Once upon a time, children, the people who wrote the books were spared the embarrassment of gross errors common to today’s literature. The publishing industry in that long ago age had gatekeepers. And the gatekeepers had hordes of laborers known to the writers of books as editors. These editors perused each story and, seemingly like magic, polished it to perfection. People such as you never encountered a novel with one word misspelled or out of place. Everything made sense, everything flowed. Literature was divine. Surely Dickens, D.H Lawrence, Hemingway… were gods—perfect to the letter.
But times change, and as any writer knows, change involves trade-offs.
Today the writer is the editor. There is no safety net. If you don’t make your story shine, no one (aside from an editor-for-hire) will. The question, then, is—do you know the craft of editing to a degree that can hold its own with the pros? The answer, probably not.
You do, though, have ownership in your story. You have passion for your vision and diligence that flows from the dream that possesses you. Who better to edit your work?
Yes, we are the editors. And that’s not so bad. We’ve done the hardest part—written our books. Now for the fun. Editing is where we see our stories come to life.
Editing is everything, and the goal is to cut, to simplify and clarify—and to cut. Cut until you can cut no more. The distillate that remains will inspirit, rise from the page, and make your characters—and readers—sing. Only by cutting nonessential words can every word be made essential.
START WITH THE BASICS
Completing a novel is an education that leaves the writer with a keener eye, a more discerning ear, and a wealth of insights and techniques. It’s easy to understand why many would find it unnecessary to return to the basics. Before you dismiss the idea, answer one question (a litmus test).
Does your 100K word manuscript have more than a handful of -ly adverbs?
If so, it’s worth reading through the Writer’s Toolbox.. When you’re finished, read through your novel, once for each tool to ensure you’re using it.
- Active Verbs
- Strong Verbs
- Think Detail
- Show, Don’t Tell
- Avoid Wordiness
- Choose Your Words
- Say Things in the Positive
- Listen for the Rhythm
- Vary Sentence Patterns
- Express Parallel Ideas in Parallel Form
Yes, that’s a lot of reading, but this is your story. Don’t quit now. Take your novel to the highest level and never cringe at publishing what is a representation of you as a writer. Peruse your wordsmithing, grammar, syntax, whether or not you’ve grounded your story in concrete sensory detail.
After you’ve refined your prose with the basics in mind, run through your manuscript again, this time with an eye for weaknesses and errors. Listed below you’ll find some of the more common oversights.
Those Dangly Bits
The idea of grammar is a turn off for most writers, and rightly so—we’re allowed to mess with grammar. Before we play with the rules, though, we need to know the rules. We need to avoid bending the staples of the language, those rules on which clarity—our highest prerequisite—rely.
A dangling modifier is an ambiguous modifier. It refers to a word or phrase intended to modify a word that is either absent or misplaced.
Since reading your blog post, my dog no longer barks at strangers.
Presumably, someone—a person—read a blog post and then trained his dark not to bark at passers-bye. As written, though, the dog read the blog post and was convinced not to bark. The person who read the blog is missing from the sentence, hence, the dangling modifier. A correct revision: Since reading your blog post, I trained my dog not to bark at strangers.
Introductory phrases modify the noun or pronoun that follows the comma.
When sitting, my shoulders tend to slouch.
When sitting modifies my shoulders. This is a dangling modifier. My shoulders aren’t sitting, I’m sitting.
To fix your dangly bits, either:
- Change the dangling element into a subordinate clause by adding the missing subject and verb.
- Change the main clause so that the subject is correctly modified.
When I sit, my shoulders tend to slouch.
When sitting, I tend to let my shoulders slouch.
Examine your modifiers. Only is commonly misplaced, and it’s worth checking every instance of its use.
He only knew that he didn’t like beets.
The above sentence claims that he has learned nothing but the fact that he dislikes beets. Surely he knows his name, whether he’s male or female, etc.
He knew only that he disliked like beets.
Second cousin to the dangling modifier is the dangling pronoun—pronouns referring to absent or distant antecedents (nouns). Which, this, and it are frequent offenders.
It says in the paper that the legislation was passed.
It has no antecedent, and the sentence is wordy. The paper says the legislation passed.
Pronouns referring to either of two or more preceding nouns are ambiguous.
The author has written a biography of Mark Twain that reveals his sense of humor. Whose sense of humor, Twain’s or the author’s? Jane told her mother that her shirt had a hole in it. Whose shirt?
Be clear. Reader’s need to know who’s who.
Bill likes watching movies more than me. Does Bill like watching movie more than I like watching movies, or does Bill like watching movies more than he likes me?
Parallelism is the matching of sentence elements with one another—subject with subject, verb with verb, object with object, indirect object with indirect object, modifier with modifier.
She plays the piano with ease, with confidence, and takes pleasure in it.
With ease, with confidence, takes pleasure—one of these is not like the others. The above sentence, revised for parallel construction, would improve clarity and rhythm.
She plays the piano with ease, with confidence, and with pleasure.
He recommended revising the plan and that the PD allocated more officers.
One side of the conjunction is a gerund and the other side isn’t. He recommended revising the plan and allocating more officers. Or, He recommended that the PD revise the plan and allocate more officers.
Pairs of Correlative Conjunctions
Correlative conjunctions take the form of:
• both X and Y
• not only X but Y
• either X or Y
• neither X nor Y
• X as well as Y.
In a pair of correlative conjunctions, the second conjunction should precede a word, phrase, or clause that parallels the first. X and Y, in other words, should have the same structure.
He both knew the place and the time of the heist.
Notice the incongruity. Knew the place includes a verb. The time does not. The word, phrase, or clause following both must match the word, phrase, or clause following and. To correct the problem, all we need to do is move the verb before the first of the two correlative conjunctions.
He knew both the place and the time of the heist.
Cut Superfluous Use of THAT
That has many grammatical forms and is used as the following:
- Pronoun (That is the man I saw; that’s something you don’t see every day.)
- Adjective (If anything had been proved that day)
- Adverb (It’s not that important.)
- Conjunction introducing a subordinate clause as the subject or object of the principal verb or a clause expressing cause, reason, purpose, aim, result or consequence, etc. (It has been brought to my attention that my instructions might have been misunderstood.)
Notice in the examples below how that is essential to connect a modifying phrase or clause to the subject or object it modifies.
- The sun that had dominated the sky began to set, and he fought a sleep that dropped his head a time or two.
- A number of rooms opened, all dark save one that cast a glow on the floor.
Now, in spite of the many uses of that, the word is overused as a carryover of our verbal habits.
Go to the beginning of your manuscript and do a control + F to find and review every instance of the word that to eliminate unnecessary use. If the meaning of the sentence is clear without that, then delete it.
- Sally thought
thatit took too long.
- I’m glad
- Did you know
thatBill swam across the Engish Channel?
- It’s safe to assume
thathe’ll be here by the time the party starts.
- She insisted
thatI wear her diamond necklace.
- He thought
thatperhaps today he would go to the movies.
- He knew
thatno one could say for sure.
THE AS OR -ING CLAUSE ERROR
Know what you’re saying. As and -ing constructions can script consecutive actions to occur simultaneously.
Glancing up, Aaron saw that the rope had snagged a limb.
Only after Aaron glances up can he see that the rope had snagged a limb. Look for and address as and -ing clause errors in your writing.
Aaron glanced up and saw that the rope had snagged a limb.
A glance up revealed that the rope had snagged a limb.
Even when these constructions don’t defy the laws of physics, they can weaken your writing. For agents, an abundance of as and -ing constructions says "amateur." Action isn’t something the writer wants to conceal in a subordinate clause, unless the action is incidental, and then he might want to cut it. Read through your novel to check for errors and overuse.
Then, Then, And Then
I’ve recently noticed a surfeit of the adverb then used as a replacement for the conjunction and. Take care if you’re among those building a then habit. Like the dialogue attribute said, and is invisible. Then, used as a conjunction or without a conjunction, is not.
Anyone familiar with Jonathan Franzen might imagine that he’s weighed in on the trend. He may not be an agent or editor, but Franzen’s opinion is shared by gatekeepers in the publishing industry.
Excerpted from his book, Farther Away: Essays—
I’m always looking for a reason to put a book down and not pick it up again, and one of the best reasons a writer can give me is to use the word then as a conjunction without a subject following it.
She lit a Camel Light, then dragged deeply.
He dims the lamp and opens the window, then pulls the body inside.
I walked to the door and opened it, then turned back to her.
If you use comma-then like this in early pages of your book, I won’t read any farther, because you’ve told me several important things about yourself as a writer, none of them good.
No native speaker would utter any of the sentences above, except in a creative-writing class. English speakers would say:
She lit a Camel Light and took a deep drag.
He dims the lamp, opens the window, pulls the body inside.
He dims the lamp and opens the window. Then he pulls the body inside.
He dims the lamp and opens the window and pulls the body inside.
When I got to the door, I turned back to her.
I went to the door and opened it. Then I turned back to her.
When you deploy a comma-then to avoid an and, you’re telling me either that you think comma-then sounds better than and, or that you’re aware that your sentences are sounding too much alike but you think you can fool me by making a cosmetic change.
Trends come and go. Ten years from now, five years from now, will your then practice be considered tacky? Experiment, be creative, but be honest. How much artistic prowess is required to swap out and for then?
REDUNDANCY: 1 + 1 = 1/2
Repetition comes in all shapes and sizes, especially with first-time novelists. The reason is a lack of confidence. Without experience to judge the impact a passage will have on readers, novices tend to drive content home more than once to ensure readers keep pace. Trouble is, readers are waiting for novices to move it along.
Chances are good that the redundant writer has underestimated his or her readers’ intelligence. As a result, his or her story revisits information readers already know, which is off-putting, sometimes condescending, and clogs up the story’s flow.
Whether it’s a go-to word or phrase, a few sentences that convey the same information, two paragraphs that establish the same personality trait, or two characters that fill the same role, repetition can sneak into your writing and rob its power.
Word repetition. In early drafts, most writers will draw from the same few words. Read through your work and look for your catch phrases and repeated words. Is there an alternative you can use? Stay away from the $10 words and look for common yet particular substitutions.
How about gestures and emotional responses? Do you grab the quickest thing that comes to mind, which is likely a cliché? Do your characters gasp, swallow, and sigh away their emotions? How might you put your creativity to use? Immerse yourself in your scenes. Don’t think, feel. Don’t think, see, hear. Then, after you’ve visited the experience, search the possibilities. What associations come to mind? Associations are a great way to show with originality.
Grief, happiness, anger, fear—our emotions have many faces. Making your hero sick to his stomach is an acceptable way to show he is upset—once. No two instances of a given emotion should be depicted with the same imagery, in the same language. The possibilities are endless, and nothing is more off-putting reading the same thing over and over. Fiction writing is difficult and time-consuming, but if you choose to write, then write.
The same-old, same-old turns gimmicky fast, according to Mark Twain who tore apart James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.
In his little box of stage properties [Cooper] kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go. A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccasined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick. Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was his broken twig…. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on a dry twig…. In fact, the Leather Stocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.
More recently, reviewers scalded Carolyn See for repetition problems in Tim Paulson’s The Real World:
This is a paean to dullness and inattention to detail…So what if on Page 117 Tom’s sister “hams up” her Southern accent and on Page 119 Mac Stuart “hams up” a Southern accent? So what if on Page 134, after Tom and Julie move to Brooklyn, “their real friends braved the three subway transfers” and on Page 335 Tom remarks: “We found out who our real friends are when they come to see us”? This is the real world, for Pete’s sake! And whoever said the real world was anything more than dull, repetitive, and boring?
Go through your novel and rewrite the sighs and gasps and swallows. You’ll be surprised by the effect. Next, read through your novel and look for redundancy. You don’t need to pound information for readers to notice. Between redundancy and understatement, choose understatement.
Tia looked Jess in the eye, her heart beating against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Tia shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with an ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.
While the example is exaggerated, we’re often blind to overwriting in our work. Notice how the tone and pace improve when we correct for repetition.
Tia looked at Jess, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the shelves. “Where could it be?”
Just then the door flew open.
Be on the watch for telling and showing. It’s not uncommon for writers to piggyback scenes with summary statements. Write authentic transitions in and out of scenes—don’t explain what just happened.
We are blind to our redundancies. Take this to heart. Dissect passages, if necessary, to see how many expressions overlap, how many words are unnecessary.
How about redundancy on a macro scale? Are you repeating dialogue or concepts every few chapters? Have you written a number of scenes to emphasize a character’s nature? Never forget that your chief responsibility is to move the story forward.
Reread your manuscript, keeping in mind what you are trying to do with each paragraph—what character point you’re trying to establish, what sort of mood you’re trying to create, what background you’re trying to suggest. In how many different ways are you accomplishing each of these ends? If more than one way, try reading the passage without the weakest approach and see if it isn’t more effective.
TIME & TEDIUM
Novelists aren’t accountable to the clock.
The phone rang. Marg walked across the room and picked it up. “Hello,” she said.
There’s no need to record the minutia that occurred between 1:00 PM and 1:01 PM. But how did Marg get to the phone? you ask. The answer—Who cares? Fiction ellipses the mundane. Trust your readers to fill in the blanks.
The phone rang. “Hello,” Marg said.
Are you tempted to skip passages when reading your novel? Sure, you’ve read it countless times, but the impulse to skip sections suggests that these sections are dull. Chances are that you need them, otherwise you probably would have cut them by now. Okay, so how can you trim them back and improve their pace? Is it possible to convert narrative to scenes? Does a scene need to be revamped? Are you telling rather than showing? How about telling and showing? Is the dialogue too long? Is the dialogue adversarial, colorful and characterizing, lifelike?
Question everything. If a word, phrase, or passage isn’t essential, no matter how much you like it, remove it. Keep your eye on the end product. Books aren’t bought because of a passage or two. Books rise to success because they engaged a reader who told someone about it… who told someone about it… who told someone about it.
“Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve often read manuscripts—including my own—where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: "This is where the novel should actually start." A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it.
Chapter by chapter, read your work as if for the first time. Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that falls flat, seems awkward, strained, or pedestrian, highlight the passage and print the page. When you’re done with the chapter, grab a clipboard, collect your printed pages, and take them on a stroll. Scientific studies have shown that walking lights up critical thinking and creative brain centers. You’ll be surprised with the results produced on these editing walks.
After you make your revisions, read the passages aloud. Listen for the rhythm, tweak if necessary. Now print the entire manuscript and get out a highlighter.
- Mark all generalities. Question whether the section has been grounded in concrete sensory detail. Examine all imagery (any object, person, or place described using one or more of the senses). Is it precise enough? Does it push the reader toward an inevitable (and complex) emotional response? If not, focus and intensify.
- Mark all metaphors and similes. Make sure they add something to the story. Also make sure you’re not over-relying on them.
- Read out loud. If you stumble, highlight the sentence.
You get the idea. Approach the process however you like, but realize that it involves multiple runs through multiple layers, multiple times. Once you’re happy with your work, put the damn thing away. Let it sit for longer than you think it should. Take a vacation, work on another project, let your mind get some distance.
And now for structural revisions, Editing Part II.