Editing is both an art form and a numbers game. Writers are constrained by word count, so every phrase must be sharpened and polished like a jewel. My first editing job was Nigerian Gems. Since then, I’ve spent hours revising my own work, been mentored by Michele Rubin, head of Cornerstones US and had the opportunity to edit many manuscripts for New Authors Collective and Brightside Story Studio.
While every author has ticks, I’ve identified several areas most writers can improve.
1. Be Concise
Wasted words are everywhere. We often write with redundant phrases and filler words, such as, “in truth,” “as a matter of fact,” or “in my opinion.” In most cases, these can be deleted without changing the meaning or altering the voice. Get to the point. One way to achieve this is to use strong language. See point 2.
Don’t make the mistake of being too authentic in dialogue and start with, “Well, …” or ums and ahs. Yes, we often speak like that, but on the page, we only need it occasionally for effect.
2. Beware Weak Language
Adverbs, qualifiers, started/began and -ing verbs (continuous tense) dampen our language. Search your manuscript and replace any that aren’t essential.
- Adverbs. English is such a rich language that in most cases, we can replace an adverb + verb combination with a single stronger verb. The phrase, “She walked quickly” could be written, “She raced,” or “She hurried.” This way, we use more interesting verbs and we delete a word into the bargain.
- Qualifiers (eg somewhat or very). Similarly, replace a qualifier + adjective with a stronger adjective. “It was very big” becomes, “It was enormous.”
- Started or began. Unless the start of the action is the focus, a sentence becomes more immediate without reference to it. Instead of “I started to run,” just say, “I ran” or “I took off.”
- -ing verbs. The continuous verb tense, eg. “I was walking”, serves a purpose – as the name suggests, to show that an action is ongoing. However, unless the ongoing nature of the action is critical, the active verb tense, eg. “I walked” is much stronger.
3. Avoid Repetition
When I type a word, it must lodge in my brain ready to slip back onto the page. Repetition creeps in even when I take pains to avoid it. This is where a beta reader or editor can help us.
For every rule, there are exceptions, and repetition can be used for effect. Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame, is a master of repetition. At the outset of a fight scene, he tosses in a comment, “Somebody was going to have a bad day.” Once Jack decimates the opposition, he follows up with, “He (the bad guy) was having a bad day.” Perfection.
4. Rethink Dialogue Tags
While we aim to avoid repetition for most words, in dialogue, ‘said’, ‘replied’ or ‘asked’ are the go-to speech tags, as they’re virtually invisible. You can also use speech tags to show volume, eg ‘whispered’ or ‘yelled/shouted’. Avoid ‘exclaimed’, ‘joked’, or other more descriptive speech tags, and show this instead through the dialogue itself or punctuation. eg. ‘!’ shows exclamation, we don’t need to say ‘exclaimed’ as well.
In many cases, dialogue tags can be deleted altogether by placing action around the dialogue, called body tags or action tags. If the body tag makes it clear who’s speaking, the speech tag can be deleted altogether. Take this example,
“We’re in trouble,” Madeleine said. She ducked under the window ledge.
“Let’s run away,” said Sara.
“But where can we go?” Madeleine asked.
“To the seaside,” Sara replied.
Now, let’s try again, deleting all dialog tags.
Madeleine ducked under the window ledge. “We’re in trouble.”
Sara glanced over her shoulder. “Let’s run away.”
“But where can we go?” Madeleine’s hands trembled.
“To the seaside.”
Note that when a body tag replaces a speech tag, the punctuation changes and the dialog ends with a fullstop (period) instead of a comma.
I hope these pointers are useful. What are your favorite editing tips? Please share in the comments.
Next time: Feminism and the Expat Spouse