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. 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 ticks, I’ve identified several areas most writers can improve.

  1. Be Concise

Wasted words are everywhere. We often write as we speak with redundant phrases and filler words. Get to the point. My current novel had 87,000 words. In my last round of edits, even after adding more detail, I reduced it to 80,000 by tightening every scene.

  1. Avoid Repetition

When I type a word, it must lodge in my brain ready to slip back onto the page several sentences later. Like any insidious habit, repetition creeps in even when I actively try to avoid it. In my last blog, Tales from Lagos, which also decried the use of repetition, I used the phrase “our first challenge” twice. Mortifying! 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 as a deliberate technique. Lee Child, of Jack Reacher fame, is a master of this. 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

Our language can be dampened in the following ways. Search your manuscript for adverbs, qualifiers, started/began and think, and replace any that aren’t essential.

  • 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, a sentence becomes more immediate without reference to it. Instead of “I started to run,” just say, “I ran.”
  • Think. In most cases, it’s stronger to give thought directly. “I think I’m right” is better as, “I’m right.”
  1. Rethink Dialogue Tags

To avoid repeating “he said” or “she said,” some people vary dialogue tags and use postulated, exclaimed, suggested, etc, but 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 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.”

I used this technique to delete 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 hope these pointers are useful. What are your favorite editing tips? Please share in the comments.

Next time: Feminism and the Expat Spouse

5 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

  3. Pingback: The Pros and Cons of Writing Memoir | The Winding Narrative

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