Monday, August 13, 2012

Insights into Editing: A Conversation with Carin Siegfried Part IV

Did you ever think there were this many common editing problems? In this ongoing series, Carin Siegfried continues to outline other problems she encounters as an independent editor.

Show vs. Tell There are 3 different aspects to this phrase. 
1. Do not use too many metaphors and overly flowery writing.  A novel is not about showing off your fine writing skills – it is about telling a good story readers can get lost in.  And if your style is very fanciful or over-the-top, that takes a reader out of the story and reminds her about you. You, the author, should be invisible to the reader.

2. The second is in some ways opposite of the first.  Instead of saying, “They finished dinner,” you could instead say: “they finished up their plates of steamed haddock, buttered potatoes, and a homemade winter salad.” And similarly instead of, “She did the dishes herself and he fell asleep by the fire,” you could write: “She would not let him help, and it was difficult to make conversation through the small pine-shuttered hatch in the wall, so he dozed, hypnotized by the fierce blue cones of the gas fire’s flame.” (both from Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand p. 288)  So instead of just telling us what’s going on, the author shows us the whole scene and allows her readers enough detail to be able to picture it. But be careful you don’t go overboard. 

3. Don’t summarize when you could give readers a scene.  Example:
Bad: “Samantha told Jonathan she didn’t appreciate his coming over without calling first. Jonathan apologized and explained he’d been in the neighborhood.  Samantha didn’t like his answer but changed the subject to find out why he was there.”
Good: “Jonathan, I have asked you to call before stopping by,” Samantha snapped.
“Well I was in the neighborhood,” he answered rather pathetically.
She scowled to let him know she didn’t believe his explanation, “Well what do you need anyway?” she asked, hoping to get him back on his way as quickly as possible. 
It’s not particularly longer or more difficult to write it out, but it gives readers more of a flavor for the characters and their personalities than a summary can. Summaries work for something that is off-topic, for instance the main character’s best friend’s family problem, or for something the reader has already heard. But summaries can be especially tricky at the beginning of a book because they are so tempting a way to give the main characters’ back story, but they are slow and tend to bog things down.  

One trick around this is to flip your first and second chapters. If you get readers into the story and interested in your characters before you go into the back story, they’re more vested and will find it more interesting and less of a slog. Additionally instead of starting off slow, you’d start off with action, then pull back for some explanation, and finally return to the action. That back and forth pacing actually adds interest overall instead of just starting very slowly and gradually getting faster, which is not as interesting a pace.
Join us next week when Carin shares other "Show, Don't Tell" pointers.This material is from Carin's presentation to my Writing Fiction class at Central Piedmont Community College. 

Here are the previous installments:
  • Part I: Carin's insights into the different types of editing. 
  • Part II: Common editorial problems
  • Part III: More editorial problems. 


Anonymous said...

This is very helpful. I think we all can spout out the "show v. tell" advice, but not really understand how to explain what it means. Thank you, Carin and Carol, for these great examples. Like I said, VERY helpful! Now I have some revising to do...

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad they are helpful, Donna!

Clara Gillow Clark said...

I'm really enjoying this blog series on editing, Carol!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Clara!

Linda A. said...


Flipping the first and second chapter is an interesting way to revise. Hmmm...can I make that work on my WIP?

Carol Baldwin said...

Let me know if it works, Linda!

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