How to Edit Out the “Boring” in your Writing

I wrote a particular short story (fiction) two summers ago and was pretty proud of it. I did everything you’re supposed to do–give it to other people to critique, let it sit untouched in a drawer for a couple weeks before reading it again–and after several rounds of editing over the course of a few months, I felt good enough about it to submit it to a slew of literary journals.

It slowly got rejected, one at a time, and has been waiting for a response at one hold-out journal for over a year. This week, I decided it was time to dust it off and submit it for another round of publications. To refresh myself on the story and get a good idea of what journals might be interest, I reread the story.

And I was horrified by the writing.

It wasn’t bad, exactly. I still loved the story idea, but the thing that really nagged me was that there were clunky stage directions everywhere that were:

  1. Boring;
  2. Dragging down the pace of the plot; and
  3. Unnecessary boring details.

What do I mean by stage directions exactly?

Well, here is an example of some of the original sentences:

George clicked the garage door opener. He scurried under the lifting door to lean over and sniff the tuna fish cans he had prepared the night before.

George put down the platter and ran back to the house. He returned with a gallon of bleach.

He dropped the empty bottle next to the platter, grabbed hold of the rope ladder, climbed up, and squeezed through the tree house’s child-sized doorway.

And here’s what they ended up being after some very necessary cutting:

The cans of tuna fish were artfully arranged on an antique silver platter, its surface etched with delicate curlicues, which he had polished for the occasion. George sniffed the food and smiled.

Grinding his teeth, George ran back to the house to fetch a gallon of bleach.

Feeling light-headed, he clung first to the rope ladder as it swayed with each step and then to the tree house’s child-sized doorway as he squeezed through.

There’s less “he did this here and then he moved this way and put this thing down and picked this thing up.” I don’t need to say he opened the garage door. The reader doesn’t care if he opened the garage door. If they know he’s in the garage, they can assume the first part. The reader doesn’t care if he put something down first before leaving. And the reader certainly doesn’t need to have it spelled out for them that the character climbed the rope ladder. In the original I was telling stage directions rather than showing what the character was up to.

I feel better about the story, now, and more confident that future editors will enjoy the piece more/give it the time of day. And the editing was easy, in a way, because the stage directions were glaring at me, begging to be sliced, while the rest of the prose was able to stand pretty much unscathed. But I’m rather upset that I wasted time submitting a sub-par story and even more upset that even though I certainly didn’t rush through the rewriting and editing stages, I didn’t notice that it needed work.

Have you ever had this happen to you before? Long after you’ve submitted some writing, you realize that it needs a ton more work? What sort of boring stuff do you tend to include in your writing, but edit out later?

(Image, No Copyright, National Media Museum)

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31 thoughts on “How to Edit Out the “Boring” in your Writing

  1. Susan Lower says:

    I don’t know why, but I tend to overwrite on facial expressions and stage direction, too . I always laugh later when I edit about some of the things I wrote in the first draft.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I always laugh at stuff I stuck in the first draft too. But I never laugh at jokes and/or puns I tried to integrate in the first draft. Probably not a good sign…

  2. Marquis of Cups says:

    I have the exact same issues with my writing–along with about a thousand more, I would think: I bring the flow of the story to a standstill by painstakingly delving into the stage directions. My characters opens a lot of garage doors, if you know what I mean.

    Passive word use is a huge issue for me, too. But that’s something else entirely.

    And everything I have ever submitted looks like garbage a year later. It’s how I know I’m still improving, and how I know I have a lot more of this road to walk. Thanks for the article. ~x

    • hannahkarena says:

      I totally get what you mean. Those garage doors need opening and our characters are always volunteering to do it! I think passive voice is looked down upon more than it needs to be. At some point it became a focus of evil in grammar classes and everyone thinks it needs to be eliminated on sight. But I think some really excellent stories with a distinct style–obviously, a purposeful passive style, rather than a clunky passive voice style–can pull passive voice off!

      That’s a good way of looking at it…that my old crappy writing indicates I’m growing as a writer. Thanks for that idea! I’m going to keep it close at hand when I’m lamenting over pathetically cliche old drafts :]

  3. mhbenton says:

    I have a real hard time editing in a quick turn around. I need some space between me and my writing before I stop glossing over the even the obvious mistakes.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Me too! I have to put a story aside for at least a good month, sometimes longer. It requires so much patience, though, because I want everyone else to think it’s as awesome as I think it is in that exact moment as soon as possible!

      • mhbenton says:

        One thing I do now is convert my writing to a PDF and use the “read aloud” feature. It helps to hear it as I follow along. It is a simple trick but a really handy one.

      • hannahkarena says:

        Is the “read aloud” feature on a kindle or in the Adobe reader program itself? I’ve been thinking about using the kindle–if I could figure it out–but I’m a little nervous to hear a robot voice repeating my story. It sounds like it would be a good trick though! I have such an easier time editing other people’s stuff rather than my own. Having a different voice read it to me might help make it sound foreign.

      • mhbenton says:

        I use the reader on Kindle but never tried it on a PDF on it. It is a little hard hearing the robotic voice but well worth putting up with. One think I like about using Acrobat is the ability to pause, make a correction in Word, then resume listening. I go through it all at one time, remake the PDF then go through it again. Doing that on the Kindle would be a bit cumbersome as it would involve several more steps.

      • hannahkarena says:

        I didn’t know Acrobat had that capability! I’m going to have to fuss around with it and get it to read to me. Thanks for the info, I think it’s going to help me a lot.

      • mhbenton says:

        To use it, go to “view” and at the bottom you will see “read aloud.” You need to activate it, it take about 20 or 30 seconds I think. Then go back and tell it to read entire document. You can change the speed and pitch of the voice too. The default it a bit too weird sounding.

  4. AnomalousThoughts says:

    I have never written any fiction, but every paper I wrote in high school got the same response: too wordy. I love to add more words than necessary and repeat sentences. It has taken me years of practice to be decent, not great or good. . .decent. I remember reading a paper I wrote two years ago and thinking that I could take away about 3/4 of the paper and still say the same thing. Haha. (Yeah I did it here too. I had to edit this “comment” three times before I could post it.) Thanks for the post.

    • hannahkarena says:

      I have that problem in papers too. I always felt the need to make my point clear and kept repeating and rewording the same main points over and over. I’ve laughed over old papers later and feel a little bad for professors who had to suffer through me banging the point into their heads over and over again.

  5. lifeatnofixedabode says:

    Great post! I’m in the process of editing my first NaNo novel and there’s way too many stage directions. I’m going through it slowly, trying to change the stage directions…your post has really helped me! Thank you 🙂

  6. Giulietta Nardone says:

    Sometimes the best way to improve your writing is to send it out. The minute i hit the send key, boom I realize what needs to change. I have learned to be o.k. with that mini-panic, rewrite where needed and send elsewhere. Kind of like a dry-run. I’ve also had things rejected, rewritten them and sent it back a year later and gotten it published and paid for! Editors get so many stories that if you let some time go by, they might not remember the icky first draft you sent in.

    G.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Well that’s a nice success story! I think a lot of writers, me at least, think that editors have the longest memories and will scorn a rewritten submission. Maybe it’s a bit of self flattery, hoping that my story–even if they didn’t publish it–made such an impression that they could never forget it.

  7. E.K. Carmel says:

    Oh, does this sound familiar!

    If we write regularly, we continue to improve our writing. Looking back at something written maybe even just a couple of months before can make us cringe.

    Your revised passages are so much better. I bet you’ll get more interest during the next round of submissions. Good luck!

    BTW, thanks for stopping by and liking my post – back atcha!

    • hannahkarena says:

      Thank you! I hope you’re right! I actually already got one rejection on the revised story, but it was an extremely personal rejection, full of equal amounts specific praise and suggestions for change. I feel like it’s gaining more interest already! I have lots of hope for the other journals it’s being considered at :]

  8. lindseycrittenden says:

    Boy, can I relate. I had a prof in grad school (MFA in fiction) who said, in response to my artful written passage of the character packing her suitcase while fighting with her boyfriend, “ENough with the socks.” On the other hand, I’ve been lost in passages where characters are taking a bath in one sentence and answering the front door in the next. Good for you for going back and doing the work. Too often, rejection makes us give up. I read some statistic last week–you’ll have to trust me, I can’t recall where–that said men writers, when they get rejections, keep submitting. Women writers, on the other hand, even when they receive personalized rejections asking for more work, never submit again. Yikes! Good luck on the story, and may it find a home soon.

    • hannahkarena says:

      Haha, did you end up editing out the socks? And stage directions are valuable, when you have the right balance of them. In your example, I would assume the character is answering the door in a bath towel!

      Wow, those statistics, wherever you read them, are terrifying! Sometimes I’ll give up on a story for awhile, when I get a slew of form rejections and no suggestions for why it’s so unlikeable. Usually I’ll revisit it the next year and realize it myself, or realize a journal where it would fit much better, and my submissions are more on target. But I’ve never given up on submitting a story completely! Dear writers of all genders: keep submitting!

      • hannahkarena says:

        Yikes! How did you end up fixing that one? Did you delete it entirely, or expand it into more of a scene? Sometimes my stage directions were actually a cheating way to get from one moment to the next, and glossing over some pretty valuable opportunities for describing the setting and other details.

  9. robincoyle says:

    While not verbatim, I think I changed it to “Eyes blinded by tears, I stumbled to the street and sobbed.” Still a lot of stage direction but I got to the point much faster!

      • robincoyle says:

        Ha ha! Thanks! If you are game, I’ll send the whole thing over. I’m looking for readers. No pressure though! We are all so busy and I won’t be offended if you say “not at this time.”

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