My Top Four Editing Tips

Sun Peeking Through Sugarcane

Editing is both an art form and a numbers game. Writers are constrained by word count, so every phrase must be sharpened and polished like a jewel. My first editing job was Nigerian Gems (see Tales From Lagos). Since then, I’ve spent hours revising my own work, had the opportunity to swap manuscripts with other novelists and been mentored by Michele Rubin, head of Cornerstones US. While every author has their own ticks, I’ve identified several areas most writers can improve.

  1. Be Concise

There are so many wasted words in the world. We often write as we speak with loads of redundant phrases and filler words. Remove all this and get to the point.

My current novel started out at 87,000 words. In my last round of edits, even after adding more detail, I reduced it to 80,000 words by tightening every scene.

  1. Avoid Repetition

When I type a word, it must lodge in the front of my brain, from where it slips back into my writing several sentences later. Like any insidious bad habit—picking your fingernails, or shaking your foot—repetition creeps in even when you are actively trying to avoid it. In my last blog, which decried the use of repetition, I used the phrase “our first challenge” twice. Mortifying! Even my eagle-eyed editor, Barto, didn’t pick this up until after I’d posted it. I’ve fixed it now, but it demonstrates how easy it is to make mistakes.

For every rule, there are exceptions, and repetition can be used to great effect. Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame, is a master of reprising phrases. At the outset of a fight scene, he tosses in a comment such as “Somebody was going to have a bad day.” Once Jack decimates the opposition, he follows up with, “He (the bad guy) was having a bad day.”

  1. Beware Weak Language

The following are a number of ways that we unintentionally dampen our language. Rethink them and only use if required.

  • Adverbs. English is such a rich language that we can usually find a verb to replace an adverb and verb combination. The phrase, “She walked quickly” could be written, “She raced,” or “She hurried.” This way, we use more interesting verbs and we delete a word into the bargain.
  • Qualifiers (eg somewhat or very). “It was very big” becomes, “It was enormous.”
  • Started or began. Unless the start of the action is the focus, removing the reference to it makes the sentence more immediate. Instead of “I started to run,” just say, “I ran.”
  • Think. In most cases, it’s stronger to give the thought directly rather than framing it. “I think I’m right” becomes, “I’m right.”

Search your manuscript for adverbs, qualifiers, start/began and think, and replace any that aren’t essential.

  1. Rethink Dialogue Tags

To avoid repeating “he said” or “she said,” some people vary dialogue tags and use postulated, exclaimed, suggested, etc. Conventional wisdom suggests this is distracting. Unless volume or manner of speech is critical, (i.e. he whispered or she shouted), the suggested norm is “said,” as it is more or less invisible.

I applied this to an early draft of my novel, but my wise mentor, Michele Rubins, suggested I delete dialogue tags altogether. This is possible when it’s clear who is speaking, or by placing action around the dialogue. Take this example,

“We’re in trouble,” Madeleine said. She ducked under the window ledge.
“Let’s run away,” said Sara.
“But where can we go?” Madeleine asked.
“To the seaside,” Sara replied.

Now, let’s try again, deleting all dialog tags.

Madeleine ducked under the window ledge. “We’re in trouble.”
Sara glanced over her shoulder. “Let’s run away.”
“But where can we go?” Madeleine’s hands trembled.
“To the seaside.”

With this technique, I deleted most of the dialog tags in my novel. It increased my word count, but the scenes were brought alive with more action and emotion.

I have other suggestions, such as the classic advice, “show don’t tell,” and ideas about perspective and point of view, but I will save these for another day. What are your editing tips? Please share in the comments.

Next time: Feminism and the Expat Spouse

4 thoughts on “My Top Four Editing Tips

  1. Pingback: Tales from Lagos | The Winding Narrative

  2. Thank you for the tips!
    Re. your thoughts on repition, how do you feel about certain repetitions that add to the piece. My example is specific to a recent character in a critique group’s writing prompt. She had a tail “with a tuft of delicate blonde hair at the end” and I used that phrase more than once for emphasis. The group thought it worked, but it also goes against your word count tip.
    This may be too specific of a question to get a decent answer!
    Thank you again for these tips. I’m new to getting published and it looks like I’ll have an article in a number of consecitive issues of a magazine so I’m trying to get things in order when I move on to bigger and better things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is a great question. In last week’s article I discussed this precise situation. Deliberate repetition can work extremely well as long as it’s not overdone. Comedians often use it to great effect.
      Your desire to emphasize a given prompt is one of those situations that could work really well, but I’d suggest not using the phrase more than twice, three times max.
      Don’t get too hung up on word count. It’s important, but if the words work, don’t hold back. Does this help?
      Best of luck with your articles. That’s exciting.

      Liked by 1 person

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