Not sure how to edit your novel or short story? Even if you’re writing non-fiction, here’s the rule:
Editing begins when writing ends. When you’re absolutely sure your story or article is finished, that’s the time to start editing.
“Finished” means the story is completely done to your satisfaction. In fact, you might think it doesn’t need any editing at all. But unless you’re a seasoned pro who can write with little need for editing (it’s rare), you still have work to do.
And if your manuscript isn’t completely finished, there’s no point fussing over details when you might rewrite, delete, or add sections or scenes. And it’s difficult, besides, to focus on the fine points when the big picture doesn’t yet exist.
Start with these ten tips to polish your masterpiece and get it ready for the final step. What, you say, more work? Yep. Proofreading is what you do when editing is complete.
1. Check facts.
You might think you know something, but think again and look it up.
Your tall, beautiful female character cannot wear a size zero without narrow hips, small breasts, fine bone structure, and no extra muscle. Think ultra-thin runway models. Editorial models (magazines) typically wear sizes four–six.
Just be careful of assumptions, “common knowledge,” and basic facts. Some topics like medical information, location details, cultural habits, and unfamiliar terminology should be researched.
2. Vary the first word of sentences.
Paragraph after paragraph that starts the same way is boring. Even worse are sentences within a paragraph that begin with the same word unless the repetition has a purpose.
The usual offenders are expletives: a pronoun, especially it plus a form of the verb to be is common. There plus to be is another one. It plus forms of the verb to do are also commonly repeated.
It was a cold, rainy day. It didn’t matter to her, though. It was always this way, and it didn’t bring her spirits down. There were a few weak beams of sunshine in the distance, and it seemed like it would get clear soon anyway.
Try combining or condensing concepts instead, like this:
The usual clouds, rain, and cold couldn’t shake her spirits, and with the sunbeams spreading over the horizon, her joy knew no bounds.
3. Get ruthless with adjectives or adverbs.
Too many adjectives means weak writing—or a typical rough draft. Try metaphors, similes, and strong nouns or verbs.
A simile is a comparison that uses like or as. A metaphor makes the comparison directly without using like or as.
Instead of the loud thunder rumbled use a stronger verb: The thunder cracked.
Instead of the cold, heavy rain poured down as the strong wind blew try a simile: Icy sheets of water danced like wraiths.
Instead of the stranger, a big man with broad shoulders, stood in a threatening way in the doorway try a metaphor: Atlas commandeered the doorway.
4. Trim your action.
As you envision a scene, you might describe every movement a character makes. Sometimes it’s relevant, at least for the literary, stream of consciousness writers among us. Most of the time, though, it’s unnecessary and boring, and readers skip right over it.
Jack pulled out the tall stool, sat down, and leaned back with an elbow on the backrest. Eyeing the woman at the end of the bar, he called the bartender and ordered a beer for himself and whatever the woman might want.
Jack dropped into the stool and nodded to the bartender. “A pint, and whatever she’s having.” He jerked his head toward the woman at the end of the bar.
5. Double-check for word and phrase repetition.
Writers often have favorite words, and overuse can annoy readers and detract from effectiveness. Look for repetition and use search/find for words and phrases you use too often, and replace them or rephrase.
Some of mine include of course, really, smiled, concern, perfect, a lot, and something. When working on of course in one of my manuscripts, I let that phrase remain as the main character’s favorite expression (or in exposition directly related to her), and I deleted or replaced it when associated with other characters.
6. Check for redundancy in descriptions, actions, and dialogue.
If you tend to overdo it with descriptions, you might also repeat yourself. You just want to avoid confusion, right?
Write it once, write it clearly, and delete the rest. The trick is to read carefully and spot those redundancies, but that’s easier said than done in a long novel.
The white car or the Nissan Pathfinder needn’t be mentioned more than once unless the car color or model is a critical part of the story. Her car is sufficient after it’s been described once or twice. Even mentioning her car can get repetitive. In fact, if the character “drove away” there’s no need to mention a car. What else is she driving, a lawn tractor?
Keep in mind that repeated information isn’t a copy/paste deal; it’s often woven into another paragraph or scene with different words. And it can be hard to see; it’s only when you’re focused and alert and read closely that it becomes clear. Ask your critique partner or beta readers to stay alert for this issue as they read.
7. Delete the word “that” where unnecessary.
The relative pronoun “that” is needed when connecting two parts of a sentence that won’t make sense without it.
Keep it when it’s used as the subject in a restrictive clause:
This is the room that was Aunt Mabel’s. (This works.)
This is the room was Aunt Mabel’s. (This doesn’t work.)
“That was Aunt Mabel’s” makes sense on its own (and it’s a complete sentence) if the context makes the meaning clear. But out of context, what belonged to Aunt Mabel isn’t clear. So the descriptive clause “this is the room” and “that” is required.
Here’s another one from tip #6 above:
It’s only when you’re focused and alert and read closely that it becomes clear. You can’t remove “that” or you’ll end up with It’s only when you’re focused and alert and read closely it becomes clear.
“That” is optional when used as an object related to the subject.
It’s a matter of formal or informal use, and if the sentence sounds fine without it, delete. But if it improves rhythm or clarity, use it.
The room doesn’t have the same high ceilings that the other rooms have. (optional, formal)
The room doesn’t have the same high ceilings the other rooms have. (optional, informal).
8. Replace clichés.
You want your writing to be original and your very own, right? Skip the tired old words and phrases known as clichés. Some of them, such as in this day and age, these modern times, and this fast-paced world, are the worst because they’re meaningless and repeated ad nauseum.
“You see” is another expression that’s so overused it’s become a cliché. Check out this list if you suspect you use or overuse clichés. Do you recognize any of your favorites? Some of them work when used sparingly. Others, not so much.
9. Use contractions
I am not very good looking, he thought as he strode past the mirror-like windows.
Unless your character is a formal sort of person, it’s unlikely he thinks or says “I am” without contracting it into “I’m.”
I’m not very good looking, he thought as he strode past the mirror-like windows.
Use search/find for I am, could not, did not, he or she is, and similar constructions. Replace with a contraction when the spelled-out version has no purpose such as intensifying dialogue.
“I am not your maid!” She stared at her husband until he looked away.
10. Use a thesaurus but keep language level consistent.
Some writers believe using a thesaurus is “cheating,” but I disagree. Everyone has a “language folder” in their brains with all the words they need, but sometimes you just can’t access it. Maybe you’re tired and distracted—RAM overload—and le mot juste won’t load.
Why not open a supplemental language folder, a thesaurus, when your brain is frozen? It’s not like you’re going to use a word you don’t already know. You’re just getting a little prompt, that’s all. Why make writing harder than it already is?
Just make sure the word you choose is at a language level consistent with the rest of your manuscript. You can replace walk with stride, saunter, march, or amble. But you probably don’t want to use perambulate.
And be certain you’re using the word correctly. It might be somewhat familiar, but the definition could be slightly different than what you thought. Use a reputable dictionary and thesaurus such as Merriam-Webster. I usually use the thesaurus on Microsoft Word or Mac Pages, but sometimes you have to get out the big guys.
By the way, the brain as a computer with files is a good example of a metaphor. (See tip #3.)
Editing needs vary from writer to writer and manuscript to manuscript. But these tips are applicable for many of us, especially beginners. Even experienced authors write rough drafts with similar issues.
Either way, editing is easier when you know what to look for. And if you’re hiring an editor, especially a copyeditor or line editor, ask that they pay close attention to issues like these if they apply to you.
Comments and questions are always welcome.
Photo credit: Nic McPhee