When your manuscript is complete, you must feel a great relief. But there is still a big job ahead of you. Now you have to edit your work and make sure your storyline isn't as crooked as a politician, your typos are rooted out, and you eliminate unnecessary elements that detract from your storytelling.
I've outlined some areas for you to focus on that may just make this job easier. I am not advocating that you don't hire a professional editor, but that you take these steps before you send your baby off for that next important stage.
1. Edit for Content
a. One critical first step I like to start with is finding what is really needed in the story. We tend to write every detail, so we know what happens as we write. The reader, however, doesn’t need all of this.
You want to focus on what is most important to the story so you train the reader to pay attention. Too much unimportant information and your reader gets bored, overwhelmed, and distracted by details that don't move the plot forward.
· Delete anything that doesn’t add to the story. Focus on what moves the plot forward.
· Remove dialog elements that we say but just slow down the reader (Oh wow, hey.)
· Don’t keep pet projects (I love Scotland lets add five paragraphs of the history of Edinburgh.)
· When in doubt keep a “graveyard file” of things you cut out so you feel you can add it back in if you want to. I find I never want to, but it makes it easier to cut it.
2. Start Strong
a. Don’t data dump at the beginning of the book. Start with a strong action scene and provide only the bare minimum your reader needs to understand what is going on. Keep them guessing.
b. Your first page is crucial to catch the reader’s attention. You want to show your character in a normal setting and introduce the crisis that will keep them reading.
c. Withhold information from your reader. This adds a lot of tension.
Share that your character has an important piece of mail and describe them opening it, but don’t tell the reader what it says until later.
3. Show Don’t Tell
a. Show the reader what the character is feeling. Look at these two sentences, which is stronger?
i. His anger grew until he exploded.
ii. Mike smiled, but it faded to a grimace as his face reddened.
b. Tell an important story detail during a conversation, don’t summarize it. Show us the action as it happens.
c. Use strong verbs to convey sights, smells, sounds. Make the reader feel the scene.
d. Instead of saying your character hates his ex-wife, show him actively doing that. Let the reader experience it instead of spoon-feeding them.
i. He hated Sally. Lame!
ii. Sammy slid a new picture onto the dartboard printed from Sally’s Facebook page, then stood back a few paces and threw the first dart, hitting her expertly between the eyes.
4. Read it Aloud
This is a great way to find minor errors, hear the cadence of the words, and feel the emotion in the speech.
a. I use the read-aloud function in Microsoft Word to read it out loud before I edit. It is a bit robotic but gives you a fresh set of eyes (ears) to hear any mistakes. The computer doesn’t skip incorrect parts as your eyes will.
b. Read it to your cat, spouse, child, or the wall. Hearing your words helps you see what the reader will see, making the writing stronger, removing extra words, find typos, and impart a varied vocabulary.
5. Don’t Be Cute with your Dialog Tags.
He said' is fine. He spat, he sneezed, he quirkily smirked, etc. is hard on the reader by adding a layer between the reader and the story.
a. Stick to he said, she said.
b. If it is obvious who is speaking, you don’t always need to add dialog tags.
c. Use a beat instead of a dialog tag. A beat is an action attributed to the character.
Ronnie picked up her beer and took a swig, “Mike, you’re crazy.” You can convey so much more information with a beat, spicing up the dialog and letting the reader see what is happening while the characters are talking.
6. Avoid Passive Voice.
Passive voice deadens your reader's senses. This works well in marketing pieces but when writing fiction and nonfiction tell us who is saying it and give it a strong active voice.
Passive: The motorcycle’s headlight was glaring in her eyes.
Active: Reanna squinted, turning her head away from the motorcycle’s headlight.
a. Let Grammarly, ProWriting Aid, or your spell check find the passive voice and change as many as you can. Eventually, you will avoid it in your writing without having to think about it.
b. If you’re using was and were a lot, you may be writing in the passive voice.
7. Avoid Stage Directions
Don’t overly describe your character’s movements.
Example: Jeffrey reached his arm out to grasp the pen, setting it against his thumb and index finger, and scrawled a quick note.
Better: Jeffrey scrawled a quick note.
The reader knows how pens work. Don’t bore them with inane details that don’t add to the story.
Pull up a page from your Work in Progress and use these tips to improve your writing.
What other tips do you use to clean up your drafts?
KJ Waters is the author of the #1 international best-selling Time Travel Fiction series Stealing Time, the short-story Blow, and the anthology With Words We Weave. The second book in the series, Shattering Time, is frequently on the bestseller list alongside Outlander and Stephen King's Time Travel Fiction stories.
In addition to her writing, she runs KJ Waters Consultancy helping authors brand, publish, and promote their books. Also, she is the CEO of Blondie's Custom Book Covers and the co-host of the popular podcast Blondie and the Brit.
She has a Master's in Business and over 18 years of experience in the marketing field. Before quitting her job to raise a family and work on writing, she was the Director of Marketing and communications for a national behavioral healthcare company. You can visit her author website at kjwaters.com and consulting site at kjwconsultancy.com.