This post originally showed up when I was a co-blogger on Books Are Bread. However, in order to start things up again, I’m reposting it here where I will continue the feature.
I have a slightly obsessive personality. So when I get into something I do a lot of research and (over) analyze the heck out of it. So when I first began writing and revising, I went a little editing cuh-razy. However, something good came from it, I had a lot of thoughts about editing habits/revising. So, I decided to chronicle my adventures in revising.
(NOTE: a lot of this advice caters specifically to the YA genre. Adult and MG genres might allow more liberties in some of these areas, but I will try to point out where that could occur)
First up, Throwaway Words.
I read a lot of these posts and they’re always helpful, but as I read, it seemed like these “throwaway words” fell under two categories: Words you can search for in a document (Ctrl + F) and words that you need to find by reading with a fine-toothed comb.
WORDS YOU CAN CTRL + F
These are words that probably don’t add to the story. So my practice is to Ctrl + F for them when I revise, read each sentence and see if I can delete. 99% of the time, the answer is “yes.”
Unnecessary modifiers – words that don’t add to the sentence, except to stress an action. However, sometimes simpler is better. For example:
He wasn’t really hungry.
Getting rid of the “really” doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence and, in this case, the word “really” made the sentence less declarative.
– kind of
– a little (bit)
– had to/have to
Words that frame everything from the MCs POV – These words make you see actions and events as the MC sees them. That’s fine if it’s a paragraph that describes the MCs emotions, but if it’s just them observing an action, it can be cut to explaining that the action occurred. For example:
He could see the drops of rain falling fell on the pavement in fat splatters before the heavens opened in a torrential downpour.
Here it was unnecessary to describe the rain from the MCs POV, he is not having an emotional reaction to it as he sees it, therefore, it is just a description of the setting around him. This can be told to the reader directly instead of filtering it through the MC.
(You can think of it as giving the reader first-hand information as opposed to second-hand. First-hand is always more reliable so let the readers experience it for themselves.)
Words that say the same thing twice/unnecessary clarifications: If a character nods, then it means they nodded their head. Unless they’re nodding something else, you don’t need to clarify what it is. And if a character does an action, usually they just started doing it, so no need to say “started to” before a verb. For example:
He started to stand stood.
– nodded (her/his/my head)
– started to
Also, modifiers of an action are often unnecessary, but the ones that are particularly unnecessary are things that say the same thing the verb does. What I mean here, is that if someone is running, then I will assume they are moving fast/quickly. Unless someone is moving as super sonic speeds, then there is no reason to tell me how fast they’re running.
– ran fast/quickly
– walked slowly
– whispered quietly
– yelled/shouted loudly
There’s a more dynamic way to explain the hyperbole actions. For example, if someone is walking exceedingly slow then don’t just say “walked slowly” try to say something like “shuffled forward” or “dragging his feet through the gravel until he had fallen well behind everyone else.”
FINE-TOOTHED COMB EDITING
Now for the harder stuff. Things that are more subjective in your story and that you can’t just find with searching the document.
adverbs (-ly) – words that are there to modify the verb. If the verb needs modifying then maybe you can find a better verb to explain what you mean. Often times adverbs clutter up the prose and are unnecessary. For example:
He was definitely angry at her.
Here it is fine to just say he was angry at her. The sentence is enough without the adverb to know that he is upset.
(Caveat is if it is told from a very distinct voice, actually any rule can be broken if the point is to have a very quirky narrative voice. Just make sure you’re writing it very distinctly so that there is no confusing a quirky character voice with bad grammar.)
Adjectives – If you’re starting to think you see a trend here about modifiers, then you’re right. Often times they just clutter up our stories. Not to say they aren’t useful sometimes, but if they are what you are depending on to stress an emotion or mood, then try to think of more dynamic ways to explain things. For example:
He ran across the hard, black surface of the asphalt, his feet slapping against the ground as he sprinted.
(The only place where adjectives could be helpful is in description of a new character. Calling someone tall, fat, hairy, thin is fine if it is to give the reader a clearer picture of the person. But I encourage you to find a more creative way to describe characters. Instead of saying “the fat man” you can try “he was so plump and soft that she imagined he was made of Pillsbury dough instead of flesh and bone.”)
First words of sentences: Do all of your sentences start with “He” “She” “NAME OF CHARACTER” or “I”? Don’t worry, we all do it sometimes. We get caught up in describing the action of a character, and we end up just starting each sentence with the subject. If you find yourself doing this in some sections, just think of more dynamic ways to order some of your sentences. For example:
Eli carefully unhooked the guard’s key ring from his belt, he didn’t want to jar the sleeping belua. Eli stepped over the sleeping guard and moved to the heavy doors. He studied the entrance, it led to a dark staircase, illuminated only by a torch at the top landing. Eli took it from the sconce and held it high to light the way. Eli hesitated as a shiver raced down his spine, this place gave him the creeps. He’d heard one too many stories about the terror of the Under. But he pushed his anxiety away as he resolutely made his way down the steps.
Whew, I liked using “he” and “Eli” a little too much to start every sentence in this paragraph, but with a little tweaking:
Eli carefully unhooked the guard’s key ring from his belt,Carefully unhooking the guard’s key ring Eli clenched his teeth in concentration, he didn’t want to jar the sleeping belua. Eli stepped over the sleeping guard and With the keys secured, he moved to the heavy doors. He studied the entrance, The entrance led to a dark staircase, illuminated only by a torch at the top landing. Eli took it from the sconce and held it high to light the way. Eli hesitated as A shiver raced down his spine, this place gave him the creeps. He’d heard one too many stories about the terror of the Under. But he pushed his anxiety away as he resolutely made his way down the steps. (The Astrum Wars)
Now the paragraph sounds much more dynamic, changing a few words around to make it seem less repetitive makes the narration flow much better. (If you’re having problems identifying these types of problem passages, try reading the story aloud to yourself, it really highlights the words that show up too often or that sound awkward)
NOTE: When doing line edits, make sure you’re also looking at word choice and if your narration flows the way you intended. The advice in this post is useless if your story does not emit the mood and atmosphere that you intend as a writer. If deleting any of these words could take away from that mood, then utilize your artistic license and keep them in. It’s your novel after all, it should be written how you intended it. Happy Revising!