Remember Linda’s recent blog post—the one in March about improving your craft? In it, she talked about submissions that make her go “I love the premise of this! I wish the writing was better…” Well, I spend a lot of time on learning my craft. As much time as I spend on the actual writing part of being a writer, I spend just as much time learning about what constitutes great writing. When I felt ready to start querying, I figured that since Linda was good enough to ask for a 20-page sample as part of her query guidelines, it was my job to make her like the words I arranged on those pages. The story itself might be great, but we have only a few pages to impress an agent and get them to want to keep reading based on those few sentences. So, they better be great, too.
Here are some of the things I focus on when it comes to polishing my work:
1) Starting with “I” too often. If you write in first-person POV (and I do almost all the time), you might fall into the trap of starting most of your sentences with “I.” The thing is, it becomes annoyingly redundant to the person reading your work: I did this. I wasn’t sure about it, but I did it. I saw this. I heard this. I then decided this. I once submitted a first chapter for a contest, and it came back to me with every single “I” highlighted in yellow. Ever since then, I work hard at varying how I begin my sentences.
2) Spelling things out. If you’ve got a great dialogue exchange that shows your protag being a snippy jerk, while the best friend is being a pushover, do you really need to then sum up with a line of narrative that says, “I was being a snippy jerk, and my best friend was being a pushover”? Seems obvious, but when you’re writing along, you might have the tendency to spell things out when you’ve already done a pretty good job showing everything the reader needs to know. It’s actually irritating for a reader to be “told” things, like they’re too dumb to have picked up on it. When I revise, these instances usually jump out at me, but I make sure I’m on the lookout for them.
3) Who said what, and why did they say it like that? Dialogue tags (or speech tags) can become a problem, especially if you’re trying to be too fancy with them. After a while, admonishing, pleading, countering, and offering dialogue lines sticks out when it shouldn’t by calling attention to itself. Unless it’s super important that I clarify how something was said, I’ll stick to the word “said,” or to no speech tag at all. The flipside of that is that when I revise, I might realize I’ve omitted the dialogue tag when it was needed for clarity. If I’m asking myself, “Wait, who said this?” and I start counting the lines to figure out who spoke when, then I know I need to stick a couple tags in there.
4) Repeat offenders. It didn’t take me long to make a list of my overused words. I started with the word feel (in all its forms), then I went to the following: shrug, gaze, look, eyebrows (and all of the things they do), whatever, like, then, I, just. There are more. There are actually lists of overused words you can find online. Do a search of your document, and start switching things up.
5) The “tells” that slipped through the cracks. I am always thinking “show don’t tell.” I think that is the ultimate rule, and it will usually fix a lot of the issues with a manuscript. Still, some of those “tells” end up making it through multiple revisions. I remind myself to engage the senses. Another thing I do is picture the events unfolding like a movie, that way I tend to write everything I would see on the screen, which keeps my writing focused on the “show.”
6) Take the meh and make it cool. This is where I get rid of my clichés, my boring descriptions—all the places where it feels like I just used words to get from Point A to Point B—and I shake things up. You gotta work with characterization here, and you gotta think about your writing style. Do you want it to feel like anyone could’ve written this? Or do you want the agent to think, Niiice. A passage might feel “done” because it does its job, but I try to look at every sentence individually and assess whether or not I can make it shine to the point of hopefully making a reader go, Niiice.
So, all this boils down to one thing: thinking like a reader. When you’re ready to start submitting to agents, think of these agents as readers. They want to read something excellent, something they’ll want to be responsible for getting on the shelves, out to other readers. Don’t give them the opportunity to sigh and wish the writing was better.
M-E Girard is a registered nurse moonlighting as a writer of LGBTQ young adult fiction. She has completed her first Young Adult novel (a finalist in the 2010 Young Adult Novel Discovery Contest) and is working on her second, third, and fourth. M-E is a member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region and is on its Board of Directors. She also manages their website Reading As Writers, a blog and resource site for members. M-E lives in Ontario, Canada, with her partner Melissa and their two Chihuahua babies.