An American Editor

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

June 1, 2010

Enhanced eBooks & the Death of Imagination

Enhanced ebooks, TV, videos, video games all share a common feature — they stifle imagination and creativity. Enhanced ebooks have a proper role to play in educating people, but perhaps not in educating the very young.

OK, I admit I’m old and that I can remember back to the birth of television, when The Lone Ranger was the hot show. And I can remember picking up a book and letting the words create a picture in my mind. These pictures were born from my understanding of what the words meant. Authors had to create worlds in writing that could be recreated by me. When Robin Hood described Maid Marian, I recreated her in my mind. One day she could be as short as me, the next twice my height. As I grew and aged, so did my mental picture of Maid Marian — all because as I experienced life and gained new insights into my world, I could apply those insights — via my imagination — to Maid Marian and to Robin Hood. 

Alas, I fear that “enhanced” ebooks will take away the last bastion of imagination. We already know that videos and movies hurt the imaginative process. We watch a movie and we no longer have to imagine the effect of a sword thrust through the chest — it is given to us graphically. We do not have to imagine what happens when a soldier picks up a live grenade and it explodes — the movie tells us clearly. Avatar left nothing for the viewer to self-create, which may be why it was so successful. We do not have to imagine because someone else has already imagined for us. How many of us had one picture of Robin Hood — a picture we created via our imagination when we first read the book — that was supplanted by Errol Flynn’s depiction of Robin Hood after we saw the movie in our youth?

Books — especially books for the preadolescent child — are the last bastion of imagination. When an author describes the heroine, we need to close our eyes and create that picture. We exercise our cognitive abilities. If the author describes a sword thrust to the chest, we imagine it within the limits of our experience and within the limits of our tolerance. These limitations, however, do not exist when we see the result displayed visually in a movie with ever increasing explicitness. (Do I really need to see the intestines falling out of a belly wound? Does it really add to the movie’s value?)

What made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so great? For those who read the books as children, it was the ability to create from Tolkien’s words the world of the hobbits and elves and other characters. We could create our own Gollum. Now, assuming someone actually reads the books after having seen the Peter Jackson interpretation, is the reader likely to create his or her own world based on Tolkien’s words or will they simply picture Jackson’s visuals? My experience suggests the latter. Will this not also be a problem for future Harry Potter fans? Won’t future readers conjure up Harry, Ron, and Hermione as the three stars of the movies?

Maybe this doesn’t matter for someone of my age, although I would like to think it does. (They do say that exercising the mind’s thinking processes is the most important thing one can do to thwart memory loss in old age.) But certainly it matters for the young who already face a dearth of opportunities to exercise their imagination. (Remember when the broomstick was your horse and it was your imagination that made it so? Now the broomstick looks like a horse?) Schools are test preparers and have no time to coddle imagination. Parents too often think quality time with their children is watching TV or playing a video game — imagination-numbing activities — rather than reading a book or playing a board game that requires thinking.

It isn’t that enhanced ebooks don’t have a proper place or role; they do. A biology text with video would be useful and probably enhance understanding. But I’m not convinced that enhanced fiction or non-science, -technical, or -math nonfiction ebooks are good for learners, especially young learners as a general proposition (there will always be exceptions to every rule).

I am particularly worried that enhanced ebooks will supplant the parental role with the very young, as TV and videos and video games do. Just as parents often turn to TV, videos, and video games to babysit their 3-year-old child, they may turn to enhanced ebooks. At least one bastion of creativity and imagination should be preserved. Parents need to spend more time with their children, especially in the preadolescent years, and that time should be encouraging use of the childrens’ imagination and brain power, not letting someone else’s imagination rule them.

What prompts my concern? A large-scale, long-running Canadian study that was reported in many U.S. newspapers and on the New York Times Health blog. The study didn’t address issues of imagination, but it seems to me that just as TV robs “effort control” skills, it also robs creative skills. In today’s hard-to-get-ahead world that often requires both parents to work just to keep from drowning, it is foolhardy to rely solely on parents to do what is right and necessary. (How many parents do you know who would be willing to cancel their cable TV so that they aren’t tempted to use TV as a babysitter? How many young children have their own cell phones?)

Publishers of ebooks need to step up to the plate and recognize that they do have a social responsibility. Today’s young are tomorrows’ readers and writers, both of which publishers will need. Rather than rushing everything possible to “enhanced ebook” status in hopes of propping up revenues, publishers should look to the their own future: If they cannot instill the desire to read in the young, they will have no future readers to sell books to.

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