In Part One we discussed macro revisions that would improve your manuscript. Now let's look at the micro edits that will help make your manuscript shine and give it a better chance of making it through a publisher's submissions process.
Between 1992 and 2005, I read submissions for three different publishers: a lesbian press, a feminist press, and a local Twin Cities independent press. In that time, I read over 300 manuscripts, and in my opinion, the Number One problem with the majority of them was that they were submitted while in early draft stages. The authors thought they were finished, but they weren't. They hadn't dug deeply enough.
Culling and Augmenting
All writers need to be free to get the story on the page in the first draft or two. We don't want to stifle the creative impulse, nor do we need to focus on the Left Brain/Logical side of editing when we're in the early stages of a manuscript. But once the draft is complete, we eventually have to leave the Right Brain/Creative process because much work is still left to be done - and I'm not referring to formatting.
As Michael Crichton once said, "Books aren't written - they're rewritten," and he's right. No book springs from any writer's mind in perfect condition. Sometime down the line every writer has to edit and revise the work, and that entails culling out unwieldy, unworthy stuff and augmenting that which is underdeveloped.
When you're to the point where it's time to set aside that Right Brain/Creative mindset and move into the Left Brain, it's nice to have a "tool" to use, and your computer is one of the most helpful tools you could have. The Search/Replace function is a godsend. I don't know how authors edited before its advent! Instead of doing ten, fifteen, twenty-five drafts, writers can reduce their time and headaches significantly. All this requires is that you pay attention to your shortcuts, bad habits, and oversights and develop an organized approach to rewriting. We all have bad habits. Few people can write perfect prose in the rush and elation of an early draft. But we needn't be ashamed or worried about our flawed and tender first drafts; the next draft or two will clean up all of that.
A Search/Replace Tool to Treasure
Long ago, Nann Dunne taught me to make a dummy copy of my manuscript and use it to count and highlight words. (I literally call it Dummy Draft because that's how I feel when I see what I've done.) Use this tool to count and find in this way:
1) Using the dummy copy, select any word or phrase and put it in your Search tool.With the word/phrase capitalized or highlighted (or both) you can now Page Up/Down and see how often it appears. Is your manuscript shot through with "seems" or "that"? Did you include multiple uses of "look" or "then" or "walked"? Fix them.
Now let's look at key areas that you can search for and rewrite.
Passive Voice and Action That Goes Nowhere
Sheila had had a bad day. It was one for the records. She seemed to have lost her backpack, so she failed to turn in her Con Law paper which would have dire consequences come grading time. The backpack wasn't found until three hours later, too late for her to get full credit.What's wrong with this bit of a story?
1) "had had" and "seemed" immediately signal passive construction.This is weak and uninspiring writing that gives the reader nothing to imagine, much less participate in. In the heat of the first draft, often this is exactly the sort of shorthand we use to give a glimpse of the action, but far too often the writer fails to go back to clean up the scene, augment the flat parts, and make the section active.
The good news is that you can use Search/Replace to identify many types of passive construction. Try searching for the following:
You may be shocked to discover how often you use these constructions. Last year I edited a 72,000 word manuscript of approximately 6,000 sentences. 748 of those sentences started with "It was." One out of eight sentences! The author was startled when I pointed it out.
When a writer overuses passive construction, the solution is usually to cut the passive language and augment:
Sheila searched her dorm room with the thoroughness of a cat burglar. How can a flame orange bag disappear? She retraced her steps, checked the commons, asked every occupant on the floor. No luck. Her backpack was nowhere to be found. Oh, my God, she thought. Professor Dunn will kill me if I don't find my Con Law paper.This rewrite gives the reader specific details in a livelier rendition.
Lastly, I urge you to search out all instances where you write that your character "could" see or hear or feel or smell or taste or touch or sense something. If they "could" sense something, then state it: Sheila saw the orange backpack. Juan heard her cry out.
Rooting out passive language and rewriting scenes where the action is diluted (or missing) results in scenes that are more direct, engaging, and that the reader can see, hear, feel, taste, and touch.
Vary Word and Phrase Choices
In addition to passive tense and awkward sentence structure, keep in mind that readers very quickly become attuned to overused words, especially if the word is in any way unusual. For instance, by page 75 of a novel I recently read, the author had three times used the term "in the relative…." In the relative silence… In the relative warmth… In the relative heat… Isn't silence quiet? So how can it be relative? And what does relative warmth or heat tell the reader?
Every time I saw those words, I wanted to call up the author and say "Banish that phrase from your vocabulary!" The constant repetition was irritating, and it didn't give me any sort of visual or internal image of the characters or scene. After a while, it just sounded funny, and it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
The same thing goes for certain words. How often have you wanted to tell a writer to "Buy yourself a synonym dictionary"?
Sometimes the only way to find out about the overuse of a word or term is to have others read your work and point it out. It can be surprising when someone tells you that you're using "thread" or "went back" or "really" or "smoothed" or "reach" or "glad" or "very" and so on far, far too much. I know I'm always surprised that I can't recognize such overuse in my own work.
When you key into a word or phrase that you overuse or mangle, keep track of it. Put it on a formal Editing List to check against every manuscript you write. Believe me, weeding it out becomes a lot easier when you have a list that reminds you what to look for!
Some commonly overused words include:
You need not banish 100% of the instances of your usage of these words or phrases, but be aware of how often you use them. If the manuscript is packed full of any of these terms, you will want to consider how you can vary word choice and make the reading experience more enjoyable.
Using your global Search function, insert the open quotation mark (") and systematically work your way through the manuscript, looking at every single sentence or passage where characters speak. For instance, how many of us have written dialogue that looks like this:
"I will definitely take you up on your offer since I did not manage to find a way to help out, and you have been so kind."Read that out loud. Sounds like some sort of Polly Poindexter with the Staccato Science Site, doesn't it? Some of the stiffness can be avoided by inserting contractions:
"I'll definitely take you up on your offer since I didn't manage to find a way to help out, and you've been so kind."Or you could cut it down and rearrange the sentence completely:
"Thanks for the kind offer. I couldn't help out before, but I'd like to now."Search through your manuscript and decide if the following words need to be turned into contractions:
This list is not exhaustive. Keep your eyes open for other contractions that you ought to use, then add them to your Editing List.
Look for stiffness in what you write, particularly the dialogue. One of the best ways to do this is to read the work out loud, preferably to someone else. You'll likely recognize quite a bit of your clunky writing and be even more amazed at what a listener will point out.
Also beware of starting dialogue with the same repetitive words: "Well, …" or "So, …" for instance. Using those constructions may help you get into a creative rhythm in early drafts, but once you sit down to revise, you have to remove most of them because they quickly become tiresome to the reader.
Dialogue Tags and Beats
Consider your dialogue tags carefully. Root out unnecessary, inaccurate, and/or ridiculous dialogue tags (chuckled, hissed, huffed, returned, replied, giggled, sighed, etc.). Delete all but said and asked except in rare instances. If you can do without tags (especially in two-person conversations), cut as many of them as possible. When you have three or more speaking, however, make sure you have been careful to let the reader know who speaks.
Stan said, "I won't stand for it!"I'm confused, and I'm jarred out of the story because I'm not sure who is speaking. How many of them are there?
Stan said, "I won't stand for it!"The revision makes us aware that a third person is speaking. We still don't know the third speaker's name, but that doesn't matter.
Note also that instead of dialogue tags, a bit of narrative can also be used to identify the speaker: The silent man slouching against Stan's car straightened up and came over. This sentence creates a physical beat, and you'll want to look carefully to determine whether you should be varying your pace and style by augmenting your story with them.
We have to be careful not to overdo physical beats, though, especially when using repetitive physical activity.
Stan shook his head. "I won't stand for it!"All that non-consequential movement - nodding and head shaking and pursing lips - does little to illuminate anything, and gets tiresome for the reader. Do a global search through your manuscript for words and word forms such as:
How many times have you heard editors and teachers tell you to cut down on the use of adverbs? Occasional adverbs are fine, but when overused, they detract from the reading experience.
Sheila was really upset that she'd misplaced her backpack in Juan's car. When she tearfully told Juan that her Con Law grade was likely to drop from a solid A- to a C+, she very nearly lost it.Four sentences, and we've got really, tearfully, likely, very, nearly, regretfully, and slowly. Too too much!
As soon as Sheila saw her orange backpack in Juan's front seat, she burst into tears. "Oh, no, my Con Law grade just dropped from a solid A- to a C+. What am I going to do?"Instead of being told Sheila is upset, the revision shows how upset she is. Instead of the narrator telling us that she informs Juan about her grades, Sheila tells him. Rather than Juan speaking regretfully, the feeling statements he makes and his getting out of the car reveal his concern to the reader. This version is much more active and is easier to visualize. In addition, we feel sympathy for both characters because we understand their actions and their feelings much better.
Although not all adverbs end in LY, many of them do. You can run a global Search for "ly" and find a great many and see if you can cull them out.
Special Dialogue Note: Most adverbs are useless with dialogue tags. Usually, the way characters speak and what they say should tell the reader enough. For instance, we know Juan is regretful above - he's said he's sorry! The reader doesn't need to be clobbered over the head with information that is already quite clear in the dialogue.
Another troublesome area shows up when using adjectives that indicate size, distance, or measurement. No reader can get a visual of an item described as "small" or "large," "big" or "tiny." A "big" pair of gloves for you might have me swimming in them. A "little" seasoning in your taco might constitute enough to choke me half to death with its peppery flavor.
The same goes for distance words. How far is "a long ways"? How close is "nearby"? Without indicating mileage or what your character can see or the time needed to travel the distance, the reader can't get an idea, much less a picture, of what the character is encountering.
Indicating measurements or denoting numbers is also tricky. "Many," "few," and "several" give no picture, no real clues as to what you're trying to describe.
If you feel you must use generalized adjectives, you'd do best to include description that contrasts or compares so the reader understands what they mean:
Flat/Boring: The car was small.Without comparison or contrast, words like "little" and "big" and "near" mean nothing. Either cut them out and replace them with more specific adjectives or work hard to quantify them so the reader can see, hear, feel, and believe in the vision you are trying to relate.
You can do global Searches on these words and word forms:
1) Check character name spellings for consistency throughout.
2) Check abbreviated words (phys ed, Con Law, etc.) and initialed words (E.R. or ER? D.A. or DA?) and make sure they're standard and consistent throughout.
3) Numbers - spell out zero through one hundred. 101, 102, 103 and so forth are usually represented in numerals. Round amounts such as hundred, thousand, tens of thousands, etc. get spelled out.
4) Foreign spellings and usages and use of any other language in the text requires careful spelling. Make sure that common foreign words are punctuated correctly (déjà vu, café, etc.).
5) Double-check occupation frequency when referring to characters (the detective, the tech, the clerk, her lover, etc.) to make sure you're not overdoing it. When in doubt, use the character's name.
6) Watch out for the involuntary movement of body parts - hands, eyes, etc. moving without owner's volition. Unless the character is possessed by demons, as the owner of the body part, she should be in charge of its action. My favorite "Howler" is "her eyes darted around the room." I can't help but see a pair of cartoon eyes flitting from one side of the room to the other, and that's usually not what the author means at all! Instead: She gazed around the room. He peered across the room. She took in her surroundings in a split second… Any of those will work.
One other resource you may find useful is WORDCOUNTER, found here: http://www.wordcounter.com/
You can paste in large tracts of text - say, a chapter at a time - and Wordcounter ranks the most frequently used words in any given body of text. (You can signal it to ignore common words such as "I," "and," "a," "of," "the," "an," "to," "or" "in," and so forth.) Use the Wordcounter to help you see what words you overuse. I inputted this article and discovered to my happiness that the word most often used was "word," which is as it should be.
The Wordcounter may be particularly helpful to writers of first-person point of view. Select "Include Small Words," and if you've overused "I," this may give you a clue.
As they say at the site: "Wordcounter is useful for writers, editors, students, and anyone who thinks that they might be speaking redundantly or repetitively - and it's free!" Can't beat that.
Creating a micro revision cheatsheet that works for everyone is impossible, because each of us has individual quirks, shortcuts, and bad habits. But you can make a sheet for yourself by keeping track of your own idiosyncracies.
This sort of work on your manuscript is often slow and tedious, but it affords you a fresh and revealing method for examining the effectiveness of the sentences you write. Taking sentences out of context helps you to really SEE where your writing is stiff or repetitive, and seeing the patterns that mar your writing will help speed up the creation of better drafts.
I urge you to try it. Your readers will certainly appreciate it, your editors will love you for it, and your manuscript will have a fighting chance of being accepted for publication.
© 2007 Lori L. Lake
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.