There isn’t always a hard line between the writing and the editing process.
We run several versions of a sentence through our head before writing it; immediately after writing it, we may change the sentence again. Almost every time I open my document to do some writing, I’ll see a change I can make to the words I wrote the day before. We all edit constantly.
But when you’ve reached ‘The End’ and have yourself a complete story, that’s when it’s time to give that story a hard look and really take the knife to it. Below are some areas you should focus on when you begin editing.
When we’re in the process of splashing out words for a new story, we all find ourselves writing words we don’t need, repeating words, and being hacks in general. I’ve composed a list of ‘filler’ words that I’ve found most often in my own work. Search for, and delete them!
- Very: Delete any that aren’t in dialogue.
- Almost: Delete unless it is specifically necessary for a thing to almost be, instead of just being.
- Nearly: Same as above.
- Really: Delete if it’s being used as an adverb, unless in dialogue.
- Still: When used to show something is continuing, you can delete it 90% of the time. To show something is motionless, often you can use a better word. (I bet you’ve used ‘still’ a dozen times for that already.)
- Towards: Can almost always be changed to ‘at’ or ‘to’ or be removed.
- Turn: My characters are constantly turning this way and that (even turning towards things!) and most of it is unnecessary.
- Feel/felt: Jane felt the water lapping gently at her feet. versus The water lapped gently at Jane’s feet. The only reason to say feel/felt is if the character wasn’t feeling it before and now is, otherwise you can take it for granted that they can feel it.
- Watch/see/saw: Same as above. Unless there is a real need to make it clear that something is visible to your character, we can assume that the viewpoint character can see what you are describing. Jane saw and heard the waves splashing, and felt them lap her toes. Seems silly now, right?
A passive sentence is written in such a way that it doesn’t show the character taking any action. As all of the examples in this article, passivity can’t always be avoided, but is something to watch out for. For example:
The whole house was destroyed by the fire.
This makes it seem like the fire is something passively happening to the house. To make it active we can write it like this: The fire destroyed the whole house.
We’ve all been there, we find a new favourite word and then without even realising it, proceed to use it five times on the same page. Whenever you notice a word used more than once on a page, it’s worth doing a word search of your entire document to find out how many times you used that word in your whole story.
Of course, certain words can’t avoid being used lots of times, but it doesn’t hurt to try. We should at least avoid repeating words in the same paragraph.
Use a thesaurus to find replacement words, or rewrite the sentence so you don’t need to use the word at all.
Bad sentence structure
Sentences should be constructed to convey what you are trying to say clearly and concisely. I find that certain types of sentence structures easily lend themselves to confusion, and should be avoided. Here are some examples:
Opening the door, Jane buttoned up her jacket against the wind.
What is meant by this sentence? There is an implied ‘while’ before the word ‘opening’, so does this mean that Jane is buttoning her jacket while opening the door? What is probably meant is that she opened the door and then buttoned her jacket, and so that is how it should be written: Jane opened the door and buttoned up her jacket against the wind.
Slurping his cereal loudly, wondering what the day would bring, John got ready for work.
This tendency some writers have to string together actions can be very confusing. Is John walking around getting ready while eating his cereal and wondering about his day? If not, don’t write it that way. Try instead: John slurped his cereal loudly, wondering what the day would bring. (It makes perfect sense to do those two things at once.) Then he got ready for work.
Door closed, Jane unbuttoned her jacket and pulled off her cap.
This kind of sentence usually occurs if, in this example, Jane previously had some trouble closing the door, and now, with the door closed, she is able to unbutton her jacket. Not only is this stylistically unappealing, but it can be confusing. Does this mean ‘the door closed,’ as in, it closed on its own, or the wind blew it closed? Try writing what you mean to say which might look something like this: Having closed the door, Jane unbuttoned her jacket and pulled off her cap.
Cereal finished, John tightened his tie and set out for another day at the office.
Again, this structure is indicative of the kind of placeholder sentence we might write in a first draft. Even though this sentence is not unclear, it leaves plenty to be desired. I can hardly avoid reading the first two words in a cave-man style grunt. Try spicing it up a bit: John scooped the last soggy cheerio out of the bottom of his bowl, tightened his tie, and set out for another day at the office.
I’m guilty of this in my early drafts. I’ll be writing a scene, and without realising it I say the same thing multiple times, in different ways, as if feeling out how I want to stay it. This can be useful for the process, but don’t leave it in! This one can sometimes be subjective, and is very contextual, but here is an example:
Jane had never been to Vegas before. She’d always wanted to go, but had never pulled the trigger. Now, with clanging slot machines and flashing lights all around her, the dream seemed silly and trite. She felt cheated and unfulfilled.
Here we have four sentences, but a lot of these words are saying the same things as each other. We can combine and reduce this into two sentences as follows:
Jane always wanted to go to Vegas, but had never pulled the trigger. Now, with clanging slot machines and flashing lights all around her, the dream seemed trite and she felt cheated.
Instead of saying that Jane had never been to Vegas, we can just say that she always wanted to go, which implies that she’d never been before. Silly and trite have very similar meanings, as do cheated and unfulfilled, so we pick one of each and combine the sentences.
Show, don’t tell
This is one of the most common pieces of writing advice, and one that many people have a hard time understanding. I’ll give some simple examples that show how easy it can be to show instead of tell.
John was angry.
These simple statements of an emotion can almost always be improved on. Even something as simple as John knitted his brow in fury, is an improvement. However, if you really want to avoid telling, you need to work some actions into the scene that show us what John is feeling instead of telling us. For example: John cursed and pounded his fist on the table. These actions clearly show me that John is angry, without you having to tell me.
Jane hated skiing.
If Jane is a main character, and this is a key character trait, you might want to take a bit of effort and write a scene or two that show her hating skiing. However, if you just need to quickly show it, you could write something to the effect of: Jane tossed the ski onto the ground like a dirty sock and wiped her fingers on her trouser leg. “Ugh, no, I’m never wearing another one of those, not after last time!”
Listen to feedback!
Finally, the most important thing to do when editing is to receive and listen to feedback from as many sources as possible. Different people will notice different things and we humans are notoriously bad at seeing problems in our own work. Don’t be afraid to show your work to your other writer friends, and be sure to take what they say seriously, even if you don’t end up implementing it. Once you’ve edited your piece, you can even to send it to us for proofreading.