The Usual Suspects List - a self-editing tool
Today, Kasi Jay has been kind (and brave) enough to set me loose on a prompted short story for my kind of beta reading/developmental editing. It’s a mashup, but it’s my favorite style when working with an author. Mainly because it’s thorough. It takes approximately an hour per page, depending, of course, upon the needed depth.
I usually don’t go this in-depth, but for this post, I figured all guns drawn, locked, and loaded would serve everybody best.
The point is to highlight a few tools that you can use to make self-editing easier on yourself and how to follow your own progress.
I call the tool “The Usual Suspect List”, and it’s one you can tweak and fill out for yourself from some of the comments I’ve put into the feedback here. In this case, I’ve had more than Kasi Jay in mind when filling out the commentary.
To develop this tool to fit you, you take the feedback you get from your Beta tribe (If you don’t have one, check this post on how to find beta readers), you write down what’s been pointed out more than a few times, and you check them off as you go through your manuscript.
You’re very welcome to use my color system to try to pick apart your own writing or tweak it to fit you. It’s all about being able to question your own text. Does a sentence convey the message clearly? Can the reader get lost in this scene (i.e. did you manage to set it etc.)?
Learning to ask questions about our own work helps us with the objective overview that helps us improve.
We can’t correct what we’re not conscious of, so the point of outside eyes is that we’ll become aware of where we keep making the same mistakes again and again.
A very important notion!
While writing, don’t edit! Just write! Get those ideas down, and flaws be damned! They aren’t going anywhere! (sadly)
At some point, the brain will slip out of flow to recharge. That’s good. That’s normal. It’s an ebb and flow thing that works individually and needs to be practiced for optimal outcome. Read more about flow state here.
We can keep ourselves in the work process to easier fall back into flow by going back and fix the small blunders of what we just wrote, and then get back into writing once we reach the end. It’s a process to perfect through practice and tweaking it to fit YOU.
Learning our usual suspects and working through them this way will leave the task of self-editing the story later much less tedious or too big an assignment. It’ll also leave us cognitively aware of them at some point where we stop making the mistakes while writing! And this is where you’ve molded the tool to use it optimally, and you can delete that one from the Usual Suspect list…and add another because we keep picking up new bad habits.
I’ve compiled a list of Kasi Jay’s Usual Suspects from this story to give you an idea of how the tool can be used. I’ve color coordinated them so that they stand out in the text. I’ve also commented to give feedback, and those comments can then be worked into the list of questions that you can contemplate to formulate some that are relevant for your work.
See the original file here and leave it open to toggle back and forth between. It opens in a new window.
The many notifications, time spent on ignoring them, and times checking the phone, indicate WAY MORE than two parcels. During this part of the scene setting, I got the sense that someone was hauling a truck load onto the front porch or something.
The layout of the apartment seems unset and sporadically added as afterthoughts when needed. That’s not to say you should paint the reader a picture of the layout (because that’s boring and unnecessary) but when you state that the MC leaves the phone on the end table by the couch, then it’s needed to state that they go from the kitchen to get it because you’ve stated they go into the kitchen with the parcels. They can’t then a moment later stand in the kitchen and look around the shared dining/living room unless it’s an open kitchen.
It all paints a weird image when some of the details are added as afterthoughts. All those questions in the reader’s brain pulls them from the story instead of focusing on the excitement of the parcels to be unpacked. It’s lazy worldbuilding when we don’t go back and fix the details where they fit. It’s also a VERY normal newbie mistake.
A tip is to go through a chapter with that ONE continuity detail in mind. And subsequently the whole book, of course, but doing it per chapter (or end of writing session) helps reduce time on it later and make details like that stick for future chapters to avoid making more of the same mistakes.
Doing it this way makes it a normal and intuitive part of the process, and we quickly develop a tool/system while writing to no longer have to do that repetitive work in later self-edits. But we have to be mindful of them by remembering to focus on where the characters leave things, how their surroundings limit them or calls for them to do certain things (like leave a room to be in another room unless it’s stated the rooms are openly connected), or experience the cues that sets up natural progressions of actions.
You have a lot of slapped on sentences that breaks flow.
My eyes inspected the two parcels. One a bit bigger than the other.
One a bit bigger than the other.
On its own, this sentence has no real clear message. One WAS a bit bigger than the other, then you have a full sentence. It’s a style thing. I was trained in a House Style that detested the semicolon, yet this is where one would grammatically go. Either that or the emdash (—) which has the same function. Pick one and stick to it religiously as part of your style.
(An endash is a single hyphen with no spaces around it while an emdash is two consecutive endashes with no spaces around it, and most programs convert it automatically as you go).
Other staccato sentences seem more slapped on as an afterthought. There’s a balance to be worked out and into your personal style. This is your personal style now, yeah, but it’s not successfully communicating the message because it breaks reading flow, thus drawing the reader out of what’s happening.
Wondering if I should open them or call the cops.
This is in essence a question if standing alone. Added to the end of the sentence “For a while, I eyed them with suspicion” it becomes weirdly halted because the two are connected but broken.
Merging the two and rewriting the whole sentence, that question can make the telling part redundant (the description of eyeing the parcels with suspicion), making it all flow a bit better while giving the reader a deeper sense for the MCs emotional reactions. (More on this one later)
Order of actions
Sitting/sat/took a seat. This is just one word, but gerunds (all -ing words) and past tense are a bit jumbled, whiplashing the tempo and order things are done in.
“Sitting on the couch, I resumed the movie”
It can absolutely be written this way if the character is already sitting and not actively taking a seat in order to resume watching the movie. ING means it’s being done actively by the character as it’s beING described.
I grabbed the phone, pressing my fingerprint into the biometric.
Like here. Are they done simultaneously? Or did the MC pick up the phone and THEN pressed a fingertip to the biometric? This is a small one, of course, but not being cognitively aware of when it’s used will most certainly tease in more complex sentences.
Like this one:
Pressing pause, I stretched and yawned, strolling back into the kitchen and spotted
WHILE pressing pause, the MC stretches AND yawns AND strolls back into the kitchen…
A good tool for self-editing here is to rephrase all sentences that have this run-on action sequence and make it as active as possible. Break it down:
I pressed pause, THEN stretched and yawned, THEN strolled into the kitchen AND spotted…
Notice THEN and AND. If THEN belongs, it can’t be linked with ING-words. If AND belongs, then it can.
I stretched AND yawned – I stretched, yawning. Those two can be done at the same time.
Of course, there are exceptions:
I said AND yawned.
Well, you can’t talk WHILE yawning, so…
It’s merely a tool to break up a sentence to get a better feel for the message so that we can clarify it
Showing, not telling
It’s a fine balance because no one is supposed to show an entire story (it’ll get boring!) but to let the readers immerse themselves, we have engage all senses and thoughts where they matter the most for the message.
My eyes inspected the two parcels. One a bit bigger than the other. There were no return addresses on either of them. Actually, there was no other information on it except for my name and address.
It works fine, and this is why it’s fun playing with passive/active voice. It’s a clear message. But…as you also need to draw the reader in and make us feel the suspense of uncertainty and the following paranoia rising etc. then simply stating that the MC doesn’t find a return address can be worked into far more immersive narrative.
I like the “actually, there was no other information” because the word actually brings the AHA realization that makes me intrigued on the MC’s behalf and go “oh no, that’s trouble, that can mean trouble”. So little can paint a picture and move me to the edge of my seat.
“There was” at the very beginning of the red is what bogs it down. Instead of being told that her EYES inspect the packages, concluding THERE WERE no return addresses, I want to see her circle them at a safe distance. I want to read her direct thoughts since you’ve already invited me into her head with those. Maybe see her gnaw her lip from feeling uneased. Maybe she takes a deep breath for courage. Maybe she has a usual nervous tic of wiping her hands on her jeans before she picks the packages up.
Little things can build suspense and draw us in. A tool is to ask ourselves how it looks, feels, tastes when OTHERS feel something, then put all that in because those behavior patterns are so engrained in human behavior that we react to other people’s emotions when witnessing it. We then empathize. It kicks our reptilian brain into gear and makes us react because what if it IS dangerous? We need to be invested in fears and insecurities we witness in people around us or we’re left vulnerable and can die. Use all those tools to convey the MC’s state and pull the reader in like that by directly targeting the reader’s reptilian brain’s response systems.
My eyes inspected
Well, your feet can’t inspect anything, so…yeah, eyes…
Here, it’s obvious that the point is to convey that the parcels are being inspected without touching them. But little details that are SO given can accumulate quickly in a text and really kill flow.
This is a made-up sentence to kill flow, really packing it on for emphasis:
From UP UNDER the CEILING in the corridor, the LOFT lamp’s naked bulb HUNG DOWN in a flimsy exposed wire.
Now rewrite that to the bare essential to point out a firetrap in an old house.
Paranoid thoughts swirled around my head.
What if they explode?
What if there’s that powder stuff in it that makes people sick? Anthrax!
Too many “what if’s” deterred me momentarily from opening the packages.
In this one, you do two things at once. First, you “tell”, then “show” us via direct thought, then round it off by “telling” it again. It makes the telling part redundant and clutters up the flow of the story. You have it more, but not as clear cut and packed neatly together as here.
Here, you do it in the same sentence: I bit my lip and the excitement I felt rose.
shaking my head side to side
One can nod yes (up and down) and shake their head no (side to side). It’s a given that shaking one’s head (or anything else for that matter) it’s side to side. Unless your head tick-tocks/bobs/etc.
Being mindful of the image the words describe in the reader’s head is of course important, but we often fail by filling on redundancies in our attempt to paint the picture as clearly as possible. Less is more, usually, and brings us back to identifying the primal survival side of gestures, expressions etc. that we’re hardwired to recognize and connect with on a human-to-human level. Find those, focus on those, and you can show anything clearly in very few words.
I’d previously put there
Focus on your MC experiencing having forgotten about the parcel. Here, you kinda flip it to remind the reader that she’d forgotten about one but placed it in the kitchen. In a story this short, that’s not needed.
I said aloud in my empty home. Early on (when asking the plant a question), it was established that the MC speaks out loud to themselves while at home, so to spell it out again on page 3 is redundant.
These last two have the same underlying problem. It sounds harsh when pointing it out like this (I remember feeling very scolded when my mentor, Eddie, pointed it out to me). Your readers aren’t stupid. Don’t treat them as if they are.
The downside here is that we can then fail at reminding readers in more subtle ways about stuff they may have forgotten or foreshadowing we’ve managed to conceal well enough. It’s a balance we have to work out and into our stories’ natural flow, but to work on that, we need to be cognitively aware of why and how we fail at doing it.
“Is this a given?” “Have I said that differently another place?” (if yes, determine which one flows best and delete the other) These are definitely some of the questions to ask oneself when self-editing redundancies.
The same word used in the same sentence, two sentences in a row, or even multiple times in the same paragraph can give a sense of echo in it.
Synonyms are the bomb! But we also have to balance those. Especially when they’re adjectives. Mainly because those often belong under redundancies and telling.
A wide smile spread across my face
Head-hopping is whenever you go outside your character with the POV and directly describes something they can’t see (in this case). She can FEEL a smile spread across her face, but how many of us are really cognitive of the moment and our body’s sensations when also focusing on whatever it is that makes us smile?
To clarify it here, describing the physical reaction so visually is what draws away from a simple smile or bubble of happiness in the pit of a stomach. There are many ways to describe a smile, and a good exercise is to find a reason to smile, then write out 15 different ways of conveying it, simply to get into the habit of playing with the language.
green thumb gene
There are more, but in one instance you use double quotation marks and the next you don’t use anything. Double quotation marks are a tool most often used to indicate dialog. Single quotation marks are sometimes used for this where you used the doubles. Other times, it’s in italics, yet that font style is mostly used for internal dialog. You do that here, so to not muddy the tools, pick one for each. In these cases, they’re often merely hyphenated.
What-if’s and green-thumb-gene.
You can still use italics instead of hyphens since it’s very obvious from context that they’re not direct thought. In fact, I would.
The most important part is that you settle on a style, and you use it consistently throughout the story. Chicago Manual of Style is the one most publishers use, and it’s a style that’s been around since 1891, so readers have learned what to expect over the years. It eases their reading flow that they don’t have to get used to something new every time they pick up a new book by a new author.
A side note here is that you also use Google and YouTube in the text. Both are trademarked. Chicago Manual of Style has been around for so long and is being updated constantly that it’s been accepted widely as “legal” ways to mention trademarks in fiction. Of course, there are still a slew of details to think about. Like…don’t talk badly about the trademark.
But that’s a legal thing. An important one.
It also says to put the Latin name of the flower in italics.
Other small blunders that will forever and always belong on a Usual Suspect List because…we just don’t see it or think about it while writing, and they don’t jump out during edits unless we actively search for them. But that’s why we have beta readers and editors and proofreaders. They’re hawkeyed for little tricky suckers like that.
Tenses. In this document, it’s harder to find them because it’s first-person narrative. It makes present tense more natural to jump into—especially when there is also direct thought which are in present tense. The MC even has a tendency to talk out loud to herself, giving ground for a hattrick of possible places to naturally slip tense.
A few technical aspects:
“Damn, it’s dead.” I said (wrong)
“Damn, it’s dead,” I said (right)
Dialog and dialog tags are split by a comma inside the quotation marks.
“Um, hello?” I said (wrong)
“Um, hello?” I asked (right)
The question mark makes it a question. Some argue that the “style” has been changed for it to be okay to use said, but…it looks messy!
“[…] Kataliah,” he finally said. “when […]” (wrong)
“[…] Kataliah,” he finally said. “When […]” (right)
“[…] Kataliah,” he finally said, “when […]” (right but messy. Split the dialog)
I’ve missed your company.” I spoke to him, caressing his fur.
(I’m leaving this here to go into it further)
There are two kinds of tags. Dialog tag and action tag.
Dialog tags are: said, asked, whispered, shouted, yelled etc.
Action tags are whatever the character about to speak or just spoke does, and they’re used instead of a dialog tag.
We’ll play with your sentence here.
The beauty of action tags is that when following a system, like giving each character their own paragraph, you don’t confuse the reader. Whomever is mentioned as the “active” party is also the one talking.
I caressed his fur. “I’ve missed your company.”
The beauty of dialog tags are that they’re mainly invisible to the reader’s eye when used properly.
“I’ve missed your company,” I said.
In this case, it’s redundant because the wolf can’t talk (or we’d have been told that). There’s one human present, so of course it’s our MC talking.
Said/asked are invisible to the readers eye, but there are numerous “writing rules” that state you have to minimize their use.
Yeah, if you can make it an action tag, but not if you need rapid dialog and still figure out who’s talking. Instead, fancy ideas became a huge problem. Creative synonyms became a sport to find, leaving editors with very visible dialog tags like: I enunciated, I proclaimed, I argued, I [whatever long word that said could easily have conveyed from it’s little hiding place at the end of a sentence along with a character name].
Of course some of those dialog tags have their place, but very sparingly!
Instead, think of this:
If the mood of the scene or the contents of the dialogs don’t convey the reason for raised voices (in an argument that would call for “I argued” as a tag) then no tag in the world can save the story flow because the problem lies in failing to set the scene, the mood, and the flow of emotional states in the characters.
Dialog tags are mainly needed if there are two or more people having a conversation and there’s no need for action (like gesturing/pouring coffee, whatever) to help pinpoint who’s talking.
In the case where two men and two women have a conversation, then think of this: If he/she is enough, it’s usually redundant because then we’re already expected to know which he/she is being referred to.
Using both together fills in unnecessary words:
I caressed his fur. “I’ve missed your company,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” I said, grabbing his big calloused hand.
Here, both an action and a dialog tag are mashed into one sentence.
I usually do a search and replace as a part of self-edits and look for “said and”. They are ALWAYS a failure at using either an action or dialog tag, and I tweak it. In this case, you’ve used a gerund after said, which makes “grabbing” the action tag and something she does WHILE saying her dialog.
And now onto a tricky one!
“Flower,” that was the nickname he gave me as a kid. “ I know it’s been so many years and we […]”
This one is tricky because HIS dialog is broken by HER POV.
In this case, and in cases where action breaks up a dialog where one can’t break it into two sentences, there’s a tool for it.
“Flower,”—that was the nickname he gave me as a kid—“I know it’s been so many years and we […]”
I’ll have to bring in an outside example to explore it further.
Here, two characters are mentioned, while one introduces the other to a bunch of people.
Steffen pointed to the new man. “Dennis”—Dennis stepped forward—“has joined us from […]”
The emdashes surrounding the other person breaks the dialog by action, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s someone else or the one talking doing the action. What’s important is that that action has to happen at the same time as the dialog and be conveyed at that same time. Using it sparingly, of course, is key for optimal flow of dialog and storyline.
If they can be avoided, do that, but it can be a powerful storytelling tool.
I hope you found information here that you can use to further your own self-editing process and work the Usual Suspect tool into something that fits you, your style, and your goals.
I’m currently figuring out how to best offer this service of Developmental Beta reading. Feel free to comment with suggestions and needs you have so that I can take that into consideration when developing this product.
Also, if you have topics you’d like me to look into and explain and examples on, comment here or write me at martinsvolgart AT gmail.com
Find out more about our brave guest, Kasi Jay here:
Reedsy blog (where you can follow her writing)