Editing Hacks: for the beginning writer

I wrote my first complete novel in 2012. It took two years for me to realize that what I thought was good writing, was actually, well, not so good. Oh, it wasn’t that the plot was uninteresting, or the premise was untenable, or even that the characters weren’t deep or well-drawn. It was the mechanics of the storytelling: the craft that needed work.

Four completed novels, five writing conferences, untold writing books, online classes, webinars and ZOOM meetings, and nine years later, I’ve learned a little about craft. Not that I don’t still have more to learn, but I’d like to share a few tips that I hope will set the beginning writer and thus the beginning editor on the road toward cleaner, more pleasing storytelling.

Eliminate the word “that”

More often than not we don’t need “that” in our fiction. It is common in speech and nonfiction, but– let me give you an example.

The jolt of the ward at the border zapped the curls so that my hair hung in a thick black curtain to my thigh.

This sentence has several problems, but first, it doesn’t need “that.” It reads just fine without it. And, that’s (see what I did there) the test. Read the sentence aloud with “that” and without. If the meaning is clear without, then eliminate the word.

The jolt of the ward at the border zapped the curls so my hair hung in a thick black curtain to my thigh.

Beware of POV (point of view)

Using the same sentence we need to ask ourselves, would the character refer to her hair as “a thick black curtain”? I doubt it. Here’s the revised sentence.

I shoved thick, river-dampened hair behind my shoulder.

This edit is from the third revision and gave us an entirely different view of the character’s hair. I moved the description of “long” and “black” to other places in the text. I also moved this sentence to the end of the paragraph to change the focus onto the border wards, which were the main thing I needed the reader to remember.

Here’s the revised opening sentence for this paragraph.

The jolt of the border ward curled my hands around the sides of the rickety wooden boat.

There are other issues with POV that have been eloquently explained by other authors. Here’s a link to a KM Weiland post over this topic.

Avoid long strings of prepositional phrases

Notice the change from the original sentence which contains no less than four prep phrases in sets of two. This revised sentence still has three prep phrases, but they are of varied lengths and sound quite different. Often these monotonous sounding phrases can be changed into adjective noun combos – as I did with border ward. Rearranging the sentence order will sometimes help eliminate prepositions too.

Repetition: words, sentence structure, character’s speech

I’ve found lots of things to avoid repeating like similar or the same word too close together. This could be in a sentence ( a definite no-no for me), in a paragraph or even nearby paragraphs. You’re a writer, find a new word to describe whatever it is you’re talking about. I am constantly Googling “synonym of ___”.

This is the same for reactions, whether physical or speech. On Amazon you can find many good thesauruses detailing alternative ways to show agreement besides nodding, for example. This link is to the Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. And this is just one of the many available by these authors and others.

Another idea is to keep a journal of descriptive words and phrases, awesome action verbs, reactions and other odds and ends as you read the work of authors you admire. Then you can recycle these words and phrases in your own writing. I have found this very helpful.

There are many more editing tips I’ve learned. I’ll share more in another post, but just so you can see the drastic changes my story has undergone in just three revisions, here’s the first draft of the paragraph I was using above, followed by the third draft.

Draft 1 – The jolt of the ward at the border zapped the curls so that my hair hung in a thick black curtain to my thigh. My fingertips sizzled with energy, anticipation and anxiety curling them onto the sides of the rickety wooden boat. A pop rattled my ears easing the pressure. My sigh mingled with Mama’s.

Draft 3 – The jolt of the border ward curled my hands around the sides of the rickety wooden boat. My fingertips sizzled with an energy that buzzed through my chest. Resisting the urge to engage my power so I could feel something, I flicked a glance at the four glowing travelgems mounted in the bow. Two sapphire. Two emerald. A pop rattled my ears easing the gathering pressure. One sapphire went dark, the other drained to half amid violet-scented air. Mama sighed at the ward’s acceptance of our passes. I shoved thick, river-dampened hair behind my shoulder.

Thanks for reading. I hope something here was useful to you. I love helping other writers, so if you have a question, drop it in the comments. If you’d like quarterly updates on my writing, life, and some book recommendations, sign up for my newsletter. A sign-up is the best way to help me on my publishing journey. Blessings on accomplishing your dream, whatever it may be!

Featured Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

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