Nothing beats the feeling of typing The End following the last scene of your manuscript. You’ve spent weeks to months to years laboring over sentence construction, timeline details, and character development, among many other things. Now is the time to celebrate.
Because soon, it will be time to edit.
If you’re groaning, stop it. This is where you take your masterpiece and smooth the rough edges. Not all artists have this luxury. We writers get as many passes as it takes to get it right.
There is a myriad of posts and checklists on how to best attack the editing process. I like to start with three easy (though not necessarily quick) edits that give me a sense of immediate progress. Following these suggestions will result in tighter prose and eliminate several “flag” words that could make an editor or agent pass on your project.
For illustration purposes, I’m using screen shots from my own WIP that I’m about a quarter through writing.
1.Scrutinize the filters
Do an MS search (see the red circle if you’re using Word and don’t know how) for each of these words: saw, heard, thought, realized, noticed, knew, understood (or the present tense of these verbs if your story is in present tense).
The words I listed are often used in filters, or those phrases that say what the character sees/hears/thinks etc. The example in the screen shot is one. They force the reader to be a step back from the story because instead of experiencing the story directly through the POV character, we’re being told what the character is experiencing. More often than not, you can cut filters without losing meaning and keep the reader closer to the narrative.
For more information about filters, check this post.
2. Scrutinize the adverbs
Stephen King famously said this: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
Some writers balk at this idea. “Writing is an art,” they say. “How can I paint a full picture without all the colors?”
I believe Morpheus can help me with this one.
That might be harsh. Maybe he doesn’t hate adverbs, but they certainly (adverb!) fall in disfavor with many of the pros.
Adverbs are the ugly stepchild of the English language for a couple of reasons. One, they can be a crutch for weak verbs (the character can rush instead of walk quickly). And two, they can disrupt the flow of the prose (specifically -ly adverbs).
The easiest way to find your adverbs is to search “ly” and scroll through the results. They won’t all be adverbs, but at least some will be.
Notice in both this and the previous point about filters, I said scrutinize, not necessarily cut. Make these words earn their keep. You could work out your sentences to include no adverbs, but you might end up with something clunkier in the end. This is where the art comes in.
In the screen shot, I could cut “impossibly”, or perhaps say an alternate like “tiny” or “microscopic.” I’m not sure those fit with my voice and the situation, though. And with “similarly”, I could say “would have also been ejected”, but that feels bumpier to me. For now, these adverbs get a pass.
Here’s one I can easily cut:
“Only” adds nothing to the meaning of that sentence, so it’s gotta go.
There is one instance I would argue should never have an adverb, and that’s when associated with a dialogue tag. Check out point 5 in this post for more information about that.
3. Cut most “newbie” words
There are certain words that could serve as “flags” for editors, agents, and seasoned readers – flags that say this writer hasn’t been at it too long. The thing with these words is even if you have been writing for a while, they sometimes become easy crutches and can creep into your writing.
Do an MS search for variations of the following words: turn, smile, frown, laugh, nod, shrug, look, just, went, began, started, could/can, sudden, and all the filter words (but you already took care of those, right?).
I used “turn” in a beat in this example, but I could use a more visual one, like Liz putting her hand on the nurse’s shoulder. You may have noticed “nodded” in the paragraph after that one. I could cut it, but I like the sense of agreement there, so that one might get to stay. I’ll make sure there isn’t a nod occurring too soon before or after this one.
In the case of began/started, cut all instances except when the action wasn’t completed.
He began walking to the house. –> He walked to the house.
A note on dialogue: in the interest of keeping dialogue sounding natural, I’m less picky about all the words I listed in this post. My characters say “look”, “I know”, “probably”, and similar phrases. As long as the words aren’t repeated in a short space, I let my characters say what they want to say.
Editing is a long process, and you have to start somewhere. If you’re like me, starting with something concrete, like these three strategies, gives an immediate sense of accomplishment. These are by no means the only things to do when editing. This is surface level stuff. But if you take care of these things before you pass the work on to critique partners and beta readers, they can focus on the deeper issues, like character development, POV, pacing, and sequence.
Do you have an editing strategy in place? Does it include steps similar to these?