Copyright © 2010, Steven E. Houchin
I read a posting on Anne Mini's excellent blog "Author! Author!" titled The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XXI: Millicent holds these truths to be self-evident. Trust me.
It discusses two aspects of editing your manuscript to eliminate phrases that drive agents (or their slavish manuscript-reader underlings) crazy. One she calls "statements of the obvious". These are phrases like "nodded his head" (what else would he nod?) or "shrugged her shoulders" (what else would she shrug?). The second is the "Walking Across the Room" (WATR) problem, where you describe your character's every movement as she rises from the chair and walks across the room and bends over to pick up the tray of biscuits. Once you tell us she rose from the chair, the reader can fill in the rest until she picks up the tray. That is, unless she has suddenly suffered a stroke and is now dragging her left leg.
The examples Anne gave prompted me to scan my latest manuscript - the one I am currently shopping around - for these terrible language faux pas. It was an enlightening exercise, even though I found only a few of the bad phrases. Some of the phrases that didn't cross Anne's lines, did have other things wrong with them, or could be written better. Here are the words I searched for:
I noticed "blinked rapidly" several times. I tried to do that, and found it thoroughly unnatural. So, the word "rapidly" rapidly got the axe. I had used "waved her hand", one of Anne's obvious no-no's, and discovered a few bad nods and shrugs as described above. But, the exercise caused me to reevaluate many of these gestures in context and rewrite them slightly, or caused me to notice that I'd overused them in a particular scene.
As far as examining "walk", I was able to eliminate a few altogether, and to change some to other words, such as "stroll" or "saunter" to better fit the feel of the action.
When I was all done, one hundred words had vanished from my manuscript, which I'm struggling to keep below 120,000 as I continue to do edits.