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.

August 1, 2012

On Politics: Healthcare in America

Obamacare was recently saved by the surprise opinion of arch conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. Regardless of his hidden reasons for saving Obamacare, he really did Americans a favor — not that any one would know it by listening to Republican rhetoric.

I do not disagree with the Republicans that Obamacare could be greatly improved. Personally, I would like to see Medicare made universal for all Americans. That’s my solution to the problem of healthcare for all Americans.

The Republican solution is…. That’s really the question voters should be asking of every Republican. It is not enough to say repeal and replace; there needs to be clear understanding of what the replacement will be. Experience in American politics dictates that repeal will result in no replacement because there is no consensus, even within the Republican party, on what to do. Unlike Democrats who can say “perhaps Obamacare is flawed but we at least addressed a problem and came up with a plan,” the Republicans can only say that Obamacare is flawed.

I have asked my congressperson, who is now Republican as a result of redistricting, to outline for me in detail precisely what she proposes to replace Obamacare with. “How can I evaluate,” I asked, “the merits and demerits of Obamacare versus the Republican plan without knowing the details of the Republican plan other than that once Obamacare is repealed, leaving me with nothing, Republicans might come up with a solution of their own?”

The problem with asking a question like that of a politician is that they do not know how to respond, so they don’t respond. Politicians want to talk in soundbites, in platitudes, not in substance, and voters too readily are willing to let politicians do that. Sadly, so are partisan newspapers. I keep waiting for Fox News to ask that question. They can tell me what they think is wrong with Obamacare, which largely boils down to an unwillingness to see fellow Americans receive medical care because these pundits have goldplated policies, but not one is willing to do the newsperson’s job and ask “replace with what?”

American’s are too willing to accept the Mitch McConnell approach: it doesn’t matter as long as it isn’t Obama(care). It is better to have no insurance than to have Obamacare. McConnell and fellow Republicans make it difficult to be proud to be an American because they make it clear that, to them, “real” Americans are anti-Obama and those who are pro-Obama, or at least not anti-Obama, are not “real” Americans.

There has been discussion in recent months about the benefits of Obamacare, but there are at least two benefits that are not often mentioned but which I think are key: first, the self-employed will finally be able to have medical coverage at a reasonable cost; second, that no American will be stuck in a job they hate just so they can have medical benefits for themselves and their families — medical insurance will be portable. This latter benefit will encourage and permit Americans to become entrepreneurs and fuel the next workplace revolution.

The Republican failure to offer an alternative plan to Obamacare has resulted in a “debate” that is really not a debate and that is full of misleading rhetoric. Consider the exchanges that Obamacare requires. The exchanges are central locations that individuals can visit to see what competing insurance plans are offered by private insurers and at what price. This will promote competitiveness in the private marketplace on both price and coverage. What the exchanges do is simply make information available in an easy-to-find-and-use location. The services are still private industry services, not public services, although a public option will be offered.

Doesn’t this sound like a Republican idea? It does to me. The complaint is that private insurers will have to compete with the government. Well, hasn’t the Republican argument always been that private enterprise can do any job cheaper and better than the government? So why the sudden shift? Perhaps the Republican argument is toothless and this will expose too many voters to the toothlessness of the Republican vision.

Or perhaps the problem is that if Obamacare actually works and makes people freer it will also mean that employers can no longer rely on mediocre benefits to keep employees and will have to pay higher wages; or that it will increase competition among employers for employees, which Republican business contributors will not like; or perhaps it will result in more people voting Democrat because the Democrats did something to solve a major societal problem and the Republicans were simply obstructionist.

The Republicans can combat this by coming forward with their alternative plan to provide healthcare coverage for Americans, especially for the 60+ million Americans who are currently uninsured. I, for one, am open to an alternative plan. If it is a better plan than Obamacare, then I certainly would urge my congressperson to support repeal and replace; but I assure you that I will never support repeal without a replacement in hand.

The time has come when Republicans need to have a true dialog with the American voter and disclose what their alternative vision is in detail. I understand that this is something that is contrary to the way Republicans have campaigned for decades — I think the last Republican to attempt such a dialog was Barry Goldwater and I suspect his overwhelming defeat by Lyndon Johnson led Republicans to take the vague road — but the time has come when that dialog should be resurrected.

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