Every time I see an article on editing tips, I find the same five or so listed–and frankly, I think most of them are kind of dumb because they make it sound like:
Follow our tips, and the magic of publishing will happen.
And the tips are things like “Eliminate all adverbs.”
Well, yeah, okay. It’s a lot more work that simply following a few steps. I’ve seen writers post pieces on message boards stating that they have to meet a specific word count and that they’ve edited all they can out of the story but still can’t make the word count. I look at it, and I see all kinds of places where words can be pruned here and there. That’s because I used to write short stories. In some respects it’s like being a film editor. Those guys look for places that they can trim out to get a few seconds of film time, and it all adds up.
Most of my tips are for pruning words and general tightening. They won’t work if you’ve got a 150K novel and have to take a machete to it to get it down to 90K. That’s a complete rewrite, not just simple editing. But these tips will work for general tightening up and probably bring a novel down 5K or so.
Story Comes First. This is such an important point. No matter what you edit, your story should always be in the back of your mind and taken into the process of editing. There was a writer who used one of those programs that counts how many times you use words in a piece. The program reported that he used a high percentage of ‘was,’ so he took ALL of them out because the program said so without questioning why. It caused him to revise the sentences in bizarre ways. What he should have done was review each one and see if it should and could be reasonably revised to edit the word out.
The 20% Edit. With short stories, I’d do a word count and then figure out what twenty percent was. Then I’d cut that much out. With a novel, I might look at a chapter and decide that a page needs to come out. Both have the same result: Sometimes I didn’t reach the goal, which was okay, but just deciding in advance how much I wanted to edit made me look at everything and think about how I might be able to shorten something.
Phrases to look for. I see this a lot in work I crit. The writer is usually writing in third (though it also turns up in first) and says something like this in the narrative: She saw the man get out of the car. With it being in the character’s POV, the “she saw” isn’t necessary. Removing it tightens up the sentence and makes it flow better. Look for phrases like:
- She saw
- He noticed
- She knew
Anything that can be shortened. Watch out for sentences where you could trim excess words without having any impact on the meaning on the sentence. Look for sentences that provide too much detail that could be simplified. This article on Editing for Length gives some examples unnecessarily wordy sentences and how to shorten them.
Repetitions. Yeah, well, we knew those had to get in here somewhere. Anything where something gets repeated, especially in close proximity to the first reference. It can be a word or a description of something or really anything. For example, the story explains how a character does something and then shows the character doing the same thing. That’s where a little editing magic combines the two together so it becomes only showing the character doing it.
Description. Description often gets a bad rap because people do it badly. They describe things for the same of describing and spend too much time describing it. But it’s worthwhile reviewing any description and seeing if there’s a way to shorten it. I was trying to describe a building and ended up spending about a page on it. Way too long, especially since not a lot happened to keep the story moving forward. Instead, I edited it into a short paragraph that was more focused.
Pet Rocks Words/Phrases. Anything that you, personally use too much. Two projects ago, I discovered that I tended to use qualifers like “a little,” “a little bit,” and a “a bit.” In many cases, those don’t add anything except extra words. (A Pet Rock, by the way, was a craze in the 1970′s where stores sold rocks as pets. It didn’t last long, but Morro Bay, California boasted of their own Pet Rock, Morro Rock). Search and replace works well to find these; just replace them with a highlighted version of the same word or phrase. Then it’s easy to scan down and see if something got used too much.
Anything that would fit great in the dialogue, but not the narrative. I’m thinking of words a character might use in their dialogue as part of their characterization. He or she might use the words “really,” “actually,” “very,” or even “a little bit.” Some might be weasel words, which usually get deleted because they’re empty words, but in dialogue they might be important. But if they turn up in the narrative, they’re worth a look to see if they add anything or are just excess.
Of course, editing isn’t just an arbitrary whacking of a particular word because it’s perceived as bad or as a solution to getting published. Use common sense. The story always needs to come first.