Mistakes or Placeholders?

Mechanics Writing

Marta looked out at the really beautiful sunset.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to be sitting on the beach with no worries about now, “ she said sadly.

“And only the bugs for company.” Joe said gruffly. He was older than Marta, but didn’t look it as if time had frozen him at the moment of his retirement. Salt and pepper hair, solid, but not fat body, and grumpy temperament.

Marta’s hair was more gray than brunette, no matter how hard she tried with hair dyes, and she swore the wrinkles on her face spread only slight slower than her hips. I really am getting old, she thought.

Billy ran quickly up the driveway and Marta headed toward the door to let him in before he could ring the doorbell and irritate his grandfather.

“Guess what?” Billy seemed even more energetic than usual.

“Come into the kitchen and you can tell me all about it.”

The news couldn’t wait and burst out of Billy’s mouth.

“An elephant followed me home from school. Can I keep it?”

“Don’t be telling stories.” Joe looked angry.

At that moment Marta heard the unmistakable sound of an elephant’s trumpet.


Look at the brief scene above. We’ll pretend it’s the first draft of a touching story of how an elephant brings a grumpy old man an his grandson together, probably without much jail time.

The parts I’ve marked in bold are all things I would flag as an editor. There’s more, but we’ll work with these for the moment. I know authors who would look at the above scene and bang their head on their desk in despair at how badly it’s written. Just look at it, filter verbs, adverbs, no beats, boring modifiers, redundant phrases, even the dreaded seemed.

Yet my advice to you is not to beat yourself up. Rather, go through the draft and highlight the things I mention above. Don’t worry about how many there are. Get them all. If you’re like me, there will be pages with more yellow than white.

Now, here’s the fun part. Yes, fun. Each of those highlighted words or phrases is a placeholder. You’re writing along and your brain thinks “Joe’s angry” but doesn’t give you the picture of what that looks like in the scene, so you write ‘Joe looks angry’. Now you write what it looks like.

“Don’t be telling stories.” Joe slapped his paper down and cranked his recliner down to glare eye to eye with his grandson.

That’s better, maybe not perfect yet, but better, you might not have remembered the old geezer was angry if you hadn’t written in the placeholder.

An adverb is telling you to find a strong verb or modifier, maybe work the emotion more. Don’t delete one until you’ve responded to it’s message.

‘Said’ is a placeholder too. It keeps track of who’s talking for us, so we can go back and write beats where we need them without having to figure who is saying what first.

I highlighted the descriptions of the old couple, not because they are bad descriptions, but because of how they are dumped into the scene. They don’t belong there, they don’t have anything to do with what’s happening, but they are letting you know something about this pair, so keep this description somewhere safe and trickle it out as needed. I find a lot of the descriptions come this way. I dump them into a scene, thump, then move on. Later I shove them into a side document where they wait until I decide where and how to use them to the best effect.

Redundant phrases ‘she thought’ ‘at that moment’ are telling us something about the action. It needs to be a shock to the characters. The best way to do that is show the characters’ shock, so we write that in. The ‘she thought’ is reminding us to use italics for direct thought. Also to look at whether we’re using the thought to greatest effect. Sometimes having the thought not quite line up with actions and words can reveal a lot about a character and their relationship with the people around them. In this case she’s thinking she’s getting old, why? It isn’t the description, since she wouldn’t be thinking a description of herself, there’s something missing in the action, something which would make Marta feel old suddenly.

Lastly we have the dreaded ‘seemed’. As I point out to my clients, to seem means to appear one way, but be another way in truth. Or as I put it, counter to reality. An example:

The box seemed to be slapped carelessly together, but on closer inspection Grant saw it had been meticulously crafted to be both secure and deceive the eye.

The seemed in the paragraph above clearly is not counter to reality, so what is our brain trying to tell us by writing ‘seemed’ there? It’s not only about humiliating you as your editor point out you used the word or a variation of it ninety-eight times in your book. I don’t believe we write anything for no reason.

I think the purpose of the seemed above is to tell us to do some extra work on that energetic. It isn’t his normal energetic. We could cut the seemed out and have ‘Billy was more energetic than usual.’ That falls a bit flat given the nature of the scene. It calls for a heap of show not tell, going the extra distance to highlight that as energetic as Billy is, he’s more now.

There is another reason I see ‘seemed’ used, and ‘apparently’ as well, and that is to hedge a character’s observations. When we use third person close POV we are seeing/hearing through a character. Sometimes the author hedges their bets to avoid being accused of head hopping. “I said he seemed angry, not he was angry, I stayed in POV.” As above the best solution is to show the action, not the interpretation. It can take surprisingly few words to indicate anger, fear, joy or other emotions. If you struggle with this kind of thing the Emotional Thesaurus is a great tool.

Now, let me sum up. If your writing looks like the scene at the beginning of this article don’t despair. Your brain is leaving you clues on how to fix it. What you see as horrible and embarrassing mistakes are placeholders, shorthand while you write your first draft. Once you learn to read that shorthand, creating that second version of your story will go much more quickly and smoothly.

1 thought on “Mistakes or Placeholders?

  1. This was an excellent article! Often when I’m writing, and find myself typing things that I know can’t make it into the final work (too many adverbs, seemed, etc.), I take time to try to fix it then, because I’m afraid I’ll miss it in the edits. Already, after reading this article, I’ve given myself the liberty to leave those things, and, on one of my edits, purposefully look for the “shorthand” that my brain has left. Wonderful concept! Thanks!
    My favorite line: “Once you learn to read that shorthand, creating that second version of your story will go much more quickly and smoothly.”

    Liberty Bluebelle

    “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…” II Corinthians 3:17

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