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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Editing Line by Line and Word by Word - Writing Series Week 7

Before we move into today’s subject let’s take a minute to review the full process of inspiration and perspiration. First, we must have a good handle on what Christian writing is and our purpose for undertaking this task. Next, we purposely posture ourselves to receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit in the shape of our “lump of clay” writing. If we already have an idea, we search for input from the Holy Spirit  as to what we should do with the idea. We must realize that inspiration is not enough and be willing to do the hard work, or the perspiration, of the writing process. Once we have gotten our initial ideas down on paper, we should take time to structure the ideas through an outline or a plot summary. We write the book, using fictional and artistic elements to strengthen the basic story or premise. We edit chapter by chapter and scene by scene to make sure we have utilized these elements to their full potential and balanced them well.

Which brings us to today. Just as we went through each scene to make sure it pulled its weight and lived up to its full potential, we must also search our manuscripts paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. This is the sort of in depth crafting that is the mark of a true artist.
Here are some of the things you can look for concerning paragraphs. Are paragraphs divided properly to keep the story flowing effectively? Could long paragraphs be divided? Could sentences within paragraphs be combined for greater efficiency of language? Could powerful sentences be set apart in their own short paragraph for greater impact? In dialogue, does each paragraph represent a single speaker’s words, thoughts, and actions?

On a sentence by sentence basis ask yourself if every sentence is necessary. Could redundant sentences be removed? Is punctuation working in an effective manner? Could complex sentences be changed for stronger parallelism? Should long sentences be broken into two? Try not to use words more than once in close proximity unless you are intentionally creating a sense of refrain.

Now we get to the true nitty gritty. Word by word editing. First realize that just like in a poem, we want to use each word to its maximum benefit. I mentioned in my “Top Twenty Things I Wish I Knew Before Writing My First Novel” that you should pay yourself $.25 for every word you can remove. Economy of language is a clear sign of an experienced writer. A possible exception is in dialogue, but remember that fictional dialogue is representative speech, not actual speech. Readers will not put up with rambling ineffectual dialogue.

Here are the types of words you can look to remove. Begin with excess adverbs and adjectives. Adjectives are good when used selectively, however, don’t string together lists of adjectives with similar meanings. Chose the best one and delete the rest. Adverbs are almost a bad word in fiction, but sometimes they can be effective. Begin by removing words like "very" and "really" that don’t “really” add anything to the sentence. (I told my husband recently that maybe if he said "very" three or four times in a sentence he would convince me it was important. Note the sarcasm.)  Do a find search for “ ly” and remove any adverbs that aren’t strengthening the meaning of the sentence. Try to replace an adverb/verb combo with a stronger verb if possible. When do you keep an adverb? Only when it changes the meaning of the verb and there is no verb to take its place.

Remove statements of the obvious like “stood to her feet.” Remove or replace any words you tend to overuse, or so called “weasel words.” Examples would be: just, well, still, oh, that, had. I’m sure you’ll figure out your own list before long. Remove helping verbs and linking verbs as much as possible. Of course they are sometimes needed. “Had” is needed to enter and exit that past perfect tense. If you have long segments full of helping verbs, see if you can move the segment to a more active moment. Strong action verbs that really “show” something happening are always the best choice.

And speaking of verbs, be sure to keep your book in a consistent verb tense. Most novels are written in past tense. A few are written in present tense. This is a new trend, but hard to execute. Others are written in the present tense with long sections of flashback in past tense. This can work well. When you find yourself in the past perfect (had run, had gone, etc…) tense, this is probably a recollection. If the segment is long, consider changing it to its own flashback scene. One of the clearest signs of an amateur writer is lack of control over the verb tense. So whatever you choose, make sure you do it well and consistently.

Another area to check into on a word by word basis is the accuracy of your word choice, especially in historical, legal, and scientific stories. Most writers of American and English historicals check to make sure that each word they choose existed and was used in that sense at the time they are writing. That’s a lot of work. Trust me, I know. While I couldn’t limit myself to words available in the 1300s for my medieval novel because the English language was still evolving and unrecognizable to most contemporary readers, I did make every effort to choose words available by the time of Shakespeare and King James when the language stabilized into Modern English. Even if you get the words right, watch out for longer sayings, expressions, and figures of speech. For example, I discovered the word “tackle” only applied to fishing supplies until the invention of American football in the 1800’s. And the word “teenager” is actually a modern invention as well, since people took on adult responsibilities at a much younger age throughout history.

That brings me to what most people think about in reference to editing: those hundreds of spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. I will tell you what I tell my college students. “If you haven’t learned them by now, I’m not going to try to teach them to you.” Here’s what you need to know. If you aren’t good at English, get help. I usually ask at least five well educated friends to read my manuscripts and look for errors, and I’m an English teacher! It’s just too easy to overlook your own mistakes. If you expect that you will have extensive errors, then consider paying a copy editor. It’s not cheating to get help. You’ve written an entire book for crying out loud.

Give yourself and your manuscript the respect that you deserve by making sure it is edited well before sending it to agents or publishers. The days of publishers being willing to overlook mediocre grammar in otherwise great writing are long gone with the manual typewriter. We now have computers, spell check, online grammar resources, countless editorial services. Messy manuscripts are considered lazy manuscripts. Agents and publishers will not put up with them. There are thousands of well-written, properly edited manuscripts waiting in a pile to take their place.

Of course, after all that hard work, you will still have basic typing errors. Even most published manuscripts have a few. But try to get rid of as many as possible. The cleaner your manuscript, the happier your potential agents and publishers will be. Here are some of the steps I personally take my manuscripts through to ensure that every word is perfect.

1. Read on paper
2. Read out loud
3. Have a voice to speech program read it to me
4. Ask friends and family members to read it

And after all of that, you should finally have a strong manuscript. Then you begin part two of your very long and tedious journey. Finding a way to get that book out into the world. Come back next week as we will wrap up the series by discussing how to see your book through to publication.

Homework – take one to three pages of your lump of clay writing, and turn it into a finished product.


  1. It sounds painful..but necessary. I can see how this is what makes or breaks a good writer. This is so helpful. Thank you.

  2. Jan, I hope it was helpful to at least point you in the right direction. I was able to go into more detail in the live class. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a great resource if you haven't read it yet.

  3. At this level of editing, the AutoCrit Editing Wizard is invaluable.

    It's great at finding those overused and repeated words, areas of slow pacing, etc. I love it!

  4. Thanks Janine. Great advice. I've heard of these programs, but haven't tried one yet.

  5. This was good as I had not thought about the way I was using verbage.

  6. I'll add some emphasis on the reading aloud suggestion. It can't be replaced by reading to yourself and I go as far as to record myself reading a chapter aloud. I'm amazed at the difference it makes.

    Unfortunately my recorded chapter has a lot of pauses as I stop to change something on the paper!

  7. I agree, Deb. It's unbelievable what you learn by reading out loud. I especially had fun reading my Dandelion novel with British accents ;) I really like using an electronic reader too. The robotic voice helps me catch completely different types of problems. Sometimes you think your words are carrying certain meanings or emotions that just aren't there when you remove the intonations.

  8. Henrietta FrankenseeMarch 28, 2011 at 7:14 PM

    A manuscript is a living being, growing and shrinking at the same time. Each time I pass by something comes and something goes according to my latest advancement in knowledge, a little here and a little there.
    I believe I should create and perfect to my limit before passing it on to an editor, however, I am always learning. Oh well, I leave the timing and managing to my Author. Most definitely He sent me to your site!

  9. Now that my first book is about to release for publication, I find myself wanting to go through it and apply everything I've learned in the past few months since the last big revision. We're always learning and growing as writers. I'm sure most writers look back at their early stuff and wish they could change it, but it's all part of the journey.

  10. Thank you for all the invaluable information you have shared in this class so far. As I've been going through one of many, many edits on my novel the past couple of weeks, I've found that the things I'm learning from this class are perfectly timed with questions that come up as I fine-tune my story. I did go through and complete a plot skeleton a la Angela Hunt a few weeks ago and found it extremely helpful. Your class has been a great encouragement to me during my doubtful moments too. :)

  11. I'm so glad to hear that Allison! I'm more of an artist than a craftsman, and not much one to insist on "rules." But, I do think it's important to edit in the right order. Otherwise you end up wasting a lot of time.