Tales from the editing desk

This week, while working on rewrites for The Wendy House, I came across this phrase from Wendy’s diary:

…he exuded confidence…

It was obvious I’d had a problem with the phrase when I first wrote it, because it was set aside in brackets and highlighted in red font. 

[he exuded confidence]

This is a pretty big deal. When I’m writing, if there’s something I’m not sure about I’ll bracket it. If there’s something I don’t like, but don’t have time to change because I’m on a roll, I’ll highlight it in red. The fact that I did both of those things to this particular phrase was akin to having Sam Kinison shout “CHANGE THIS!!!! OH-OHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” from the depths of my manuscript.

I looked at it for a few minutes. I read the surrounding paragraph’s to give the thing some context. I still didn’t like it, but couldn’t quite figure out why. So I shot this email to my buddy, author extraordinaire Moriah Jovan:

 Is it a cliche for a character to ‘exude confidence’? It feels like it is, but I’d like a second opinion.

She responded:

Yeah, much as I hate to say it. The problem with cliches is that they become cliches because they’re so damned precise and useful.

So there was that. Cliche. But it was something more than that, and I couldn’t put my finger on what the something more was. And until I could do that, I couldn’t change the damn phrase. I actually worked on this for two full hours before it hit me.

I couldn’t hear it in Wendy’s voice. She would never have said it that way. So I changed it to:

…he was confident…

That’s right. It took me two hours to change “he exuded confidence” to “he was confident”. And people wonder why it’s taking me so damned long to finish this book.

(Thanks for the help, MoJo. You rock.)


I met Paul in the summer of ’85 in the magazine aisle of the grocery store. I was looking at pictures of the Live Aid concert in People, he was reading about nuclear war in Time. We made small talk for a few minutes about Phil Collins and the Enola Gay and Mikhail Gorbachev. Then he asked me out. I told him I was married and he apologized for being impertinent. He actually used the word “impertinent.”

I think that’s what did it. He wasn’t particularly attractive. His nose was too long, his blue eyes too pale, his sandy hair uncombed in a way that was lazy rather than sexy. But he was confident, in spite of all that, and intelligent. To me, anyway. I had never known anyone who used words like “impertinent.”

13 thoughts on “Tales from the editing desk

  1. The passage is better now (imo). You done good.

    I think it’s helpful sometimes to look at such things not so much as cliche (although they are) as “stock phrases.” If you can identify them and dig beneath them to draw out the why — what is it about him that causes him to exude confidence? — you’re on your way to a much more vibrant stretch of writing.

    We all use them, especially when the words are coming quickly. Those phrases are like spackle to writers. Sure, they cover up the spot, but if you don’t sand ’em down and paint them up nice and pretty, they look kind of tacky.

  2. Nice job, Kel! And I really liked your comment as well, Craig. Something for me to think about as I read through the first draft of my work-in-prgress. I’m sure I’ve got those “stock phrases” in there as well.

  3. Thanks for the shout-out, Kel!

    Stock phrases can work for you, too, especially if they’re used as a wink and a nod to the reader. I do this quite a bit.

  4. I love this post. I think it was genius to catch that the phrase wouldn’t have come from Wendy, so you changed it to Wendy’s voice. That is a major problem with my writing. I sort of only have one voice. The Robin voice.

  5. I just finished your book last night. I absolutely loved it. I can’t wait til your next one.

    Spring Butusov.

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