I've been doing some editing lately, so this week's post is going to be part one of a two part series on editing. This week: The Ten-Point Checklist.
Next week: Dialogue.
Several years ago, I carried around a list of "ways to edit your story" that I had physically cut out of an issue of On Spec. This was pre-2004, so don't ask me which issue, because I've moved twice since then and most of those magazines and files are long-recycled. Over the years, I have added my own bullets to the list, so this isn't plagiarizing, more like complimenting and crediting where credit is due, because frankly, I can't remember which are theirs and which are mine any longer.
The most important word to keep in your mind at all times is: TIGHTEN. You want your prose to be tighter. Saying it in fewer words is ALWAYS better. Less is More.
Ten Problems to Look For When Editing
(1) Edit out "filter" verbs that filter the action.
For example: Joe wanted to start studying for the quiz, but he hated to study.
Here, the verbs "wanted" and "start" are filtering the verb "studying." Verbs give the story gusto, and if all of your verbs are trapped in layers of filtered sediment, your story will feel weak.
Tighter: Joe fiddled with the pencil, aware that he must study or he would bomb the quiz.
(2) Watch for duplications of words that appear too close together. In the earlier example, the words "studying" and "study" are in the same sentence. In the revised version, the second reference is gone.
(3) Watch for the over-use of adverbs and adjectives. Sometimes too much description makes me (personally) want to get out "old red" and start marking up a novel I'm reading. I realize some authors are famous for their amazingly luscious and delightful purple prose, but at some point, a tree only needs to be a tree and if the author is describing every leaf and branch I'm going to skim-read. One of the quickest ways to nip this issue is to do a search through your document for "ly" (to catch most adverbs) and the comma (which will catch long lists of adjectives).
For example: He quickly ran to her side. Her long, brown, dirty, dishevelled hair hung limp at the edges of her scruffy face, as though she had been trapped and shaken in a shake-n-bake bag full of mud. He gently brushed wisps of hair from her eyes, and softly whispered, "I love you."
How else do we run, but quickly? How else do we whisper, but softly? Plus, the metaphor says pretty much everything we need to know about her appearance, doesn't it?
Tighter: He ran to her side. She looked a mess, from her hair to her toes, like a pork chop caught in a shake-n-bake mud-bag. He brushed her hair from her eyes, and said, "I love you."
(4) Change up sentence structure. In the previous example, every sentence in the paragraph begins with the structure: she/he + verb.
Tighter: Sprinting, he caught up to her, knelt in the sand, and brushed stands of hair from her eyes. Head to toe, her disastrous appearance brought to mind the image of a pork chop caught in a shake-n-bake mud-bag. A smile broke across his lips. "I love you."
(Notice I also eliminated the repetition of "hair" and managed to use action to avoid the need of his "said" dialogue tag. This version might be about the same length, but I've included more detail that adds a sense of "truth" to the prose.)
(5) Remove "cheat" words. I've read many an article over the years stating that editors have "bugaboo" words that make them instantly reject your story. These are words that makes us crazy, words that are used too often, and show laziness on the writer's part. Some of the culprits: just, a lot, let, went, very, really, even, and the ever-popular was. Though I don't object to the verb "was," remember that verbs give your story life, and you can often come up with a more exciting and descriptive verb to take its place. Again, the search feature is your friend.
Feel free to add your own "irritating words" in the comments section below. -->
(6) The construct, "it was" is almost always unnecessary. As are its annoying cousins, there was, there is, they were, etc. You can almost always re-write the sentence to cut out the construct and still make your point.
For example: It was cold in the basement. Shelly pulled two blankets from the sofa and wrapped each of them around her shoulders. They were thread-bare and didn't do much to warm her. It was going to be a long night if she didn't keep moving to stay warm.
Now, without the construct: The cold basement chilled Shelly to the bone. She pulled first one, then another blanket from the sofa and wrapped them around her shoulders. Even in the dim light, she caught bright spots through the multitude of holes and tears in the fabric. With a long night of research ahead, constant movement would be a necessary bother.
(7) Each Other vs. One Another.
Traditionally, "each other" refers to the interaction between two people and "one another" refers to the interaction between more than two people.
For example: Bob and Mary were in love with each other. The baseball players kept one another motivated during the streak by wearing mismatched socks.
(8) Said-isms like asked, insisted, intoned, snorted, yelled, sighed, etc, distract the reader. They jump out of the page, getting in the way of the reader's interest in the actual dialogue. If you write the dialogue well, the inflection will be obvious. The word "said" is almost always enough, and it is such a transparent word that it helps to brighten the other words on the page.
"Don't shoot," he yelled.
"I won't," she cried, her hands trembling. "Not unless you make me."
Trying to calm her, he set the gun down slowly, and asked, "Can you trust me?"
I will speak more about dialogue tomorrow. Briefly, today, you could use the word "said" or use action to indicate the speaker in each instance.
"Don't shoot!" he said.
"I won't." Her hands trembled. "Not unless you make me."
Trying to calm her, he set the gun down. "Trust me. Please?"
(9) Open and Close quotes irritate me greatly. They are easy to miss when you're typing two or three thousand words in one sitting, which I often do when I'm on a roll. The easiest way to check for them is to do a search on the quote. Then use the symbol in the bottom right hand corner of your MS Word screen -- that little >> to skip from one quote to the next. (Smile if you didn't know about that little feature.) While you're skipping say the phrase, "Open, Close" in your head to keep track of which is which. I can't tell you how many times I have found a missing quote mark in my document before submitting a story using this technique. You'll look more professional for it.
Remember the rule, though, that if you have two paragraphs of dialogue by the same speaker, the first ends without a close quote to indicate that the speaker in the next paragraph is the same. (Though personally, I would add some action to keep the reader interested, or you end up with what feels like a preachy-speechy situation.)
(10) The Gut-Check The best way to perform a gut-check on your story is to read it aloud. You might have to do this more than once for the gut-check to fully succeed.
What's a gut-check? That feeling you get when you're reading your story and there's one sentence, or one paragraph, or one metaphor that feels WRONG. When you read it, you get that gnawing feeling in your gut or you squirm in your seat or you stop reading and start tapping your pen or biting your nails.
Your gut knows you need to cut the words from the story. Listen to your gut.
Sometimes, the first time I sense the gut-feeling, I might ignore it, as though maybe I was reading too quickly, or I was distracted, or I have to fix something above or below to try to make that grouping of words fit. But if I get the same gut-feeling on the next read-through I MUST listen.
I won't provide an example. Every gut is different. But I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.
So that's my (and partly On-Spec's) Ten-Point Checklist.
Get out "old red" and start editing. Remember, less is more.