Continued from last week’s Part One: The Forest
Now we move in for a close up, a focus more on the words and sentence structures than on the story itself. But let’s say you’ve got the grammar stuff down. How else do you clean up your prose?
Part Two: The Trees
Clarity and Flow
1. Compare sentence and paragraph lengths.* Take a sample chunk of your manuscript—say, one to two pages—and, highlight each sentence in alternating colors. The first sentence blue, the second red, the third blue again and so on. Then, take a step back and look at it. There should be a variety of long and short sentences: if all your sentences are about the same length, that’s a sign of bad flow, and you’ll need to do some tweaking.
Bonus tip: Different parts of the story may require different types of flow. Intensify action scenes, like fights or chases, by using more short sentences.
Then, take a sample chapter and do the same thing, but highlighting paragraphs this time. There should be a variety of paragraph lengths.
2. Compare sentence starts.* Using the same samples outlined in #1, highlight the first word of every sentence and then compare them. This helps you ensure a variety of sentence structures. Be on the lookout for pronouns and names. I’ve often had four or five sentences in a row beginning with “She did such-and-such.” Yuck. It makes the prose choppy and repetitive. Rearrange a few of these sentences to improve flow.
3. Search and replace words you use too much. Create a word cloud of your manuscript on wordle.net. ** The biggest words are the ones you use the most (Wordle automatically filters out naturally common words like the and and). Your main character’s names will unavoidably be huge, but look out for others. My most recent test revealed “like” to be pretty big—a sign I may have too many similes. There’s no magic number for how many is too many, but try taking the two or three biggest words in your word cloud, and then searching your manuscript for them (the “Find” feature in MS Word). If you see a pattern emerging, work on editing out at least half.
4. Read aloud. This is what critique partners and writing groups or for: an excuse to read chunks of your writing out loud. Bonus if you can get one of them (who is good at reading aloud) to read it for you while you stand by with a red pen. This way you can make sure an objective reader will:
- Emphasize the right words. If not, try restructuring the sentence, altering punctuation, or italicizing the words that need to be emphasized.
- Pause in the right places. If not, you need to add punctuation—commas, semicolons, periods, etc.
- Doesn’t stumble too much. Passages that are tricky on the tongue can be tricky on the brain, too.
- Doesn’t repeat the same words too close together. The same adjective, for instance, should not appear twice on the same page.
- Doesn’t rhyme. Unintentional rhymes sound awful and interrupt flow.
5. Commit to cutting words. You may be horrified at the idea of slicing phrases out of your so carefully crafted masterpiece. Don’t be. Force yourself to cut, say, 100 words per chapter. This doesn’t necessarily mean cutting whole paragraphs, or even whole sentences. Get crafty. See if you can find a word here or there
that you can cut without sacrificing meaning. Here’s what will happen as a result:
- You’ll start to recognize patterns of superfluity and be able to avoid it in the future.
- You’ll start to recognize when to cut bigger passages that are dragging the story.
- Your writing will tighten up: it will be clearer, more powerful, and easier to read; which means readers will keep reading.
If all that doesn’t convince you, I’ll appeal to Strunk & White to back me up: rule #17: Omit needless words. Here are examples of words you can cut.
What editing tips have you picked up? Tell me in the comments!
* I owe these two tips to my first writing teacher, Miss Judy. Thanks, Miss Judy, wherever you are!