When William Faulkner said, “Kill your darlings,” the darlings he referred to were those elegantly composed sections of prose you adore beyond reason. They do nothing for the story, they stick out like garish jewels on an otherwise humble hand, and they must be killed (i.e., deleted). It’s difficult to say goodbye to those intricate metaphors and precious phrasing, but they have no business being in your manuscript. Sorry, gotta go.
There are other kinds of problem children that we sometimes insert into our prose, that also have a bad influence on our work. For instance, words we have a compulsion to use often and liberally (redundantly even) in our books. Punctuation we have a special affection for. Turns of phrase we throw in at every opportunity.
Since confession is good for the soul, I’ll reveal mine here. I love em dashes. You know what they are–those long dashes that break up two clauses. When I do a final edit of my book, I search for all the em dashes and in most cases, I can either replace them with a comma, or separate the two clauses into two sentences. I also have a particular fondness for ellipses (also ruthlessly squelched), and am a recovering semi-colon-aholic. In the word choice department, adverbs are my bad actors. Really.
In other authors’ work, I’ve seen overuse of the word mumble (a very useful word that loses its power when utilized too often), nervous characters chewing their lips so often it’s surprising their mouth is not in shreds, and the italic overload (IMO, italics are hard on the eyes and should be used sparingly). The exclamation point is also a travesty, although its overuse seems to be limited to newbies.
The nice thing about all these pecadillos that creep into our writing is that once we recognize the problem, we can fix it on that final edit. I’ve acknowledged to myself that em dashes and ellipses are part of my process, how I get the words down on the page. I know I can take them out later, but in the draft process it works best to just let myself put them in. Same for my adverbosity. I’ll trim those back in a later draft.
So what are your problem children? Metaphors you overuse, that character action you repeat ten times too many in your manuscript? Feel free to share.