By Ronda Simmons
You finally finished that manuscript. Awesome. You’re ready to pitch that bad boy at the NCW conference in May, right?
Before you show your work to an agent or editor, make sure, at a minimum, you perform these top ten edits. These are the obvious corrections to get out of the way so your time with an industry expert can be spent discussing meatier topics such as story arcs, subplots and elements of style.
- Show, Don’t Tell. This one is critical. Don’t tell us that your character is angry. Show us that he is upset by describing his clenched fists and the blood vein throbbing at his temple. Don’t say that Mary loved Ralph. Describe how she couldn’t get him out of her mind.
Anton Chekhov said it best. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
- Backstory, less is more. Backstory is everything that happened before your novel begins. You don’t have to describe William’s four years at boarding school in excruciating detail. Just tell us that after four years at Exeter he couldn’t wait to eat in his Mom’s kitchen . . . before he killed her.
|Jean-Luc Can Face Palm Better than Anyone.|
- Dialog tags. The purpose of a dialog tag is to tell the reader who was speaking. The only one you really need to use is “said,” which is virtually invisible. Anything else could slow the reader down, perhaps with the exception of “asked.” Avoid the use of adverbs with your dialogue tags. Let your character’s actions do the job.
As Elmore Leonard said, “The line of dialog belongs to the character. The verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html)
- Crutch words. We all have those pesky words that we use too often, but they are so ingrained in our writing that we don’t see them. For example, I found I was using the word “that” way too often. How do you find repeated words? A good copy editor will help you out there, or, if you use Scrivener you can run a check on “word frequency.” You can also use TextFixer.com’s Word Frequency Counter or Microsoft Word’s “Word Usage.”
- Do the details make sense? If the scene in your novel is taking place in September, you can’t have your protagonist picking tulips. Would the heroine of your period piece set in the Middle Ages use modern slang? No, she wouldn’t. Fo’ shizzle.
- Adverbs. Be careful using any word ending in -ly. Too many adverbs will muddy up your clean prose. For more on this, see this:
- Passive Voice. The passive voice places the object of the sentence before the subject. Active voice places the subject first. The mailman was killed by me. I killed the mailman. Which sounds better? The second, right?
|If I Can Add By Zombies, I'm Worrying about More than Passive Voice.|
- Profanity. Personally, I’m a lover of salty language, but too many f-bombs will tank your prose. Consider each blue word and get rid of all but the most essential. (Unless you are Chuck Wendig, then let ‘em fly!)
- The Double Space. If you, dear reader, are old-school like I am, then you absolutely must break yourself of the mandatory two spaces at the end of every sentence that we learned in typing class back in the day when big hair ruled. Here’s a trick: do a “find and replace” command and replace every double space with a single space. Voila!
- Read it out loud. This is one of the best ways to find your stylistic flaws. You’ll catch the awkward sentences, the excessive adverbs, the overly flowery prose. You will also pick up on repetitive descriptions, actions and those pesky crutch words.
For more thoughts on editing, check out this blog by my soon-to-be bestie and the keynote speaker at the next NCW conference, Chuck Wendig: