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)