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Editing 101: I felt, I saw, I heard

Welcome to a new series I’m going to run on Thursdays for a while. Much like my Self-Publishing 101 series, I’ll cover some of the most common editing mistakes and give you a checklist you can use to edit your own work.

Of course, I still recommend that you hire an editor. But by using some of the tips from this series of posts, you’ll save yourself costs and save your editor some work. You’ll also end up with a better manuscript.

Today we have a variation on “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Okay, not really, but that’s the phrase that went through my head when I wrote the title.

Consider this sentence. “I felt the press of a cold dagger to my neck.”

What’s the verb in that sentence? “Felt.”

But what actually happened?

A dagger pressed to the hero or heroine’s neck. It’s a lot more active to say “A cold dagger pressed to my neck.” It evokes a more visceral reaction and amps up the emotion and the fear. You’re in the hero’s head. They’re not thinking, “hey, I feel a dagger.” No. They’re thinking, “Holy @$#@, a dagger!”

Now consider this passage.

I saw her golden curls shining in the moonlight. I felt my heart start to race and my fingers start to tremble. When she turned to me, I heard her say my name.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that sentence grammatically. But it’s just flat and boring. What if we revised it to something like this.

Her golden curls shone in the moonlight. Against my chest, my heart thudded rapidly. My fingers started to tremble. She turned and whispered my name.

That’s a better passage. But why? Why are these changes important?

Well, first of all, you’ve saved eight words (33 vs. 25). But more importantly, those extra words (I felt, I saw, I heard) are just not necessary.

If your hero is doing the narrating (in either third person or first person) and sees someone do something, you don’t have to tell the reader that they’ve seen it. It’s implied. Just tell us what it was that they saw.

You’ve got two people in the scene, Jack and Jill. If Jack sees Jill toss her hair, saying “I saw her toss her hair” is redundant. If Jack knows that Jill tossed her hair, it’s pretty obvious that he saw it. Hair tossing doesn’t make much of a sound. If Jill says Jack’s name, and Jack doesn’t have a hearing problem or they’re not in a loud room, Jack is going to hear it. You don’t have to tell the reader that Jack hears Jill say his name. Just tell us that Jill said his name.

There are, of course, a few instances where you might want to keep these phrases in your prose. Consider this short passage.

“Tom, I can’t keep doing this,” she said.

I knew her well enough to pick up on the subtle tremble to her voice. Others wouldn’t notice, but I heard the tiny break in her speech, saw the slight wobble of her lower lip.

Those few lines use both I heard and (I) saw. The phrases work here because you’re balancing them out with the narration that these are difficult things to see or hear and that becomes part of the story.

Eddy Edits Master Checklist for Writers

CheckBoxEliminate or greatly reduce the usage of the following phrases: I heard, I felt, I saw, I knew, I smelled, I realized.

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