One simple editing fix for your novel

1:18 PM

I just heard a stat that made me want to rock in a corner in the foetal position; I settled for a small grimace and some sage nodding.

On the latest episode of the So You Want To Be a Writer podcast, Valerie advised new writers to consider their first draft as only 10% of the total work that needs to be done to finish a novel. The other 90%? Editing!

If you've been following me on Twitter, you'll know I've had several 'moments' in the editing process of my first novel that have incited much hair pulling and wine drinking. It's been so much harder and longer than I thought it would be. What a relief to learn that (a) I'm not alone and (b) it is MEANT to be hard and long. Because it's 90% of the work dammit!

There's some wonderful advice out there on the editing process covering structure and proof-reading and reading out loud and doing things with coloured pens and sticky notes, but turning dodgy first drafts into sparkling final manuscripts is hard, hard work, especially when you're a novice like me. It's not helped by the little devil on your shoulder saying "What if you're making it worse . . . " (cue rocking in corner.)

When it all seems too overwhelming, when the voice won't come or the structure seems wobbly or you aren't in a sufficiently hard-arsed mental state to kill your darlings, there's one powerful little editing fix you can do relatively quickly and easily.

Kill the pests instead. You know, all those little fillers, filters, double-ups and adverbs that tend to litter first drafts? The ones that slow the pace and make writing clunky. The feels, smells, sees and hears. The decides, looks, actuallys and suddenlys. They're like a piece of clingfilm your readers need to fight through to get to the meat and potatoes of your story.

The good news is they are easy and fun to get rid of, using the good old Find function in Word or Scrivener. After a few hours rewriting a chapter yesterday, I'd had enough of doing the hard yards, and decided to spend the rest of my working day killing a few pests.

I have a list of words on my wall that I enter one at a time into the Find window and ask it to look for every instance of that word in the chapter. As each instance pops up, I go in and fix it, usually by eliminating the word and finding a different way to structure the sentence. It is so satisfying to find and kill these pests - the writing becomes sharper, less cliched, more focused and just, well, better.

I'll give you an example from my pest killing session yesterday:

The wrap dress she was planning to wear was made of some slinky polyester material that never needed ironing.


The simple polyester wrap dress she planned to wear didn't need ironing.

The first sentence was cluttered with filter words - was (twice!), that, some. Never needed sounded clunky so that got trashed. I also replaced the adjective slinky because the dress was for a funeral and the word seemed inappropriate.

I was surprised how many of these little pests had slipped in. Here's a list of the words I did a search on (I'm writing in past tense but you can easily change them to their present tense versions eg. felt = feel/s):

  • Felt
  • Smelt
  • Saw
  • Heard
  • Knew
  • Thought
  • Remembered (also a good indication that you've written backstory - ask yourself if it belongs there)
  • Wondered
  • Decided
  • Looked 
  • Tasted 
  • Realised (and its American cousin Realized)
  • Able to 
  • Was (passive voice = “the car was hit by a bus” should be "a bus hit the car") 
  • Words ending in ly (adverbs)
  • Emotions like sad, angry, happy (may be an indication of 'telling not showing'. eg. don't tell me the character is sad, make a tear roll down their cheek instead)
Also do a search on your favourite word - you know, the word you probably don't even know you love so much, yet it appears 175 times in the manuscript. Mine is wonder and all its variations - my characters do an awful lot of wondering. My characters also like to say actually a lot.

Of course, you don't need to kill all the pests. Sometimes the pests need to stay because they fit like nothing else can. I'm overly (oops!) partial to adverbs but sometimes they are useful, particularly (oops again!) in dialogue.

So give it a go next time you're feeling stuck on a major edit. You'll not only feel like you're making forward progress, you really will be making your novel a much better piece of writing. Save the major structural shifts and massive rewrites for the mornings when you're fresh and the coffee has kicked in, or for the days/nights when your brain is up to the task.

I found these three articles really helpful:

Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Writing Fiction
This article has an extended list of words you might like to search for, as well as some great examples and advice on how to fix poorly written sentences.

How to Write in Deep POV
There are some gems in this article on filler words and passive voice, including examples which are really helpful.

5 Ways to Trim Your Book's Word Count
I found this article after I had already 'invented' the Find solution. Of course the fabulous KM Weiland would have 'been there done that'. Her website is a font of writerly wisdom. Her list of filler words goes even further. I will definitely be adding to mine!

So tell me, what is your 'word'? Which fillers do you overuse? Any good tips on culling them?

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