I revise with terrific energy until, finally, five pages from the end of the fourth full revision when I’m arguing with Jodi, who edits, over where a comma should go, and fuck and goddammit and Jesus Christ have come to constitute my entire vocabulary, I say, ‘Why are we fighting over a sentence? The whole book is a disaster!’ Then the answer is suddenly clear to me—I’ve been insane for three years and these are my notes from the underground! Now, and only now, when I’m convinced the book is an utterly misbegotten debacle, do I give in, say it’s done, and decide to get, as the saying goes, professional help. —Tom Grimes
You work, shelve it for a while, work, shelve it again, work some more, month after month, year after year, and then one day you read the whole piece through and, so far as you can see, there are no mistakes. (The minute it’s published and you read the printed book you see a thousand.) This tortuous process is not necessary, I suspect, for the writing of a popular novel in which the characters are not meant to have depth and complexity, where character A is consistently stingy and character B is consistently openhearted and nobody is a mass of contradictions, as are real human beings. But for a true novel there is generally no substitute for slow, slow baking. —John Gardner
Proofreading is the final step before submitting your novel to potential literary agents. After numerous run-throughs to improve your imagery and structure, refined your word choices, etc., let’s run through the steps once more to ensure it’s as tight as you can make it.
EDITING CHECKLIST (to be repeated as many times as necessary)
- Exclamation points. According to Elmore Leonard, you’re allowed two, maybe three per 100,000 words. If it doesn’t punctuate an exclamation or command, use a period.
- Italics. As with exclamation points, don’t use italics for emphasis. Avoid “drawing” your meaning. Let your writing show emphasis.
- Ellipses […] and emdashes [—]. Ellipses are for gaps, sentences where the speaker doesn’t complete his thought, but takes another tack. Em dashes are used when the speaker is interrupted.
- He intoned, he roared, he grumbled, he interjected. Speaker attributes aren’t the place to be creative. The writer needs to step aside and let his characters talk. Said is invisible. Change your speaker attributes to said. And never tell how they said it. He said anxiously, he said gruffly. Be invisible. Remember, adverbs catch the writer in the act of telling what should be shown.
- Modifiers. Modifiers prop up nonspecific nouns or weak verbs. A “beautiful woman” or “ruggedly handsome man” are cliché. Cut every adjective and adverb you can live without. Unless it’s necessary, it’s a distraction. Even then, ideas expressed in as few words as possible are more potent than ideas conveyed without economy. If your meaning depends on modifiers, choose stronger nouns and verbs, or put some effort into coming up with a metaphor.
- Explaining. Are you describing your characters’ feelings? Have you told us they’re angry? Irritated? Morose? Discouraged? Puzzled? Excited? Elated? Suicidal? Keep an eye out for any places where you mention an emotion outside of dialogue. When you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, delete the explanation. If the emotion is conveyed, the explanation wasn’t necessary. If the emotion isn’t conveyed, rewrite the passage to show the emotion.
- Sentence variety.Too many straight declarative sentences in a row will flatten your writing. Do you have a lot of short sentences? Try stringing some of them together with commas. Vary your sentence length and structure to a pleasing rhythm.
- Wordy words. Replace any”big” polysyllabic words for familiar ones. The idea is to be understood, to lead readers down a path they can follow. Unless your character is heady and self-conscious, write for your reader.
- Word repeats and redundant phrases. The more striking a word or phrase is, the more jarring it will be if you repeat it. Even common words used close together disrupt your rhythm. Your thesaurus isn’t to hunt for obscure words, but to help you enrich your work with variety. We all have speech patterns, so watch for yours. Read through your manuscript and look for those word packages and turn of phrases that belong to you, the writer. Unless you’ve attributed them to one character alone, rewrite them.
- Repeated depictions. Take care not to describe physical pain or a particular emotion in the same terms. Each person experiences shock, grief, or illness differently. Make sure your characters do, too.
- -ING and AS. “Ripping her sandwich in half, she pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and took a bite.” The -ing construction of the previous sentence forces simultaneity on two actions that cannot occur simultaneously. The same error is seen in as constructions: “As she ripped her sandwich in half, she pulled up a chair to the kitchen table and took a bite.” Reread your prose to make sure you’re saying what you think you’re saying and correct for accuracy. Both examples take the character’s action (“She ripped her sandwich in half”) and tuck it away in a dependent clause. Even when two events can happen simultaneously, the structure positions action at a distance, making it seem incidental. If you use it frequently, it will weaken your writing.
Intermission. Put your manuscript aside for a decent period, then reread it. Try to “hear” your work as a stranger would, or even better, as a critic would. Revise. Put it aside. Reread. Revise, reread, revise. Put it aside, and repeat. It isn’t finished until it’s in print. (For help in any of the areas above or below, revisit the Toolbox section of this website.)
A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. —Mark Twain
- Swop out “sight” with one of the remaining senses. In the writing stage, writers often rely on the visual sense to the exclusion of others. Revision is the time to reach beyond the obvious. Instead of seeing through your protagonist’s eyes, let your readers hear, smell, taste, touch (sensation), and touch (temperature).
- How often do you interrupt your dialogue? What are your beats describing? Familiar everyday actions, such as dialing a telephone or buying groceries? Do they illuminate your characters or depict general actions anyone might do under any circumstances? How often do you repeat a beat? Are your characters always looking out windows? Do your beats enhance the rhythm of your dialogue or are they bogging down the narrative flow?
- Underestimating your readers’ intelligence. Have you developed theme and motivation in a natural unfolding or did you drive a point home to make sure your readers get the picture? As you revise, be on the lookout for unwarranted repetition. When you write two or more chapters that accomplish the same thing, or when your protagonist says the same thing chapter after chapter, you defeat your purpose. Cliché of not, less is more. Do it well once and twice is unnecessary.
- White space. Think of what you skip when reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose that appear to have too many words in them. Flip through your manuscript with an eye on the white space. Do you find paragraphs a page in length? Many paragraphs running longer than a half-page? If one of your scenes seem to drag, try paragraphing a little more often. Do you have scenes with no longer paragraphs? Remember, what you’re after is the balance.
- Try Reading It BackwardsTo escape the trap of over-familiarization, consider reading your novel from the last sentence to the first. Though tedious, you stand a better chance of maintaining your focus on each sentence.