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 beta read many manuscripts. While every author has ticks, I’ve identified several areas most writers can improve.
1. Be Concise
Wasted words are everywhere. We often write as we speak 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.
2. Beware Weak Language
Adverbs, qualifiers, started/began and think dampened our language as shown below. Search your manuscript and replace any that aren’t essential.
- Adverbs. English is such a rich language that 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). “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.”
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. In my last blog, Tales from Lagos, which also decried the use of repetition, I used the phrase “our first challenge” twice. Yikes! I’ve fixed it now, but it demonstrates how easy it is to make mistakes.
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
Current thinking suggests that it’s best to stick to “said,” as as a dialogue tag, even if it leads to some repetition, as it’s more or less invisible. The exceptions are when volume is critical, such as he whispered or she shouted, or for a question, “asked.”
However, in many cases, dialogue tags can be deleted altogether by placing action around the dialogue, called body 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