Whether you do much of your editing as you write (as I do) or you’re the kind of writer that gets the whole story down on paper before worrying about the craft points (which I wish I could do), sooner or later you’re going to face a final edit. By this point, your major plot problems have been solved, your characters are all behaving in character, your timeline makes sense, and you’re ready to look at the less shiny side of the writing process: the underlying structure. I’m not talking story structure here, I’m talking bare-bones structure. Nitty-gritty, duller-than-dishwater, high-school English (“why am I learning this?”) grammar stuff.
“But,” you may be wondering, “if I have a story with a gripping plot and sympathetic characters, why do I need to worry about the grammar stuff? Won’t readers be willing to overlook that kind of thing?” Well, yes . . . and no. The fact is, shoddy writing matters. No matter how shiny your plot and characters might seem on the surface, readers will notice if they have to reread passages multiple times to make sense of them, or if the same word or turn of phrase crops up over and over again. Maybe not all readers, and maybe not right away, but they will notice. It will irritate. It will annoy. It will pull them out of the story and allow them to walk away. It might even (horrors!) allow them to forget about it. And that, my friends, you do not want. Especially when a little effort on your part can make such a difference.
Enter the final edit. The one that will make sure readers read your fabulous story instead of pitching it across the room before the third chapter. While everyone will have their own checklist list of things they need to watch out for, the following eight tips are some of the things I notice in others’ stories and for which I edit in my own.
1. Sentence length and structure
Your sentences should vary in both length and structure. If they’re all the same, the rhythm of the story will become repetitious and boring. Don’t always start with the subject. Have adjectives in some sentences, but not in all (and have more than one adjective in a few). Use short sentences for punch and emphasis. If you have a long sentence, read it aloud to make sure you don’t run out of breath (if you do, it’s too long). In fact, read aloud whenever you want to check your rhythm…your ear will catch what your eye often misses.
Remove some of the ands, buts, and thens. While these conjunctions are invisible for the most part, they’re like any other word: too many will begin to catch the reader’s attention, pulling him/her out of the story. Bonus: getting rid of some of these will automatically help with varying your sentence structure.
3. That pesky that
Do a search for that and remove the ones that aren’t necessary. A seemingly small point, but your writing will be tighter for it.
4. Filter words
Words such as thought, reflected, mused, felt, heard (among others) can distance your reader from your character, almost like throwing up an invisible barrier between them. It’s part of the old “show, don’t tell” issue: instead of letting your reader be in your character’s head, you’re telling him/her what the character thinks/feels/hears, etc. Suzannah Freeman has a great list of these words on her blog at Write it Sideways, along with examples.
Also known as the “ly” words, these descriptors are one of those “in moderation” things. They’re also extremely sneaky. If you’re not careful, they can become a crutch that weakens your writing: it’s far easier to write the brightly lit room than it is to take the time to visualize and describe how the room is bright: He stepped into the room and blinked against the glare of the bare overhead bulb. My rule of thumb is no more than 4-5 adverbs per page—and yes, I count. J
Too many uses of the same gesture, movement, body part, etc. can be distracting for a reader. When I first started writing, I had a fixation with eyes…so much so that you’d have thought my characters lacked actual bodies. Now that I’m hyper vigilant about that issue, a new one has cropped up. Two of my beta readers for the first draft of SINS OF THE SON, which I recently handed in to my editor, picked up on the number of turns in the book. Characters turned, their heads turned, their voices turned, their gazes turned… like I said, distracting.
7. Dialogue tags
While you want to make sure your reader knows who is speaking in a dialogue sequence, too many instances of he said/she said will drive them to . . . you guessed it, distraction. Vary your tags. Find words to replace said, use an action instead, or skip identifying the speaker altogether if you can do so without confusing your reader. Just be careful that we don’t lose track of who’s speaking.
What does grammar have to do with flow? In my opinion, a lot. Bad grammar is just…well, bad. It’s going to catch my attention as a reader, irritate me, and make me question an author’s overall writing ability. A misplaced or missing comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. Lynn Truss’s book Eats, Shoots & Leaves beautifully illustrates this and many other grammar rules. While the book is aimed at a younger audience, it is light and easy to follow, and the rules within it hold true for adults, too. 😉 If you don’t want to buy a book, there are dozens of excellent sources on the Internet. Whatever resource you choose, however, the bottom line remains the same: If you weren’t paying attention to grammar in school, you’ll have to do so now.
While these eight tips are far from definitive, they can be a good place to start your final editing process. In time, they may even result in that process becoming easier, because the more you’re aware of the possible pitfalls, the more you’ll bear them in mind from the start of your work. You’ll find a rhythm for your sentence lengths, catch the pesky adverbs as you write them down, find yourself avoiding repetition in the first place, and so on…making for a cleaner final edit all around. 🙂
What about you? What are some of the things you edit for that I haven’t mentioned here? I’d love to hear your tips!