gratefully). I’ve said it before, and I will repeat it again: If you have to tell the reader how the line is delivered, then (with very few exceptions) you have not done your job as a writer. I’m sure you’ve all seen dialogue like the examples below.
“Thank you, thank you so much. I totally appreciate it,” she told him gratefully.
“You can do this,” he assured.
“I… don’t know if I’m ready,” she answered hesitantly.
“How come you weren’t at work on Friday?” he queried.
“My grandmother passed away on Monday,” she responded sadly. “The funeral was on Friday.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he consoled.
“I completely agree with your assessment,” he affirmed.
“Well, if we use a fast-drying paint on the prototype, we can still finish on time for the demonstration,” he explained confidently. “Then we can use the regular paint in the production models,” he added.
So what’s wrong with these? Aside from the fact that they’re all amateurish writing, every one of these examples strays into telling instead of showing. In most of the cases, the dialogue itself already shows the reader how the line is delivered, so the explanatory tags are not necessary. In others, a simple change in punctuation would do the job. For example, use ellipsis (…) to show hesitation. A simple “said” or “asked” is quite sufficient. Or look at it this way, as I said, dialogue tags are there to identify the speaker, not intrude on the narrative. They should be nearly invisible unless you have good reason for them not to be.
In the last of the examples above, the “he added” tag is unnecessary because he is clearly adding to his statement. I’ll concede “he told them” in place of “he said” as being acceptable.
BETTER: “Well, if we use a fast-drying paint on the prototype, we can still finish on time for the demonstration,” he said. “Then we can use the regular paint in the production models.”
I will say that occasionally “explained” or “continued” can be used, but explanations are usually self-evident, as are continuations of speech. But sometimes “he/she continued” does work better than the simpler “said.” Use this in moderation, though.
I can think of only two cases where you should use explanatory tags. The first is when the dialogue for some reason can’t indicate the delivery or when the delivery runs counter to expectation.
“How come you weren’t at work on Friday?” he asked.
“My grandmother passed away on Monday,” she said joyfully. “The funeral was on Friday, and when they read the will on Saturday, I found out that she left me everything. I don’t have to work at this stupid job anymore.”
Instead of “she said joyfully” I’d cast the whole thing differently.
“How come you weren’t at work on Friday?” he asked her.
“My grandmother passed away on Monday.”
He was about to offer his condolences when she burst out laughing. “The funeral was on Friday, and when they read the will on Saturday, I found out that she left me everything!”
“She was wealthy?”
“Oh yeah. I can kiss off this stupid job.”
The second case is when you want those -ly adverbs for humor or to make a point. Most of the time, you’ll find that the right verb works better than an adverb. If you do need those -ly adverbs, use them in moderation and do try to avoid “suddenly.”
When inserting dialogue tags, remember that the purpose of a tag is to indicate WHO is speaking, not how the line is spoken. Therefore, always ask yourself TWO questions:
—Why do you need the tag? Is it clear who is speaking without one?
—If a tag is needed, can you show who is speaking by inserting some action or other indicator instead? But don’t go overboard with those either. Balance is everything. And that leads us to…
(4) WORDINESS IN GENERAL
This is a harder one to recognize in one’s own writing, but with some practice you can master the art of conciseness. To tame your wordiness, examine each sentence and try to determine if you could say it more concisely. Granted, sometimes you do want long sentences and extended narrative as part of the style of the story. In the example I give at the end of this post, you’ll see some examples of wordiness.
(5) UNNECESSARY REPETITION OF INFORMATION
I recently edited a novel where the author repeated an explanation THREE times. The first time the character was reading a journal (that occupied several pages in the novel). Then later the character told it twice more in detail to different characters. No, this is was definitely NOT a case of using threes to reinforce something. This was a clear repetition of something the reader had already heard. The author should have simply written that the character told what was in the journal or kept it to just one or two essential details relevant to the situation instead of taking 100-200 words to repeat the information.
I’ve been guilty of repeating information to a different character that was already given out, and I had to reign myself in. You may not spot this repetition until you read over the novel. One way to avoid this issue is to do a rough outline or a short chapter-by-chapter synopsis so you can see what information you imparted already. This is where pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants as you go along instead of using some type of outline) can get you into trouble as a writer if you don’t keep yourself focused.
I’m going to end with an example of how all three of these faults not only creep into writing, but how inexperienced writers can propagate these problems in their writers’ groups and critique groups.
I’ve talked in the past about the value of critique groups, but I’ve also cautioned against the dangers. What do I mean by the latter? Well, when you have writers who (forgive my bluntness) don’t know what the hell they’re doing—that is some of them don’t know good writing from mediocre or bad writing—then you risk getting bad advice. And if you’re new to a group and you don’t know this is bad advice, then you’re going to think it’s good advice from experienced writers and you’ll modify your own writing to follow their bad examples.
Please do not take this as a slam on writers’ groups or critique groups. They provide valuable services to writers. But as a member of one, you should validate the advice you’re being given. One good way is to see if others in the group agree or offer similar comments. Hopefully not everyone subscribes to the same bad advice.
One way to spot bad advice is to look at what the commenter is doing in terms of the critique. Unless the person is an editor, he or she should probably not be rewriting your sentences without explaining why such was done. Even when I’m being paid to edit, I always explain when I make (or recommend) changes. I will even comment on punctuation when I see the writer making consistent mistakes, as opposed to my just making the changes.
The first passage below is the opening from a short story I recently submitted to my own local writers’ group. The second selection is that same opening as one reviewer revised it. I say “revised” because the reviewer made changes but did not explain WHY, which should be at least a caution flag to any writer. Look over the excerpts, then I’ll explain.
Marq shuffled out of his bedroom on his way to the kitchen. From his roommate’s bedroom he heard the customary groaning and flailing. Ryan must have come home late because he hadn’t heard him come in. For once, Ryan’s nighttime revelries hadn’t awakened him. Some of the women were screamers. Although the bathroom separated their rooms, the noises often woke him. He’d roll onto his back and wonder what sexual charm Ryan had that he lacked. Marq made breakfast for three.
A half-hour later, he knocked on Ryan’s door. “Breakfast.”
He was savoring the chocolate chip pancakes when Ryan entered the kitchen with—
“Marq, this is Ben Spicer—his first name’s Bennington, but he’ll slap you if you call him that. Ben, Marq.” Looking at Ben, Ryan said, “He spells his name with a ‘q’: Marquis Martin Sayles.” Marq mimed the words as Ryan said them, “M-a-r-q-u-i-s, Mar-KWIS like the British, not Mar-KEY like the French.” Thankfully, Ryan didn’t call him M&Ms this time. Marq hated M&Ms. The candy too.
Ben, wearing snug jeans with a yellow tank top, politely took a seat. Ryan had on a blue tank top to accompany his low-rise briefs. He swung a bare leg over the chair seat across from Ben. “Did ya put in extra chips?”
Marq felt himself nod as he stared at Ben.
“Hey, roomie, it’s not polite to stare.” Marq shifted his gaze to Ryan, who piled three pancakes on his plate, slathered the top one with butter, then dumped a third of the syrup bottle over the stack. “I was trolling for women at the Suds last night when Ben here comes up and offers to buy me a beer. While we’re waiting for our brewskis, he looks around and says, ‘Must be woofer night.’
“I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve never seen so many two-baggers in one place before.’ He flashes me this winning smile and says, ‘Take me home with ya and I’ll make up for it.’ He wasn’t what I had in mind, but nothing better had presented itself.” Ryan looked up from his pancakes. “So, why ya looking at him like that?”
“He’s a guy.”
Ryan grinned. “Nothing gets by you, roomie.”
[REVIEWER’S REVISIONS—changes are in CAPS]
Marq shuffled out of his bedroom on the way to the kitchen. He heard the customary groaning and flailing FROM HIS ROOMMATE’S BEDROOM. RYAN MUST HAVE COME HOME LATE BECAUSE I DIDN’T HEAR HIM COME IN. For once, Ryan’s nighttime revelries hadn’t awakened him. Some of the women were screamers. EVEN THOUGH the bathroom separated their rooms, the noises often woke him. Marq would roll onto his back and wonder what sexual charm Ryan had that he lacked.
[NEED A TRANSITION HERE]
IN THE KITCHEN, Marq made breakfast for three. A half-hour later, he knocked on Ryan’s door AND YELLED, “Breakfast.”
He was savoring the chocolate chip pancakes when Ryan entered the kitchen with—
“Marq, this is Ben Spicer,” RYAN ANNOUNCED. His first name’s Bennington, but he’ll slap you if you call him that. Ben, Marq.” Looking at Ben, Ryan said, “He spells his name with a ‘q’: Marquis Martin Sayles.” Marq mimed the words as Ryan said them, “M-a-r-q-u-i-s, Mar-KWIS like the British, not Mar-KEY like the French.” Thankfully, Ryan didn’t call him M&Ms this time. Marq hated M&Ms. The candy too.
Ben, wearing snug jeans with a yellow tank top, politely took a seat. Ryan had on a blue tank top to accompany his low-rise briefs. He swung a bare leg over the chair seat across from Ben. “Did ya put in extra chips?” HE ASKED.
MARQ NODDED AND STARED AT BEN.
RYAN GLARED AT MARQ. “Hey, roomie, it’s not polite to stare.”
Marq shifted his gaze to Ryan, who piled three pancakes on his plate, slathered the top one with butter, then dumped a third of the syrup bottle over the stack.
“I was trolling for women at the Suds last night when Ben here comes up and offers to buy me a beer,” RYAN SAID BETWEEN BITES. “While we’re waiting for our brewskis, BEN LOOKED AROUND AND SAID, ‘Must be woofer night.’
‘YEAH,’ I REPLIED. ‘I’ve never seen so many two-baggers in one place before.’
BEN FLASHED ME THIS WINNING SMILE AND SAID, ‘Take me home with ya and I’ll make up for it.’ “He wasn’t what I had in mind, but nothing better had presented itself.” Ryan looked up from his pancakes. “So, why ya looking at him like that?”
“He’s a guy.”
Ryan grinned. “Nothing gets by you, roomie.”
Here are my comments. The first change is an innocuous one: move “from his bedroom” from the start to the end of the sentence. But why? In the original it immediately tells us where the noises emanate from. In the revision, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to find out. The original also offers a variation in sentence structure rather than having two in a row opening with subject-verb.
The change immediately after that turns what was an indirect thought into a direct one. Why? It was perfectly fine before. I did note that this reviewer’s own writing tends to use more direct thoughts (italicized), but that’s a stylistic choice. I prefer indirect thoughts because they tend to be less intrusive and often render the narrative smoother. A lot of writing advice agrees on this. My point here is that the reviewer doesn’t seem to understand the difference between direct and indirect thoughts and feels all thoughts should be direct one.
The third change (opening of the second paragraph) adds “in the kitchen.” Again, why? First, the reader was already told that Marq was on his way to the kitchen (opening sentence of the story). Second, where else would Marq be making pancakes? This one falls under both problems (4) and (5): wordiness and unnecessary repetition of information.
Then we get to the heart of the matter with two unnecessary and (in my opinion) poor dialogue tags: “and yelled” and “Ryan announced.” I cringe at the latter one in particular. We absolutely do not need “ANNOUNCED” here. In the next paragraph the “he asked” tag is extraneous. The question mark says it’s an “ask.” These tags are all “telling” tags and should be avoided in good writing. Yes, we do see writers using them, but you won’t find the pros doing it.
Look at the next three paragraphs. The first one, “Marq felt himself nod as he stared at Ben,” gives a different mood than what the reviewer changed it to. We’re in Marq’s POV, and my wording gives the reader a sense of being in Marq’s head, with him nodding almost unconsciously as opposed to the simple statement of his nodding—a subtle but important difference.
In the paragraphs after that, I switched into present tense where Ryan is narrating the events of the previous night, a technique to change the perspective and make it less “telling.” Clearly the reviewer missed that, and as well changed the paragraphing unnecessarily. Also, do we really need the “Ryan said between bites” in there?
Now, I’m not saying this opening couldn’t use a few tweaks here and there. In fact, another very knowledgeable reviewer offered some good ones that improve rather than damage the narrative, as some of the other reviewer’s suggestions did.
I hope these posts have been useful in helping you assess and improve your own work. Writing is such a complex thing. There are so many different techniques and styles one can use. But conciseness (where I began in Part 1) is tantamount to good writing. Don’t overwrite or you can bore your reader and make a bad impression overall. Keeping your writing tight is the best way to keep your reader engaged.
Take advantage of critiques from others, but keep a wary eye on any advice offered without explanations. Always, always, always ask yourself whether any suggested changes improve the writing, detract from it, or outright change the voice.
In any critique group, it goes without saying that suggestions should be just that. You, the writer, need to weigh them carefully and decide which improve, which are detrimental or wrong, and which are merely stylistic choices that fit (or don’t fit) the voice of the story.
I didn’t intend originally to make this post into any kind of rant, but I felt strongly enough about the errant critique (and it fit the topic) to go into it. It’s meant to be a learning example.