Slice and Dice your work

by Joe Moore

The writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, copy editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes gets the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is editing.

There are a number of stages in the  editing process. Starting with the completion of your first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. Pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.

Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be considered for the slicer-dicer.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.

Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Slice and dice them.

The next type of editing is called line or copy editing. This covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the copy edit phase.

Line editing also covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for awhile. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels.

Any other editing tips or techniques out there? How do you approach editing; on the fly or after the first draft is complete?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.


22 thoughts on “Slice and Dice your work

  1. These are superb points, Joe! I hope it is not untoward of me to mention that I have written a whole doggone book on the subject called Revision & Self-Editing. I saw, as you do, the need for a systematic approach to getting a manuscript into shape.

    I’ll mention here the polish, which is the last thing I do. I go to every chapter opening and ending, finding ways to tighten and cut. Then a dialogue review: how does it look on the page? And can I tighten some more? Then “big moments,” and see if I’ve written them “for all they’re worth.”

  2. Excellent advice. I run the -ly check all the time and it helps. Another editing item that a reader found in my last novel draft was how I had given 3 characters “meaty hands.” Doh!

  3. Jim, your comments and self-promotion are always welcome here. You noted something that reminded me of an observation I forgot to mention in my post. You asked, “How does it look on the page?”

    I think the physical appearance of the text on the printed page can and does help control the pacing of the story. For instance, short, crisp dialog or sentences along with a lot of white space will make a reader’s eye move faster. The opposite is true; large chunks of text with less white space slows the eye and the pacing. I think that how the text appears on the page can be combined with the actual text as a tool to control pacing. This is something that is hard to judge when you edit from the monitor, not the hardcopy.

  4. Good advice!

    I just started yet another revision on my last manuscript, so this is very helpful. I’ll have to get a copy of your book, Jim. Another helpful book is Self Editing for Fiction Writers.

    I always have to watch for words I tend to overuse. “Just” is one of my biggies. I could use that in “just” about every paragraph.

  5. Beta readers are incredibly important to me. Just before I turned in the first draft of one book, one of my beta readers asked why all my secondary characters were blond. She thought there was a hidden meaning to it! Thankfully, I had time to make changes.

  6. Editing and revising is my favorite part of the process–it’s that first draft stage that kills me.

    I always search for “that.” It’s another word that can be deleted 90% of the time. I also search for words like “set” or “put” and try to come up with stronger, more exciting verbs.

    Mr. Bell–LOVE your book BTW.


  7. Joe–Great advise! I wish I were better at self-editing.
    I used “very” in a book a couple of times and when it was picked it out with the computer check at the last minute I was left with a final copy where every became random e’s throughout the text and delivery became deli.
    The computers search function only works if you use it combined with common sense.
    Lesson learned.

  8. Revising: Fun
    Editing: Sucks

    I tend to see what I want to see so words go AWOL on me mid-sentence. I have a rather anal proofreader go through my “final” draft for those missing words and other stuff and she has saved me much embarrassment.

    They say writing is a solitary endeavor. Not for me. I couldn’t do it without lots of folks helping me out.

  9. Joyce, one of my favorite extraneous words is “suddenly”. And I agree, “just” is just a pain in the neck. Wow, I got to use a cliché, too.

    Kathryn, I agree, beta readers are worth every batch of homemade cookies I pay them. BTW, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

    You’re right, Becky. Verbs are the key to powerful writing.

    Victoria, I’ve made the same mistake. Then I realized that the Find & Replace function lets me “find whole words only”. What a life-saver.

    Agreed, Mark. The more fresh sets of eyes, the better. Avoiding embarrassment is a wonderful thing.

  10. Becky, thanks for the kind word.

    How many of you are like this: I can’t bear to read any of my books after they’re out. Because I inevitably see something I want to fix, or makes me groan.

  11. I go over what I drafted yesterday before moving on; both are part of that I call the first draft.

    After that I focus on somehting specific for each pass through the manuscript: description, charcater, dialog, beginnings and endings of chapters. I change whaever I notice, whather it’s the focus or not.

    When I’m happy with tose, it sits for 4-6 weeks. Then I read the entire thing over a long weekend. No edits; just read and make notes. Then I address the notes.

    Finally, I finish. Read a chapter or two one day, edit the next, finish from a hard copy on the third day. Each day add a chapter to the process, so there are always at least three chapters cooking.

    Then I’m done. Like you said, no book is ever “finished,” but by then it’s as good as I can write it, and, most likely, I’m about sick of it and ready to move on.

  12. Great post! And I love Revision & Self-Editing too.

    For me, I tend to overuse “that” but I’m learning to catch it as I write that first draft. I have a wicked inner editor. 🙂

  13. Dana, your approach is the best way to edit. Trying to look for everything at once can turn into a mess. Of course, if there’s a deadline looming, that 4-6 weeks might turn into 4-6 days or worse.

    Lynn Sholes and I finished THE LAST SECRET the day before the manuscript was due to the pub. So we knew we would have a tough job ahead when the galley proof arrived. The luxury of time usually comes with that first book only. After that, it’s a race to the deadline.

  14. Man can I identify with this post. Editing hurts, not so much the act of editing, but it hurts my pride.

    I just finished and gave to my agent two books which I think are pretty darn good. She said, ‘Wow Yeah. But if you have another we can make a deal for three.’

    Well as it happens I do have another which was quite successful in podcast audio. So I pulled it out after not having looked at the manuscript in nearly two years.

    Now all I can say is, as a script it was fine. As a grammatically book, it really sucks. I am now working my way through destroying the demonic “ly” and “very” beasts scattered throughout and the ever present extra non-necessary phrases. Obviously this mess of an mss was my first novel, and I very obviously and quite surprisingly apparently knew little about the fine art of completely and unequivocally removing blatantly unnessecary adverbs.

    I wood love to get it all dunne, butt sense my spellchecker seams to bee messing sew many of the awed pour choices of words I have sum sirius reeding two doo.

    and those darn run-on sentences Mrs Lawson would beat me

  15. Jean, that’s definitely the best way to edit–catch those pesky words as you type them. A lot less work on the back end.

  16. My secret weapon for editing is the AutoCrit Editing Wizard. It finds all those overused and repeated words.

    Because it finds it all automatically it saves a ton of time 🙂 Plus, the wizard doesn’t get tired or bored like I do 🙂

  17. Thanks for the AutoCrit Editing Wizard tip, Janine. Now if I could just find a wizard that put all the right words IN my story, I’d be a happy guy. 🙂

  18. I LOVE AutoCrit. I let my subscription expire *sigh* but plan to renew when I have manuscript ready. It sure is quicker at catching things than I am.

    As far as inner editor though…she’s really wicked. Course, my first drafts look really good when I’m done with them. They just take forever to finish.:-)

  19. I’m extremely late to this party, but I have to say, “Well done!” It’s so rare that people break down the order of their editing process, and yet it’s something we all need to learn, even if we tweak it for our own benefit. I may just post this verbatim in my classroom, because it speaks to any kind of writing you will be allowing others to read. This is just great stuff. Thanks, Mr. Moore!

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