Welcome back to After the Draft, our short crash course in effective book editing that any author can tackle before engaging a human editor and preparing for publication.
Here in Part II, we’re entering the line editing stage of our journey – forging ahead into the forest of words, armed with our editorial machete as we slice, chop, and reconfigure our prose at the sentence level. We’ll also get to see how editorial software can make this potentially mammoth task much, much easier.
Armed and ready? Let’s go!
Book Editing: Should Writers Do It Themselves?
One of the most common objections to self-editing is that the author is often too close to the work for them to perform efficient – or sufficient – editing, and there is some truth to that assertion.
A human editor is an important part of the writing and publishing process. After all, a great editor is not only a trained and experienced professional, but an invaluable extra set of eyes for your work. They know structure, form, and communication, and can point out overblown “darlings” in your turns of phrase, or point out where a specific story element feels out of place. There may need to be some concessions given between writer and editor to best serve the story and the writer’s own needs, naturally, but that’s nothing to be afraid of.
That said, it only makes sense to deliver the best self-made version of your story to a human editor. It’s both kinder to the editor themselves – since they don’t have to wade through mountains of grammatical errors, purple prose and rookie mistakes such as puffed up dialogue tags – and to your wallet, since early layers of polish helps ensure fewer rounds of more meaty changes recommended by your editor.
Fewer rounds of editing also means a quicker path to actually getting your book out into the world – so yes, it absolutely makes sense for authors to make their own book edits before heading further up the chain for additional help.
At this “middle point” of your complete self-edit, here are our recommendations for tackling the process step by step.
1. Let It Rest… Again
As mentioned in Part I of this series, a clear mind makes for better decision-making.
Once your developmental book editing is complete, take a little time away from the manuscript once again. Even though you previously restrained your inner copy editor while making your developmental changes, it’s almost guaranteed that, during those initial reads, you spied many, many sentences or paragraphs that you were certain were ripe for a trim or re-write.
We want to let that fire subside.
Take a little time away. Reward yourself for all the great work you did during your developmental edits. After all, your plot, your characters, and your entire structure are now much better than they were before – and through no short amount of work.
That deserves a treat. Give yourself a little break and take your focus away from the book for a short time.
Important: Do these next things one at a time
Just like before, we’ll reiterate the importance of following the next steps one at a time if you truly want to turn your book editing into a systematic process, instead of jumping back and forth in confusion.
Stick firmly to one specific element through each pass of the manuscript. Consider your mind as a machine programmed to tackle one specific target from beginning to end. Once complete, you simply change the target and start again.
Once you become more experienced with book editing, you can of course begin to tackle multiple things at the same time and switch up the order in which you do so. But for beginners, we highly recommend following the recommended order throughout this After the Draft series and sticking solely to one target at a time.
2. Weed Out the Filler
One of the easiest – and, strangely, one of the most immediately rewarding – line edits you can make is tackling filler words.
What are filler words? It’s in the name, but these are words such as that, just, then, even, seemed or really – words that can often be removed without negatively affecting the ease of comprehension of a sentence.
In first drafts, filler words often abound. The most common, by a large margin, is that – so to begin, why not try searching your manuscript for each instance of that, and judge whether its presence is actually essential to the message you wish to convey?
Very quickly, you’ll begin to see how often the word can be removed, and how much cleaner and more concise your writing becomes as a result. Do be wary, though, because these words aren’t always filler. Sometimes they’re very much necessary for comprehension or effect.
Here are a couple of examples:
“There were fifteen different ways that the task could really be tackled.”
In this case, we don’t necessarily need the inclusion of that. The sentence reads just fine without it; the meaning doesn’t become muddled. The same can be said for the inclusion of really.
“He braced himself for the inevitable agony that would follow that awful mouth bearing down on his head.”
In this case, both instances of that are essential. If the first one is removed, the sentence becomes broken. The second is contextually relevant – it’s that awful mouth, something we’ve encountered before and understand within the context of the story.
Some filler words also lend rhythm and cadence to your sentence structure, so do pay attention to how you wish to present your authorial voice in the writing. More literary or classical styles often make more use of that in particular, as it tends to lend a more formal tone.
Now, tackling filler words can feel like an overly simple task, but it can still be extremely time-consuming – and that’s where software for editors really comes in handy.
AutoCrit, for example, will effortlessly highlight each and every potential filler word across your whole manuscript, making them easy to see, and therefore to judge and remove if necessary.
As an extra advantage, AutoCrit’s unique AI-driven editing platform also offers guidance in terms of how many of these potential filler words you should remove to meet the average bestselling standards (and therefore industry expectations) of your chosen genre.
You can even pick a specific author, such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Brandon Sanderson, Tom Clancy – and many, many more – if you would like to emulate the style and thought processes of your favorite author.
3. Eradicate Adverbs
When you absolutely, positively, unequivocally need to paint a clear and impactful picture…
Don’t use adverbs.
The problem with adverbs is that they often have the precise opposite effect to that which is intended – which is to bolster an existing verb.
When relying on adverbs, your writing becomes messier and more cluttered than it would be if you were to use stronger verbs. When perfectly fitting verbs already exist, there’s little reason to rely on adding more words to your manuscript while lessening the impact of your prose.
“She ran quickly,” for example, could easily become “She sprinted” or “She bolted” – or any number of fitting synonyms. The choice of which to use depends in part on the cadence and tone you wish to deliver to the reader.
In another example, “He cried loudly” could become “He wailed,” or “He shrieked,” or even “He yelped.” As we all know, the difference between a wail, a shriek, and a yelp is generally hooked into context. These are reactions you might expect to see in different situations, so they actually inform what the reader is supposed to think about the events unfolding at that moment in your story.
Throwing aside the crutch of adverbs forces you to get more specific with your verbs, and that means you’re actually being more clear. Economy of words, precise imagery and specific detail all make for more involving storytelling — so nix the adverbs unless you truly need them.
One exception here, as with filler words, is within dialogue. When speaking, people tend to use a lot of filler and adverbs. Removing these entirely from dialogue is likely to make it sound stilted and unnatural. Always use your best judgment.
Also as with filler words, using AutoCrit for your editorial software means it’s quick and easy to locate any and all adverbs throughout your manuscript and give them the requisite trim.
In the case of AutoCrit, those trims are guided, of course, by a clear recommendation count based on both best practice and the expectations of your target audience.
4. Aim for Specificity
Speaking of specificity… it doesn’t only apply when it comes to adverbs.
In this next phase of line editing, you’re going to focus on generic description.
Generic description is when you’re failing to paint a fast and clear picture for your reader because you’re using language that’s too plain – for example, referring to something as “very large” or “nice” or “big.”
As we read stories, the visualizations we create – those images “drawn” in our minds – are fleeting. Because of this, it’s easy to assume that readers don’t actually need specific detail. After all, the image will be there and then gone in a matter of moments, won’t it?
The truth of the matter, however, is that descriptions that are not specific actually cause more of a mental trip-up than those that clearly point out detail. It’s a problem of context. What constitutes “very large” to one person may not be the same for another.
Because of this, lack of specifics means one must work harder to “see” what the author is trying to describe – the mind is forced to search its figurative rolodex and match context based on personal experience. And that context may not always match what the author is actually trying to convey.
So at this point, we’re aiming to do ourselves and our readers a favor by getting more specific when and where we need to. You’re presenting a living, breathing world – perhaps even one you’ve created from scratch with only your imagination.
Doesn’t it only make sense to present it clearly?
5. Stop Repeating Yourself
For good or ill, repetition draws attention to itself.
In this fifth step of our simple line edit, we’re going to look out for spots where we’ve used the same word multiple times in close proximity.
This is something that happens very easily in early drafts, and is well worth the time and effort spent to fix. Once a reader picks up on repetitive language, they’ll start to drift out of the story – becoming more focused on the physical printed page in front of them.
Repetition can raise its ugly head in a few different forms. The simplest is the repeated single word or phrase. In case such as this, you’ll be using a word or short phrase over and over again as a paragraph or scene progresses, for example:
“He opened the door and stepped through, letting the door close slowly behind him. As the door clicked shut, he crept further into the room.”
In this case, we’re repeating the word “door” far too much. The door itself is becoming too much of a focus in the action, yet we know it’s just a door; it’s not particularly important to the story. When this happens, the writing pulls us out of the experience.
Repetition becomes more obvious once we start to combine words into phrases. Imagine the above example, but with “wooden door” instead. The longer the phrase is, the more it sticks in the mind and the more easily repetition jumps off the page.
People remember longer phrases – and that’s why you also need to watch out for repeated longer phrases across much broader sections of your novel. Where repetition of a single word is easily fixed if you make sure it doesn’t show up too much across, say, two or three paragraphs, a four- or five-word phrase can be remembered across the scope of whole chapters.
This is where AutoCrit’s repetition reports can be a blessing for any author. Not only can you easily locate any repetition of single words or phrases in close proximity, but you can also uncover a list of longer phrases you’ve repeated across your entire manuscript. Maybe there’s a “darling” phrase that you’re using too often – something that will impress on first contact, but quickly wears thin as you unwittingly use it again and again.
Checking for repeated phrases is also an ideal way to locate repetitive events in your story. If characters are performing the same action in different places – rolling across the floor, for example – your action sequences might even be repetitive in their presentation. Mix it up!
Beyond single word use and phrases, remember to also keep an eye on how you’re starting your sentences. Beginning each and every sentence with a character’s name or a pronoun can also be annoying. “I then moved to…” “I opened…” “I closed…” “I looked at…” This repeated sequence of “I” or “He” or “She” will also pull readers out of the story. Keep it varied and start your sentences with a different focus as much as possible.
Also be wary of starting sentences repetitiously with continuous verbs: “Opening the door, I…” “Looking at the ceiling, he…” “Running for the window, she…” Not only can this also become repetitive, but presents an easy trap whereby you end up describing simultaneous actions that couldn’t occur together. For example:
“Cocking the rifle, he fired two shots at the window.”
In a case such as this, the order of action is muddled. A repeater rifle, for example, needs to be fully cocked before the gun can be fired.
The problems presented by repetition can be legion, making the effort spent to eradicate it where possible truly worthwhile. Thankfully, AutoCrit’s repetition reports help lessen the pain of this particular editing phase by a massive degree.
6. Trim or Adjust Dialogue Tags
For many authors, writing absorbing and convincing dialogue that isn’t too “on the nose” – yet also not so obscure that reading between the lines becomes impossible – can be a huge challenge.
Part of finding your way to better, more authentic dialogue (and therefore more absorbing storytelling) is setting aside overblown dialogue tags.
In the vast majority of cases, the dialogue tags “said” and “asked” are all you need. These are so commonly used that they almost disappear from the page. They’re innocuous, inoffensive. And the result is that readers don’t process them with particular importance; they’re mere markers that help keep the reader oriented as to which character is saying which line as a conversation progresses.
In fact, within dialogue between just two parties you can easily remove tags altogether. The natural back-and-forth of conversation means that losing orientation isn’t much of a worry.
Where you’re likely to run into problems is when you start trying to use dialogue tags to convey the actual tone or meaning behind how a line of dialogue is said. Tags like whimpered, exclaimed, screamed, shouted, queried, or articulated can have their uses, but those will be few and far between. When getting creative with tags, there had better be good reason.
As we’ll see in our next point on adverbs within dialogue tags, great storytelling lets the reader infer or unpack the way in which something is said via the context of the scene. Not only do “creative” dialogue tags get in the way of that cerebral experience, but they start to leap off the page – drawing the reader out of the experience and placing their focus on the words on the page, not the message those words are conveying.
Sometimes, an unusual tag is necessary for effect or to set a scene. A great example of this is whispered. One way you can trim your tags in that particular case is to have the characters whisper to each other for the first few lines of the conversation, and then drop the tag altogether. Once you’ve established that people are whispering in this scene, there is no need to keep repeating it. The action that happens as the scene progresses dictates the context of the dialogue going forward, so we can easily tell when the whispering has stopped.
All of this means that at this stage of our revision we’re looking to replace dialogue tags with “said” or “asked,” or delete them completely, where possible. When using an alternative type of tag, be sure there is clear justification for it and you aren’t using it just to switch things up or to sound more “creative.”
Side Note: A great test you can perform to see whether your dialogue is truly bringing your characters to life is to take an existing conversation between two characters and present it with no tags whatsoever, and no narrative description in between. Can you follow that conversation, and can you identify which character is saying which line based on the “voice” presented within? If both parties sound identical, with nothing in terms of attitude, intentions or verbiage to set them apart, then the dialogue is likely flat – not “hooking” into the characters as much as it could.
7. Adverbs in Your Dialogue Tags
We’re almost at the end of this run of our book editing, and now it’s time to return for one more adverb check. This time, it’s adverbs attached to your dialogue tags.
Examples of this could include “He said forcefully,” “She screamed loudly,” or “He huffed angrily.”
Simply put, we should be able to understand that a character is speaking angrily based on the context of what is happening within the scene, plus factors such as body language and personality. This makes the adverb entirely redundant.
Chances are that while trimming or adjusting your dialogue tags in the previous step, you will have made some adjustments to the dialogue itself – adding some more dramatic flair to your narration and descriptions so that you aren’t relying on tags to do the work.
In this final check, we’re just making sure that nothing has slipped through the net while making those earlier changes. Now’s the time to finish tightening the presentation of your dialogue the best you can.
Why do we do this? Because relying solely on tags to do the work is not a good thing. Relying on adverbs because relying on the tag wasn’t quite enough is worse.
Whew! It’s been a lot of work so far, but we still haven’t quite reached the finish line for our book editing.
To complete our efforts, we’ll still need to tackle a few more conceptually-driven elements of storytelling – and that’s where, from a creative standpoint, our greatest final challenges await.
Join us next time for After the Draft Part III: Intensive Editing.
See you there!