All writers wrestle with common writing problems, and any novel worth reading should undergo rigorous copyediting. That applies to all writing, of course, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. But let’s use novels as an example. Your novel.
Let’s say you’re done writing and revising. Ready to rock whether you’re querying agents or taking the indie route.
Your story includes clear goals, high stakes, and riveting conflicts, right? Plot and subplots are worked out. Your opening scene grabs readers, and each scene that follows moves the action forward. The pacing is just right, your characters are brilliant, and the dialogue is perfect. And the ending scene couldn’t be better.
Even your friends and family think it’s great. Your writing pals and beta readers? Thumbs up. And your aunt, a high school English teacher, proofread your entire manuscript.
Do you have a bestseller in your hands? Maybe. Maybe not.
Are your readers skilled, professional copyeditors and proofreaders? No? You’re not done.
Aunt Jen might be the best English teacher around, and—if you’re really lucky—one or two friends aren’t afraid to be honest (even if it hurts).
But do they know how to read a novel critically? Can they look at words, sentences, and paragraphs objectively, separately from the story? Do they know the The Chicago Manual of Style? Can they monitor for consistency over the course of 200–300+ pages? No?
Do yourself and your masterpiece a favor. Copyedit your manuscript before hiring an editor, querying an agent, or uploading to Amazon. You can save money on professional editing, increase your chances of agent interest or, if you’re an indie publisher, have a better chance at making the sales you dream of.
1. Minimize expletive constructions.
An expletive is, generally speaking, a meaningless word or phrase that adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence.
There is, there are, there were, it is, it was, it will be, there would have been …
These expletives are phrases that begin with there or it and use a form of the verb be.
Expletive: There were five burly men following her.
Reworded: Five burly men followed her.
Expletive: It was a holiday filled with laughter, friendship, and good will.
Reworded: The holiday was filled with laughter, friendship, and good will.
Better: Laughter, friendship, and good will made the holiday bright.
Expletives have their place, but frequent use is wordy and boring. Scan the first word of paragraphs or sentences or use find/search: how many times does there or it show up? Reword and get straight to the point.
2. Avoid starting paragraphs and sentences in the same way.
Expletives (above) are often the culprit with repetitive sentence openings, but pronouns and character names are also frequent offenders.
Check each page. How many sentences begin with he, she, they, or a character’s name? No rule exists for frequency, but if you scan a page and see sentence after sentence start with “He … “ or “She …” or “Cathy …” you’ll probably want to add some variety.
Repetitive pronouns: He stumbled up the steps, and she opened the door. She stared at him as he wobbled, clearly drunk. She rolled her eyes and stepped back to let him go by.
Reword: He stumbled up the steps and nearly fell through the door as it opened. Drunk though he was, a piece of Paul’s heart died as he met his wife’s judgment once again and wobbled past her.
How this is reworded depends on POV and context, of course.
3. Cut back on -ing words.
Verbs that end in -ing are common in everyday speech.
“So I was running around town, trying to get my errands done, and here comes this maniac burning rubber and blowing his horn before slamming me right off the road and into a telephone pole.”
Some -ing words are gerunds; these are verbs that act as nouns like running, hiking, writing, or swimming (things people do). They aren’t usually overused. It’s the verb forms with -ing that are the problem.
Verbs that end in -ing (and are acting as verbs AKA action words) are in the progressive verb tense and depict an action that continues for a period of time whether in the past, future, or present. When we talk casually among friends, nobody cares. But they’re wordy and weak in writing.
Overuse of -ing words: So I was running around town, trying to get my errands done, and here comes this maniac burning rubber and blowing his horn before slamming me right off the road and into a telephone pole.
Reword: I tried to get my errands done before lunch, but a car’s horn, the screech of brakes, and the slam of metal meant a meeting with a telephone pole instead of with my husband.
Another example using both an expletive (see above) and an -ing word:
-Ing word: There were three girls running down the street.
Reword: Three girls ran down the street.
Progressive verbs or -ing words aren’t always bad, and sometimes they’re necessary. But they can mean wordiness, a need for more attention-grabbing verbs, or a lack of focus on the main event.
4. Toss the preposition salads.
Prepositions show relationships between words. And when they’re overused, you miss opportunities to be concise and use stronger, more specific language.
Browse through a few pages of your manuscript. Can you spot little words in long strings? Words with fewer than three or four letters? Chances are you’ve got a preposition salad that needs to be chopped down for easier reading and clarity. You’ll also make room for more powerful, descriptive words.
Reading out loud helps. It’s often the prepositions and prepositional phrases that cause you—and readers—to stumble.
Frequent offenders include of, in, at, from, and to. Longer prepositions include below, under, until, and above. Multiple-word prepositions like in front of, according to, and in spite of really jack up the wordiness.
For a more comprehensive explanation, read more about prepositions here.
Remember that a preposition always gets an object that can usually be turned around.
Prepositional phrase: The manager of the company
Reword: The company manager
You can usually replace prepositional phrases with stronger or more specific word choices.
Prepositional phrases: She came down with the flu on account of it going around at her job.
Reword: She contracted the same flu her coworkers had.
5. Filter the filter words.
Filter words, as the term suggests, place a barrier between your character and his or her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. They create wordiness, too, and make readers focus on unnecessary words instead of what’s really going on.
A few of the most common filter words are feel, see, hear, and know, but many others are used. Readers don’t need to be reminded that a character feels, sees, hears, or knows—just get to the main point.
Filter word: She realized that she’d never be the same again.
Reword: She’d never be the same again.
Filter word: She heard the mysterious scratch at the window and woke up.
Reword: The mysterious scratch at the window woke her.
Filter word: He felt as if he couldn’t love anyone more than this.
Reword: He couldn’t love anyone more than this.
Sometimes filter words are useful when you want to focus on the character’s experience.
Filter word is fine here: As the numbness gradually lessened, she felt the breeze against her skin for the first time since her accident.
Here are common filter words to watch out for:
Feel, see, look, hear, smell, know, realize, wonder, decide, notice, remember, think, wonder, watch, seem, note (he noted that), sounded like, able to (they were able to), experience (she experienced something).
If you work diligently on these five common writing problems, your manuscript (or blog post and other non-fiction writing) will improve. You might still want to hire an expert copyeditor before querying literary agents or self-publishing, but you’ll save money because you’ll have fairly “clean copy.” And prices are generally lower for clean copy because there’s less work for a copyeditor to do.
And although I don’t recommend skipping a professional editor (even I have one for my creative work), your writing will be in much better shape if you follow these tips.
Need an expert copyeditor? I’ll be happy to take a look at your work. Read more here.
Comments? Questions? Hit me up in the comments.