Dan Howard: “Get away from me,” she screamed loudly while desperately dialing 911 on her cellphone

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dan howardAs an editor, I can attest to the fact that most writers don’t like to see their work messed with. Sure, there are a few who have said to me, “I’m just a storyteller, I’ll take all the help I can get with the nuts and bolts of the writing process.” But for the most part writers are a cranky bunch. I know because I am one myself.

I’ve surrendered my manuscripts for editing or a friendly critique and Oh boy, watch out! What do you mean, my main character isn’t sympathetic? That’s what character arc is about! The ending is too abrupt? I hate drawn-out Hollywood endings (the monster that won’t die). I have too many characters? It’s an ensemble piece. See, my defensive mind resists strenuously. And these were people I trusted!

On the other hand, as an editor, there are things I’m really quite sure about. Like the title of this piece, which is only a slightly exaggerated version of some of the sentences I come across. I would urge any writer to listen and learn when an editor suggests fixing a sentence like this. Don’t just grimace and acquiesce to the nuisance of changing it; recognize what might be a habit that needs changing! Adverbs! Redundancy! Clunky clauses!

And how about POV (point of view) hopping? I know it’s becoming more and more acceptable in certain genres (action thrillers, etc.), but that doesn’t make it good writing. Most of the time it’s just confusing for the reader. The times that I have made suggestions about this and they were actually followed have been very gratifying because the revisions made for greater clarity and more enjoyable reading. And watch out for subtler forms of POV hopping, like in this sentence: Joe backed away from the beast, terror on his face. If you’re in Joe’s head, he can’t see his own expression (and certainly wouldn’t be thinking about it), so telling what’s on his face is leaving his POV.

Here’s something else I see a lot of: repetition of a particular sentence construction.

Pulling his keys from his pocket, he unlocked his Porsche. Opening the door, he slid into its soft leather seat. Checking the rearview mirror, he started the car and shot out of the parking lot.

I have to ask myself when editing, how egregious does it have to be before I draw attention to it? Am I tampering with someone’s style? Are they perhaps trying to establish a rhythm here?

Similarly, it’s my opinion that a certain construction is overused in current popular fiction. An example would be: “Tall, athletic, and well dressed, he cut an imposing figure as he stepped up to the podium.” I believe that is a useful construction in journalism—where I believe fiction writers probably picked it up and internalized it—but it bugs me in fiction. Is it in the Chicago Manual of Style? Nope. Just my opinion. And so I have to be cautious about expressing it, although I will if I find the construction overused.

So, as an editor, I have to be true to what I know, but careful about imposing style choices. And, ultimately, I would urge a writer facing a manuscript full of challenging suggestions to try to find a balance between being open to constructive criticism and being true to his or her heart.

By the way, that drawn-out Hollywood ending I thought would be selling out? I sold out. And it works much better.

Dan Howard is a novelist and a professional book editor.

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On November 14, 2012
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