I've done quite a bit of editing lately and discovered that aspiring writers possess some of the same problems, in particular, overuse of passive voice.
Let's refresh our third grade English class: the verb "to be" is a state of being verb, meaning it's passive voice. Here are the forms of "to be"--am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. If you see one of those words used alone or in conjunction with another verb, then writer is using passive voice.
Passive voice works particularly well for declarative statements: "I think, therefore I am." It does not advance action. In fact, passive voice slows pacing down. It makes the story drag.
So, how do you punch it up and get the juices flowing? Use active voice.
Read the following paragraph from a post-apocalyptic story I started editing:
Sambol's mother, Moranta, had a very strict personality in regard to; time management, cleanliness and honesty. But in the end she was very kind as well as a thoughtful being. At the moment her son rushed through streets and thin alleys, to make it home on time. Now that the food reserve was decreasing, food rationing was more important, hence the new scheme gave allowance for only breakfast in the morning along with dinner in the evening. Especially with the land now barren there was no hope for rehabilitation.
Going beyond the punctuation errors, let's tighten and strengthen the paragraph and eliminate what we really don't need:
Sambol rushed home. His mother, Moranta, held to strict standards with regard to time management, cleanliness, and honesty. The decrease in the food reserve mandated food rationing which allowed for only two meals daily. The barren lands offered no hope for rehabilitation.
So, it's not a literary masterpiece, but it provides the necessary information in a succinct manner without once using a state-of-being verb. More than that, it moves.
Use of active voice is a key tenet of the "show, don't tell" philosophy of good storytelling. Look at what you write and then ask yourself, "How can I improve that?" Or better yet, hire me to improve it.
An author contacted me to ask a favor: Would I read two of her novellas and post reviews for them? Sure, I responded. The books were in a favored genre and I had some time to kill.
Wow. Not in a good way. The cover art was the best part of both books. That proves one really cannot judge a book by its cover.
Anyway, I read the books; they were short stories, really, fewer than 50 pages each. So, what complaints did this cranky reader have? Let's compile an abbreviated list:
Those are just the "mechanical" problems. In both books, the big reveal that explained the "why" of each heroine's tragic predicament was executed like the "surprise confession" of an accused criminal on trial in a cheesy crime drama. Here's an example straight from the book: "Since you had great sex with your boyfriend earlier, it was a simple matter to drug you with a cloth full of chloroform. You went out like a light so easily and that should explain why you are suddenly naked and all tied up."
Egad. Who speaks like that?
Not only is it cheesy, it's so badly written it makes my teeth itch. I'll be the first to admit that I don't write great or profound literature, but even my rough drafts are better than that. Do you think I'm kidding? Here's the first paragraph of the book I read:
"I can still remember that fateful day in the fields. The sun was bearing down on me and my back was already beginning to slightly ache from all the bending that planting entails. Still it was nothing for me. I was used to planting in the fields. It was the daily work and grind for someone in my country. It was the means for my seeds to grow and for my livelihood and family."
Let's compare. Here's the first paragraph of Tiger in the Snow. This is the unedited rough draft.
"Dmitry healed. Stuck alone on the fourth floor of a seedy hotel in Cairo, the lacerations and bruises healed quickly. Atlas Leonidus, who had hired him to track down and detain his mate, had beaten him to a pulp. Dmitry could not deny that he had deserved it."
Yes, mine needs work, but even as a rough draft it's more strongly written than what that author published.
Do you think that's a fluke? That I chose the best of my best? Here's the first paragraph of Russian Lullaby, again the unedited first draft.
"Six books hit the sidewalk with an untidy clatter as Giancarla’s arms were jerked behind her. Three seconds and it was over, a black bag over her head, her wrists bound behind her, and a slam dunk onto the smelly floor of a panel van. She struggled. Of course. She yelled. Of course. But a brutal kick to the abdomen cut off the yelling with a wheezing gasp."
Yipperdoo, it needs work. I don't deny that. But it's still better than either of those two already published books.
I kept up my end of the bargain. I read the books and posted reviews. I'm sure that author will never again ask me to review her work again. That's OK. I'd prefer she hire me to edit her work because she desperately needs an editor.
I've said it many times: It's not enough to have a good idea, you have to execute it well.
If you want something written or edited, hire me. I can help.
Every word counts.
Proofreading: Going beyond spell check
Back on the soap box about proofreading.
I recently read a novella. It had all the poor quality hallmarks that I have, unfortunately, come to expect from an independently published book, which proclaims that the author had no one proofread her work before taking it public. I saw:
Y'all can stop laughing now.
Spell-check is not an adequate substitute for proofreading. Each of the incorrect words above is correctly spelled. Unfortunately, because the words are so blatantly wrong, they confirm the author's incompetence.
I really, really, really try not to make errors like that. Sometimes I do. The occasional error is expected; we're human after all. But when content is riddled with references to a patient's "comma," then what might have been tragic becomes laughable.
Proofreading is important, folks. Get that fresh second set of eyes to look at your manuscript before going live with it.