Copy editing (and line editing – I do both together) are organized around making sure your story is streamlined and contains the best word choices to suit the characters, the tone or tension of the situations, and the setting or time period. The application of grammar rules is balanced with the author’s style and the requirement that the reader actually understand the story you’re trying to convey.
Most writers remember the basics of grammar from their schooling: the parts of speech and the difference between a sentence and a fragment. The nuances, unless used, tend to fade over time, which is why dependent clauses, prepositional phrases, and the commas that do or do not set them apart, seem trickier. This is the editor’s expertise. We’ve studied and applied the rules to hundreds of manuscripts. But I’m not here today to really talk about those issues. Today’s topic is crutch words and general overwriting, and how you can catch a lot of these yourself.
Crutch words are extraneous words or phrases that we often unconsciously add in while we’re writing, mostly because we’re thinking our way through the scene and not sure what’s right around the next turn. Crutch words are a sign of hesitation. When you reread your work, they can often come out and improve the scene in terms of characterization, tension, and tone.
On the flip side, if your situation calls for it, crutch words are helpful because they will show the character’s hesitation, too. This is “tone.”
But if the situation doesn’t call for it? For example, you’re creating a fast-paced scene, or describing someone moving through a series of actions confidently, crutch words kill the momentum.
So they’ve got to go.
The biggest crutch words are the infinitive verb forms. “to walk” “to try”, etc. And there’s usually at least one other verb that is the central action. Depending on whether you’re writing past or present tense it could be an -ed verb, or an -ing one. And nearly all actions do not need a “begin” or “started” in front of them. Multiple seconds are passing; a character is not still starting anything. They are doing it, or its done.
He turned the key and the engine began to roar to life >>>> He turned the key and the engine roared.
Overwriting comes from explaining more than is necessary. A “lift” of the head is going to result in a “looked up”. So, you can remove one or the other. And “he typed out his name and address on the computer keyboard” is more succinct “he typed out his name and address.” These days, it’s assumed he’s using a computer keyboard. The last area of overwriting occurs with detailing routines. Unless something goes wrong that is germane to the conflict or tension in the process of doing something mundane or everyday, generally speaking, it is unnecessary to enumerate the actions.
Rolling out of bed, Jackson went to his closet and thumbed through his suits, finally pulling the blue-gray pinstripe from its hanger, along with a blue button-up. He stripped out of his jockey shorts and rummaged for new underwear in his dresser. Leaning against the wall, he pulled them up over his hips.
60+ words and nothing interesting has happened. Yes, we know he has at least a blue-gray suit, a blue button-up and he changed his shorts. But how has this shown us more of his character or moved the plot and conflict forward? Is our guy clumsy, overweight, fastidious? To show these things, we have to have something happen. He leans against the wall and struggles to get the underwear over his hips? He pulls down the suit, but the buttons won’t close across his chest? Or maybe something interrupts his progress, like a phone call from his boss telling him to come in early to work?
If the normal is interrupted, enumerate it. Otherwise, rewrite more succinctly…
He rolled out of bed. Once dressed in his blue-gray pinstripe business suit – because he had a board meeting at 10 – Jackson went to the kitchen for breakfast.
“went to the kitchen for breakfast” is a transition phrase. We’re going to change locations, so the action begins – but it will be completed in another space. But we’re not going to start a new scene. We’re still in Jackson’s POV and he’s still alone in his home before work.
Like I said, generally getting up and getting ready for the day is mundane routine and shouldn’t be enumerated. But we’re setting up Jackson to get interrupted in his routine – his boss will call. That’s going to be the plot-advancing action. What’s the most inconvenient moment for his boss to call? While he’s in the shower, on the toilet, when he eating his bagel and coffee and has his mouth full? Something else?
Mentally ticking through his day’s agenda, Jackson thought about what he needed in his briefcase for the board meeting. Sipping his Jamaican coffee, he grabbed the case from beside his computer and flipped it to the surface of his desk. Yes. The Milburn numbers. And the Donovan case file. Oh – he rolled his mouse and brought up his desktop screen. Send the Vita brief to his admin for printing.
Deep in his case, his cell phone buzzed. Startled, Jackson jumped, coffee falling down his front and dribbling onto his keyboard.
“Shit!” He snatched at the phone, answering it brusquely while running to the kitchen. “Who is it?”
“Jackson, it’s Gilbreath.”
Jackson stopped running. “Oh, uh, yes. Yes, sir. What, what can I do for you?” He stared at his fist full of paper towels and inwardly cried.
Do you need the details of the conversation between Jackson and his boss? Maybe. Maybe not. If Gilbreath is already established as a micromanager and just wanted Jackson not to forget the board meeting, we can end the scene there. If what Gilbreath has to say adds a new wrinkle to Jackson’s day, something else he has to go back to his desktop for, detail the conversation.
There’s also the matter of the desktop with the coffee spill. Just how bad is Jackson’s day about to get? Detail the things that move Jackson’s story forward. Leave the rest to brief statements.
as heand put down the paper towels and his cell phone. Damn Gilbreath. He wasn’t some rookie attorney, needing every reminder of a meeting. He reached out to rollrolled his mouse. The screen didn’t come back to life. Oh, no. No. Looking down at the keyboard, he noticed the status light over the num lock key was off. His coffee had fried his keyboard.
Changing his suit and shirt to his dark blue set made him ten minutes late out the door. Bursting from his building’s front door, he thought quickly through his options as he ran toward Dwyer. He could still make the meeting if he hailed a cab at 14th and Dwyer instead of going to the 14th Street train station two blocks further away.
“Taxi!” he shouted, waving his arm. A familiar yellow sedan
started to pullpulled away from the corner light.
Summarizing the mundane, and removing the “to” phrases has just made this a much more focused scene.
PS – Here’s a fun site to test your streamlining skills: Brevity.