And on with part 2 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.
All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.
These words support our speech, giving us time to think. Actually, um, honestly, so, are all examples. You might find them when you write natural sounding dialogue. Good dialogue is not the same as natural speech. It’s natural speech, polished.
When we write, crutch words are those we use repeatedly, and often without being aware of them. I discovered that I use ‘but’ way too often, to start sentences and join clauses together. You can find them using a word frequency counter. Next, you need to search and destroy. Print the list, and highlight them individually in your document using the Find/Search function. Now you can consider each one separately, and decide if it stays or goes. Some more tips, such as using a word cloud generator, can be found in this post by Alyssa Hollingsworth.
If you cut out a proportion of and, that, when, but, and similar words, it will tighten your prose. It immediately becomes clearer.
Adverbs: friend or foe?
I read that when asked what she would change about the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling said she would remove all the adverbs. The first book in particular contains lots of adverbs that tell rather than showing. I am a huge JKR fan, and it’s interesting to see how her writing (and editing) evolved over the series.
It is an article of faith that adverbs should be killed off, but like all absolutes this is too extreme. Think of them as seasoning, to be added judiciously lest they overpower the whole. Often in rewriting, there is a better choice to be made.
‘Walked quickly’ can become strode, hurried, ran, or another word that conveys the exact meaning. When you can’t quite remember the word you want and the thesaurus isn’t helping, try this site for the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Maybe English isn’t your first language, or it is but you’ve temporarily lost your words. This site is brilliant for those times.
This is a favourite construction of mine, and maybe yours too. Perhaps this is because we naturally retell events this way, but good prose is more than natural dialogue.
While you need not banish was/-ing totally, minimising its use improves your prose. Consider the following examples – featuring adverbs (and a cliché for good measure).
She was walking slowly along the road, when suddenly he came into view.
She walked slowly along the road, and then saw him appear from nowhere.
She shuffled along, eyes scanning the road ahead. There was no time to hide when he stepped into her path.
Most times, the simple past tense, with or without a better choice of verb, will improve the text. If you overwrite and need to cut words, this is one good way to do it without losing the sense of your text. If you underwrite, better verb choice and more description might be needed. Search for ‘was’ and look critically at every instance.
Overused phrases only hurt our brilliant prose. Be creative and find a new way to say it. This site allows you to paste your text and find any cliches that slipped in. At the end of the day, you know it makes sense.
Next time: filter words, passive voice, flashbacks. See you there.