Edit. Rewrite. Repeat.
For me, it's the most fun part of writing! This is where you get the chance to really make your prose and dialog pop! Or, in some cases, trash what you've written and start over again.
Below are some simple tips to help make the editing process a little easier.
Remember: The FIND and LOCATE buttons on your computer are your friends!
All examples are from my manuscript, "Sea Horses," edited by K. Stieffel (www.kristenstieffel.com)
1. The following words and phrases can usually be eliminated from your manuscript. Check for relevance.
- Words ending in “ly”
- At all
- "Managed to"
- "Started to"
- "Began to"
* Note: None of these apply in dialog! More on this in my Dialog Section.
2. Avoid passive voice whenever possible. I have given is active voice; have been given is passive. Avoid have been/has been. But don’t confuse am, is, are, and to be with passive voice. Key word to look for is “been.”
3. “Was verb-ing” constructions can usually be replaced with simple past tense.
- Example: Jack’s heart was beating faster now.
- Better: Jack’s heart beat faster now.
4. Watch sentences that begin with danglers ending in “ing.” They imply actions that are done simultaneously.
- Example: Tossing her suitcase and overnight bag into the trunk of her rental car, she followed the signs to the freeway.
Obviously, my character can’t toss her luggage into the trunk AND follow the signs to the freeway at the same time.
- Corrected: After tossing her suitcase and overnight bag into the trunk...
Also, in keeping with the above statement, “as” can also mean simultaneously.
- Example: She turned the volume down low as the Backstreet Boys proclaimed they wanted it that way and Celine Dion crooned her heart would go on.
Both songs can’t be playing at the same time, unless you have two radios.
- Corrected: She turned the volume down low, and the Backstreet Boys proclaimed they wanted it that way, and Celine Dion crooned her heart would go on.
5. The proper use of pauses and em dashes have assumed different roles over the years. Current use is a follows: a pause (...) means slow, deliberate thinking. An em dash (—) means an interruption in dialog or a thought shift in the sentence.
- Example: Jack looked around the kitchen. “Uh…do you know if there’s any coffee around here?”
- Example: Jack was dumbfounded. “How can you possibly think—”
“I’m an intelligent man,” Kenneth said. “I’ve seen every scam there is.”
- Example: By the time retirement age came around, Jack was ready for it. Cooking classes, gardening, travel—the two of them did it all. And he was a better man for it.
6. When using unconventional words to describe sounds, always italicize.
- Example: (Unconventional use) The bird took to the sky, its massive wings beating the air with a rhythmic thwump thwump, like a bellows stoking a flame in a fireplace.
- Example: (Familiar use) Across the marsh, the cheeping of frogs was drowned out by the droning buzz of the few remaining cicadas and dragonflies.
"Pa rum pum pum pum"
7. Avoid the use of absolutes—unless you mean without exception.
- Example: Jack had always been a list-maker. (Really? Even as a baby?)
- Better: Jack had been a list-maker for as long as he could remember.
*Note: I used the passive phrase “had been” because it works here.
- Example: Kenneth never cheated on his wife. Here, the absolute “never” is warranted.
8. As writers, we are artists and musicians!
Think about that statement for a moment. Our prose should have a lyrical or musical quality to it, alternating between short and long notes/sentences. Break up sentences that are too long. How long is too long? Rule of thumb is no more than twenty to twenty-five words per sentence, although an occasional lapse, especially in fiction, is okay if the situation warrants it.
Example: Jack had spent weeks debating the easiest way to pull this off. Pills took too long. So did slitting his wrists or ingesting something poisonous. He finally concluded hanging was the best way to go about it. A gunshot to the head would be quicker, but Jack wasn’t a gambler by nature. Bullets carried too many variables. And the carnage left behind was far too messy. Frank was a good friend. He wouldn’t do that to him.
Example: A scenario formed in Song Min’s mind as she thumbed through the bills. With this kind of money, maybe she and Joo Hee could leave this wretched city and go elsewhere. No more crowded, smoke-filled bars. No more bowls of cold gruel. No more unwanted intimacies with these piggish American men and their incessant appetites. Someplace quiet and remote, where the air was clean and tiger tanks didn’t rumble through the streets at all hours of the day and night.
- Here’s another example by the late writer, Gary Provost, on using sentences of varying length to achieve that musical quality that keeps readers riveted to your pages. Note: The alternation between bold and italicized sentences serves to point out the differences in sentence length.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. And sometimes, when I’m certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals – sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music!
~ Gary Provost
Exercise: Make copies of your pages and use different colored highlighters to distinguish between short, medium, and long sentences. Seeing large blocks of one or two colors? Go back and mix it up!
9. American vs. British use of some common words.
Toward = American Towards = British
Backward = American Backwards = British
Gray = American Grey = British
Defense = American Defence = British
Tire = American Tyre = British
License = American Licence = British
Traveling = American Travelling = British
Center = American Centre = British
Theater = American Theatre = British
Meter = American Metre = British
Pajamas = American Pyjamas = British
Also, make sure your international characters are using correct jargon when speaking or describing their surroundings. For instance, most Australians use the term “Mum” instead of “Mom.” Many Asian cultures state their last names first. And if your character is a detective at Scotland Yard in London, he or she would use terms such as “torch” for flashlight, “bonnet” for the hood of a car, "lift" for elevator, and “tuck in” for eating a meal.
Steep yourself in the language and quirks of the area you’re writing about so that your prose rings true. Novelist Elizabeth George, who is American but writes English mysteries, does this flawlessly.
10. Make your prose come alive with descriptive details!
Put yourself in each scene. Use the five senses to convey what your character is experiencing. But avoid using the following words: felt, feeling, see, saw, heard, hear, smelled, etc. How, you ask? More on that in my section on Point of View!
11. Know your characters!
In my first novel, "Sea Horses," I had one of my characters scrounging through her handbag for a scrap of paper to write down an address. My editor noted that this woman, as previously depicted, is an organized professional. Scribbling something on the back of an old grocery list implies a degree of disorganization. We changed the sentence and had her write the information down in her daily planner.
While it may seem a simple thing, paying attention to small details concerning your characters' actions and personalities will make them ring true with your readers.
12. Backstory in chapter one or the opening of your short story is deadly. Save it for later. Rivet your readers with your opening scenes and keep them turning those pages for more!
13. Don't insult your readers! Instead of telling the reader how to feel or what to think, let them draw the conclusion for themselves.
- Example: How ironic that in planning his death he had learned to live again.
- Better: In planning his death he had learned to live again.
Give your readers credit that they can infer the irony in the sentence without being told.
14. Placement of words and phrases in a sentence demonstrates emphasis to the reader.
- Example: Jack called Munden Dairy to stop his weekly delivery of skim milk and cream yesterday [not today].
- Example: Jack called Munden Dairy [not Yoder Dairy] yesterday to stop his weekly delivery of skim milk and cream.
- Example: Yesterday, Jack called Munden Dairy to stop his weekly delivery of skim milk and cream. [Because of the word order, yesterday receives the emphasis.]
15. Less vs. Fewer
- Use less when referring to unspecified amounts or mass nouns.
Example: Jack's Visa card statement showed an outstanding balance of less than two hundred dollars.
- Use fewer when referring to exact numbers.
Example: Helen had three fewer items on her shopping list.
16. Keep your "eyes" where they belong!
- Example: Song Min's eyes traveled to her shoes. (Really? That's quite a feat!)
- Better: Song Min's gaze traveled to her shoes. (Or use stare, look, etc.)
17. To frag or not to frag.
We've all been taught that a sentence must contain a subject and a verb and stand alone as a complete thought. But what about the use of fragments?
Fragments, when used carefully, add a sense of urgency to action scenes and draws the reader closer to the drama as it unfolds.
- Example: As he sat there, bits and pieces of the night before came back to him. Making his way up a rickety flight of stairs. A darkened room. The soft echo of a female voice beside him. He remembered hearing the muffled sound of crying right before he passed out. Or maybe he had only imagined that part.
Fragments can also add emphasis and power to your writing.
- Example: Looking at her face in profile, Jack was once again struck by the realization this woman might be his granddaughter. Or not.
The use of a fragment here emphasizes the wide range of emotion Jack is experiencing in this scene.