The first time I worked with a professional editor, I thought I knew a lot about writing. As it turned out, I knew much less than I thought I did. I was surprised, quite embarrassed, but I was also incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to learn new things and grow as a writer. Some of the things I learned were so simple I couldn’t believe I hadn’t realized them before. I felt like a dummy, but I also felt like I’d somehow unlocked a great treasure trove of secrets about my craft.
One of the things this editor taught me remains to this day my favorite bit of knowledge. I’m so attuned to it now in my own writing that I see it all the time in the writing of others–even very professional, extensively published authors–and so I don’t believe it’s a hard and fast rule, but a wonderful guideline.
My editor called it Detached Body Parts.
Sound scary? It is. Here’s what it means:
Many times we forget that body parts are inanimate, and it takes the action of the owner to affect them. It follows the habit of eliminating the passive voice in writing. I had never thought about it before, but once she explained it, it clicked and I realized she was right. Is this the only way to write and is it always correct? No, of course not. However, it’s an exercise in using the active voice. Here are some examples:
Passive: Her eyes closed (unless she just died, they didn’t close on their own).
Active: She closed her eyes.
Passive: His fingers stroked across my cheek (I’m picturing loose fingers scurrying around).
Active: He stroked his fingers across my cheek.
The tone is much more active and present. She did this, he did that. The focus is on the person doing the action, not the action itself. Body parts don’t move on their own, we move them.
Likewise, here’s another favorite thing I learned. She didn’t give this an amusing name, but I like to call it “Duh, obviously.”
When you write from the point of view of a single character, write what happens to them the way it happens in your own head, because you’re in their head. What do I mean by this? Say your character looked across the room and saw a dog. If you looked across the room and saw a dog, would you think, “I looked over there and saw that dog”? No, you’d think “Hey, there’s a dog.”
Duh: She looked across the room and saw a dog.
Obviously: Across the room, a dog stood.
Why? Because again, you’re inside the character’s head. You don’t need to say they looked or saw. If there’s a dog standing across the room, what is instantly assumed? Indeed, that the character looked over there and saw it. Not only does it eliminate words, it makes the writing much tighter and much more ‘present.’ We don’t think of ourselves “I heard some nice music,” we think “some lovely music is playing.”
These are just a few of my very favorite writing tips. When I learned about them I smacked my hand against my forehead (see what I did there) in shock that I had never realized them before. I love learning new things. I hope I can teach others now and then.
How about you? What are the most startling and brilliant writing tips you learned along the way?