No I am not talking about fastening your seat belt.
I am talking about one of the phrases I use a lot when I edit — clunky — also sometimes: awkward, unnatural, overwritten.
As writers we often want to show off — to demonstrate why we’re writers. We don’t just say it as it is, we say she felt the adrenaline surge through her body making her hands shake and her body sweat with anticipation of the event she knew was coming. But is this okay? Well apart from the cliché of the surging adrenaline it’s clunky — especially the ‘in anticipation of the event she knew’ 😦 … and it’s telling.
But I see sentences like this all the time in work I edit. I think we all do this as we learn but the more experienced we become as writers the more discerning we also become. Often less is indeed more and while you should always look for ways to show emotion like this rather than report it, also look for simple ways to do it. So let’s look at this sentence I plucked from the air by way of example.
What does it mean?
Adrenaline = fear? Excitement?
Sweat= panic? Fear?
Anticipation = expectation, she knows what’s about to happen.
Well the knowledge that something is about to happen is a good teaser for the reader — and this thing evokes fear or angst — so we need to think of that as the function of this sentence.
So how can she show her fear?
She pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans — shows they might be trembling?
She raked her lower lip?
She sucked in a deep breath, held onto it.
Sweat soaked her blouse.
A line of sweat snaked along her top lip?
She closed her eyes.
There was no way to stop it now (better tease?)
All some or none of the above?
Also of course it’s hard to avoid clichés because even raking her lip might be seen as that.
Try to visualise the scene is a filmic way and show the reader how she moves, what she thinks, provide subtext so the reader assigns the emotion and the feels the uneasiness rather than simply tell the reader this is how she feels.
As part of your editing make sure you read your work out loud as this is a great way to capture these clunky phrases. Be succinct but that doesn’t mean you can’t be poetic, but think about the language you use, making sure it’s in voice and if you really can’t do it without the clunk — just say it as it is.
Have a great day everyone!