Monday, February 27, 2017

Edits Are The Time To Get Specific

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.

My first agent used to circle entire sentences in my manuscripts and write "BE SPECIFIC!" in the margin. I remember one time it was a sentence where my character came home from school and found her mom baking cookies. My agent wrote "BE SPECIFIC! What kind of cookies?"

Not only did I need to be more specific about my cookie choice, but "baking cookies" is a broad term that applies to many steps. What specifically did she find her mom doing? Was she scooping the cookie dough onto the baking sheet? Pulling the freshly baked cookies from the oven?

This has now become one of the highest priorities of my edits, to deal with my specifics. Sometimes this takes the form of  reconsidering the specifics that I've chosen, and other times I'm making vague details not-vague. Here’s what I mean:

Reconsidering specifics:

In brainstorming, I let myself get away with being vague. You see the language all the time on back cover copy, and you probably use it yourself when you write a synopsis or explain your book to a friend. I'm talking about phrases like, “And then after a series of weird events, my character decides the house is haunted.”

Then I get into my first draft, and I have that head-scratching moment of, “So…what weird events?”

Sometimes the choices I make in my first drafts are good ones. Other times when I read them in edits, I have that gut feeling of, “No, that’s not quite 'it' yet.” Maybe it seems too obvious, too cliche, or my character never would have made that choice. 

Whatever the reason is that the choice doesn't feel right, I always take the time to explore other options. Edits are the time to poke and prod at all those decisions you made back before you had experienced the story as a whole. 

Making details more clear:

Like the story I shared in the beginning, in my first drafts I'm often unintentionally vague with my story details. A first draft sentence might read like this:

I take off my shoes and leave them by the door.

This is a fine sentence, but it's not yet living up to its potential.

For starters, there are many ways to take off your shoes. You can slip out of them, untie them, yank them off your feet. You might unzip them, if they're boots, or pry them off if they're too small.

And what kinds of shoes is the character wearing? Sneakers? Flip-flops? Loafers? Snow boots? This sentence offers an opportunity to describe the character's wardrobe without stopping the flow of the story. 

Lastly, let's look at where the character leaves the shoes. This is a moment to show a bit of characterization. Dropping the shoes by the door suggests one type of character, while tucking shoelaces into the shoes and putting them in the closet suggests another, right?

Dealing with my "it" problem:

This tiny word causes big problems for me.

We're so used to it, that we often don't think about considering replacements. Just think of the cliché story opening, "It was a dark and stormy night." Why is "it" there? What is "it" doing to improve that sentence? 

Let's consider how much more specific we could be:

Monday was a dark and stormy night.

The evening he walked back into my life was a dark and stormy night.

The evening I died was a dark and stormy night.

The passive sentence structure grates on me, but do you see how there are so many more interesting and specific choices than "it"?

This isn't to suggest that you should obliterate every "it" from your manuscript, but run a search in your story and see if there are a few that you can replace with more interesting, specific choices.

Since we're talking about editing, why don't we try a little exercise? Pull up your work in progress (WIP), and hunt down a sentence that would be enhanced by you getting more specific. 

Leave your original and changed sentences in the comments section by this Friday, and that will automatically enter you to ask Jill, Shannon, and me a question for the next Go Teen Writers Live Episode. (So be sure to check back to see who was randomly selected!)


  1. Hi Stephanie,
    Great post! I would enter the contest but...I'm technically not allowed to edit my MS right now because I'm working with a content editor (!!!) and she's almost done with the first round. So...I don't want to change anything before I get my edits back. I am super excited though because, so far, her comments have been encouraging--and this is the last step before I query!

  2. Before: I don't pay attention to anyone that's not within five feet of me, though I notice Raven is extremely popular.
    After: I'm not paying attention to anyone within five feet of me. However, because I'm with Raven, there are a lot of people standing within five feet of me.
    I love that so much--I feel like this is much more specific than simply saying that "She's popular". Thanks for the post!

  3. -The man stood in front of the stairs, his hand on the railing.

    -The man blocked the stairs, leaning heavily against the warped cherry railing.

    Thank you for the exercise! It will really help with my editing.

  4. (Original) 15 minutes later the ball of flame exploded.

    (Revised) 15 minutes later, the night sky lit up as a great ball of fire flew into the middle of the camp.

    Thanks for the post!!! I just started revising my book, so this will REALLY help. I have recently realized that I when I first started writing my book, I suffered from extreme PWS. Or Perfect World Syndrome. She gets thrown into a new world, and suddenly, everything's perfect! She has enough food, no animals are bothering her, she wakes up after a great nights sleep on the cold, hard, ground.....

    I'm adding in conflict.

    By the way, I noticed that on the sentence, "Whatever the reason is that the choice doesn't feel write, I always take the time to explore other options." You spelled right, write. :D

    1. Love your revisions!

      Thanks for pointing out my typo! I catch myself doing that a lot.

  5. -She slipped down there.

    -She tripped behind that bracken.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Nice, Claudia! I had to look up "bracken." :)

    2. Bracken is on my list of favorite words. Just above ember and just below assemblage...

  6. Thanks for the post, I will definitely use the advice now that I have reached the edits. (happy dance)

    I opened the door and was greeted by a sight that would send most sane people screaming from the room.

    I pushed open the heavy door and was greeted by a sight that would have sent most other women screaming from the room.
    -Book Dragon

  7. Original: We enter through an alley between two buildings.

    Revised: We slip down an alley between two red-brick buildings, single-file.

  8. It was beautiful, even though the snow had all melted by lunchtime.
    I loved the snow, even though by lunchtime it had all sunk into that thick red mud that clots in the tread of your boots.

  9. Oh, this should be a fun exercise! Super helpful, since I'm in my editing phase...

    Original: Duren froze in that way I had seen before.

    Edited: The old stiffening of his shoulders warned that I had said too much. Whatever goaded his fear, my words had pushed it with a sharp stick.

    ~Julian Daventry

    1. Very nice, Julian! My edited sentences often get longer too :)

  10. How can you be more specific when you already think you're being specific?
    Sorry if that sounds confusing. :) Here's something I found that I could be more specific about:
    Before: Dad seemed uninterested in Blake.
    After: Dad's glance showed me that he was uninterested in Blake.

    1. If you think you're already being specific, I wouldn't change it. This would just be for sentences that feel too vague.

    2. Oh, okay! Thanks for the advice. :)

  11. Original:
    One of the men walked over to Rae and her mother. He seemed uncomfortable.
    One of the darkly-clad soldiers walked over to Rae and her mother. His face was twisted with discomfort due to the unfortunate circumstances that he and his company had brought.

    I'm sorry if this is too long, lol! :D

  12. "So... what weird events?" I GET THIS. I'm always so vague with "series of events" in my synopses, and then during the rough draft I have no idea what they're doing, LOL. Thanks for the post!

  13. I opened my current edit-in-progress and randomly picked a sentence from the middle:
    "During the mornings Æschild tended to her own chores, swept the floor, then, in whatever time was left, sat down at the loom and wove until noon."
    I started to rewrite it with more detail, until finally I gave in. It needs a complete scene, or more than one, to itself. Whoops.

    So I tried again.
    "When the cloth for Æschere’s cloak was finally finished, Æschild and Ælflaed spread it out in the yard to measure and cut it to make a semi-circular cloak; the house did not have enough open floor space to lay out all five yards."
    Which turned into a slightly more manageable scene:
    Finally they knotted the warp ends and took the last length off the loom. The women bundled up the pieces and took them down the the river to wash them. The wool, which was exceedingly heavy and hard to carry when wet, stretched a little, but not nearly as much as it would have were it knitted. AEschild made a mental note of that to herself.
    “It had better look as splendid as --- well, splendid enough for AEschere to pay in gold,” AElflaed gloated as they slopped up the bank with their warm, wet bundles. “
    “Ah, and what if he pays with only one piece?” AEschild laughed.
    “I’ll keep it. No, I’ll break it for you to have some, of course, though I think it likely he’ll pay with little pieces.”
    When they neared the house AElflaed said, “Let’s spread this out on the grass to dry, and then we can measure it out here too. I doubt there’s room inside to play with it all at once.”

    Yes, that draft needs a lot of expanding on pretty much everything.

  14. Original sentence: The bright lights from the sky flickered over my hair.

    I realized that this is VERY vague and also draws attention to the one part of my character's body that she cannot see.

    2nd attempt: The lights of the aircraft crisscrossed the purple sky, flickering over the braid on my shoulder.

  15. Before: Shouts echoed in the distance, drawing closer.
    After: A shout reached Esma's ears. It had come from a long way off, but was immediately followed by another, a little closer.

    1. I do not mean to pry, but are you by any chance also known as Gammon?

      (In other words, Wingfeather fan spotted!)

    2. "Aha! Filthy fangs, be thou warned, for the Florid Sword has arrived!"
      Have to love that guy :)

    3. Also, I like how your second version builds up the tension a little more with the two shouts. It is so hard for me to see a little snippet like this out of context, I want to know more!

    4. Florid Sword, you're the randomly selected winner!

      When you have a chance, send me a writing question that you would like Shannon, Jill, and myself to answer in an episode of Go Teen Writers Live: Stephanie(at)