David Louis Edelman September 4th, 2007
I just finished revising the manuscript for my second novel, and I’ve got line editing on the brain. Here are ten easy steps you can take on that nearly-done manuscript that will significantly tighten up your prose and improve your final product.
1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both “weasel” words that lessen the impact of your prose and useless modifiers that emphasize for no reason. Words like possibly, simply, really, totally, very, supposedly, seriously, terribly, allegedly, utterly, sort of, kind of, usually, extremely, almost, mostly, practically, probably, and quite. Why write “It was quite hot out that day” or “It was extremely hot that day” when the sentence “It was hot that day” accomplishes the same thing? The more clutter you can get rid of, the better your sentences will be.
2. Eliminate clichés. What’s a cliché? A cliché is any phrase so commonplace the reader speeds right past it without even realizing they’ve done so. The metaphor is wasted. When you say someone’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, do you actually picture someone scraping the bottom of a barrel? When someone’s monkeying around or driving like a maniac, do you actually think of monkeys or drooling lunatics? Better to have plain, unadorned prose than prose filled with clichés. This doesn’t mean you need to strike out every last familiar phrase from your manuscript; you just need to be conscious of what each word in your story is doing. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has a helpful feature that will automatically underline clichés with a green squiggly line. Give it a try.
3. Eliminate repeated words and phrases. I’m not just talking about redundant phrases that are redundant. In going through my book, I discovered my characters were rasping things every two pages. A certain character was constantly described as panther-like. And every time people stopped to think, they would “fold their arms before their chest” or “roll their eyes.” Use your word processor’s search function to hunt these repeated phrases down, then use the thesaurus to find replacements. They don’t have to be fancy words, just different ones. My rule of thumb is that really striking words shouldn’t be repeated at all within the same chapter, and only repeated a few times in the same book. For more common words and phrases, just make sure they’re not repeated too close together.
4. Search for extraneous thats and hads. Perhaps this is just a shortcoming of my own prose, but I’ve noticed that I tend to stick in way too many thats and hads. Quick example: “He had been talking about how he had needed to get new glasses” could be phrased better as “He talked about how he needed new glasses,” or even “He talked about needing new glasses.” That often sneaks in between clauses in a sentence when it’s not really needed. “I knew that I was robbed” can be tweaked down to “I knew I was robbed.” (Often this is a function of choosing a better tense; see #9 below.)
5. Straighten out your mixed metaphors. Jumbling metaphors together in a big stew of words is my Achilles’ heel. I actually like the effect that comes from clobbering the reader with a smorgasbord of different metaphors. But you have to know when to stick to your guns and when to cool it. If you’re riddled with doubt about a particular sentence, try treating every word absolutely literally to see if the sentence pans out. Make sure you’re conscious of every metaphor in your prose; they shouldn’t slip in there unbidden.
6. Look up any word you’re not positive you know. I don’t care if that word only has one syllable and your eight-year-old kid uses it every day. You absolutely need to know what every word in your story means (and you need to make sure you’ve spelled it correctly). There are free online dictionaries aplenty, not to mention Google, so you have no excuse for using words improperly.
7. Use that thesaurus. Some writing experts will tell you the thesaurus is a dangerous tool. Phooey. Find a thesaurus you’re comfortable with, whether it be paper-based or CD-based or online-based, and use that sucker. That doesn’t mean you need to start throwing obscure words into the text where they don’t belong; as a general rule, you should only use words you were already familiar with anyway. (See #6 above.) If you’re writing about a baseball game, your players can’t always throw the ball every time. They need to toss, hurl, lob, pitch, fling, and even fire off that ball too. Once in a while, they might actually catapult, flick, or chuck it.
8. When in doubt, try the Delete key. Sometimes I’ll find myself stuck on a particular sentence I can’t quite wrestle into submission. I’ll scan through the thesaurus, I’ll rearrange the words half a dozen different ways, and it still doesn’t work. Then I’ll just start hitting the delete button and suddenly, like magic, the whole thing comes together. Don’t get so attached to any particular piece of prose that you’re blinded to its shortcomings. Sometimes the perfect sentence can be used in the wrong place, and you need to be able to slice it out if necessary.
9. Try changing tenses. It’s very easy to slip into certain tenses that needlessly complicate your prose. Tenses like the past progressive (“I was doing something”) and the present perfect (“He has done this forever”) tend to get very confusing very quickly. You can’t always avoid the more complicated tenses, but the less you use of them the better. See if you can switch the scene/sentence/paragraph to simple past instead (“I did something”). Consult this handy Verb Tense Chart from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Perfect example: the original version of the first sentence on this page. Originally it read, “Having just completed revising the manuscript for my second novel, I’ve got line editing on the brain at the moment.”
10. Rewrite, rephrase, reconfigure. Unfortunately, despite the Romantic picture many of us have of the writing process, prose does not just flow down from the Muse and magically burst through your fingertips. Even the best artists need to constantly rework and revise what they’ve written. It’s work. Of course, for most of us writers it’s fun work. But just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about your craft. Piano players practice scales, painters make preliminary sketches, and writers go through lots of drafts. That’s just how the process works. If you want to know the most important lesson I’ve learned about making art, it’s this: the stuff that looks the easiest is usually the hardest to pull off. Jackson Pollock? Raymond Carver? Ernest Hemingway? Andy Warhol? These dudes worked their asses off to put together works of art that look effortless.