Ruth E. Walker
Last week’s blog post in The Top Drawer summarized the three deadly sins of overwriting: over-emotional writing (i.e., sentimentality); hammers and know-it-all writing. We kept our focus on sentimentality and over-the-top emotions.
This week, we’re heading to the workshop to focus on those hammers.
Hit that nail, again and again, and again…
My Writescape partner, Gwynn Scheltema, introduced me to the concept of hammers. She used to draw tiny hammers at the side of my text in any spot I “hammered home” a point for my readers. It’s an image I’ve never forgotten and one I imagine every time I come across it in my editing role.
The most common hammer I find is when a writer “shows” something (usually by creating a vivid image or two) and then “tells” it afterwards. As in:
Camille dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Her cheeks were wet from the falling tears.
The first sentence is a nice show through character action (dabbing her eyes) that also reveals reaction (crying). Of course her cheeks are wet from the falling tears. It’s like the writer isn’t sure the reader has the whole picture.
Remember, your job is to show enough for readers to envision the scene — the reader’s job is to use their imagination and it’s hard for readers to do when you paint the complete picture.
Similarly, writers hammer home emotions: Camille dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. She was so heartbroken, she’d begun to cry. Again, the action/reaction happens in the first line which shows us the emotion. Don’t water down the power of the action/reaction with an Are you getting this, reader moment.
In dialogue, writers hammer home emotions when they use qualified attributions like:
“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said with surprise.
“Oh my God! You didn’t,” Zhan said incredulously.
The dialogue’s emotion is clear without adding descriptions to the attributive. Instead, use this opportunity to insert a beat or bit of business to underscore the emotion or enrich the development of your character or the plot.
“Oh my God! You didn’t.” Zhan balled his fists and turned away from his mother.
Just one more tiny nail
Another hammer is more challenging to recognize but no less important to know as you edit your work. This hammer comes when writers set something up and then, at the last moment, tag on a bit more to make sure readers get it. In this case, setting up that a character “paused.”
Releasing him, Daddy placed both his hands on Teddy’s shoulders, holding him at arm’s length, appraising him head to toe as he paused for a moment or two.
If you read over the actions: hands placed on shoulders, holding at arm’s length, appraising head to toe — all that takes a moment or two so that last bit tagged on “as he paused for a moment or two” is unnecessary. Readers have already imagined the pause as they read.
Hammers often show up in early drafts, especially in drafts with an excess of passive writing. When I see a lot of adverbs and too few active verbs, I can expect to see a high number of hammers as well. Look for those “ly” words and see if a verb with energy can be used instead (walked happily: skipped/danced; ran swiftly: raced/rushed/fled; slowly walked up: crept/snuck up/step by step — there are plenty of active verbs out there.)
In our workshops, Gwynn and I often talk about adding new skills and techniques to your writer’s toolkit. But hammers are one tool you want to leave on the workbench and out of your writing.
Next week, we’ll be looking closely at Know-it-all moments, another common form of overwriting.