When you’ve finally finished your manuscript after thousands of hours of work, the last thing you want to hear is that there’s more work to be done. But unfortunately, that’s the simple truth of the matter.
Finalising your draft is an enormous achievement, but now’s not the time to rest on your laurels! There’s still a lot you need to do to get your book ready for publication.
Once you’ve written, rewritten and edited and you’re satisfied with the story, it’s time to focus on the little things: the small yet important details of the writing itself.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the hundreds of times you’ve read your manuscript, there are plenty of things you might have missed. Overused or unnecessary words; inelegant phrasing or exposition; long, difficult-to-read sentences…
All of these things might have escaped your notice while you were dealing with bigger issues like plot and characterisation – but they won’t go unnoticed by readers.
After all this hard work and effort, you don’t want to let a bunch of little things drag down the quality of your novel! So to help you tighten the screws and sharpen your manuscript, we’ve put together a checklist of things to look for when you’re polishing and revising.
Before you start: something to remember
First things first. While you’re performing a fine-tuning edit on your novel, there is one thing you need to keep in mind throughout the process:
Everything must serve a purpose.
Every word you write, every sentence and paragraph and chapter, must add something to the story or enhance the reader’s experience. Each aspect of your writing must do at least one of the following things:
- Drive the narrative.
- Develop the characters.
- Paint a portrait of the setting.
- Speak to the themes of the work.
Keeping this sense of purpose in mind will help you tidy your manuscript until it’s trim, taut and razor-sharp.
We think the great Dr Seuss sums things up best when he says…
The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
Let’s take a look at some of the things that could be hindering your book, and how you can get rid of them.
Checklist: Things to cull from your manuscript
‘Avoid adverbs!’ – This is something you’ve no doubt heard before, from authors, editors and writing teachers alike. Adverbs, or words that modify an adjective or verb, have a pretty bad reputation, and it’s often well-deserved.
Regarded by some as ‘lazy’ writing, adverbs have a tendency to tell readers certain details rather than showing them. You’ve all heard the ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra before as well, and for good reason: it’s sound advice, especially for the novice writer.
Put simply, an adverb often feeds the reader direct information that could really be shown or implied instead. In some instances it’s simply unnecessary, as in the following sentence:
‘Get away from me!’ he shouted angrily.
The punctuation (‘!’), descriptor (‘shouted’), and words themselves already imply that this piece of dialogue is delivered angrily, so the adverb here is redundant and should be removed.
Despite all this, there’s really no need to follow a blanket ‘NO ADVERBS’ rule. As long as they’re used effectively and not overdone, adverbs can still have a place in your writing if you choose.
You do need to be careful with their usage, though, and the first time you sit down to sharpen your manuscript, you’ll probably discover more than you really need.
So, to decide whether an adverb is needed in your writing, ask yourself: can its effect can be shown rather than told? If the answer is yes, cull the adverb and replace it with something more evocative.
For instance, instead of telling readers that ‘the sun was shining brightly’, you might consider describing the sun as a burning golden disc, or going into detail about the warm, bright rays of light playing on your character’s face.
TIP: A lot of adverbs are easily spotted by the suffix ‘-ly’, so perform a search for that suffix on your document to bring up potential instances of unnecessary adverb usage.
2. Dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is the phrase used to attribute pieces of dialogue to their speaker, with ‘said’ being the simplest and most commonly used tag. However, in some cases, tags aren’t even necessary at all; speech can be attributed to characters in other ways.
You may not notice it while you’re writing, but when you read back over your manuscript, you might be jarred or irritated by the repeated use of ‘said’ – and so will your readers.
To fix this issue, take a look at each dialogue tag you’ve used and decide whether it’s absolutely necessary.
In a back-and-forth conversation between two characters, it’s usually easy to follow who’s saying what after the first two attributed lines, so you can tag those with ‘said’ and leave the rest as standalone lines.
However, if the conversation isn’t so easy to follow, consider using actions (or beats) rather than tags to show who’s saying what. This means placing a sentence before or after a character’s dialogue (on the same line), describing their movements and showing them as the speaker. For example:
‘What are you doing?’ Tom entered the room, his voice low and dangerous.
James froze, his hand outstretched towards the cupboard. ‘Nothing.’
Using actions like these to delineate who’s saying what will break up the monotony of ‘said, said, said’.
(For more tips on sharpening your use of dialogue tags, take a look at our golden rules for writing authentic dialogue.)
TIP: As we saw above, adverbs also come into play alongside dialogue tags, often unnecessarily. You can kill two birds with one stone by adjusting or removing a dialogue tag and at the same time eliminating pesky adverbs.
3. Everyday actions
You’d be surprised at how often small, everyday actions might feature in your story. Little things like travelling around, eating, even small talk can take up valuable space in your novel – and really slow things down in the process!
While mentioning these things in passing may sometimes be necessary, they shouldn’t take up more than a brief sentence or two if they’re included at all.
Readers don’t really want to know about what your character eats for dinner every day, and they don’t need to be with your characters every moment as they travel from one place to another – unless something significant happens at the dinner table or on the journey.
It sounds arduous, but combing your manuscript for avoidable instances of ‘everyday’ description will pay off. It’ll tighten up the story and ensure there are no dull or skippable moments.
TIP: While you’re refining your dialogue tags, as we discussed above, you can simultaneously check for redundancy in your dialogue – that is, snippets of everyday conversation or ‘small talk’ that don’t add anything of merit.
4. Excess description
A common mistake made by many new writers is over-describing. It’s understandable; you want to draw readers into the world of your novel, giving them as much detail as you can to help immerse them in the story.
However, there is such a thing as too much detail, too much description. Part of the joy of reading is being able to add your own sense of imagination to the text in order to picture scenes, characters and settings in your mind. It’s hard to do this when you’re given explicit details about every single aspect of the story.
Now, we’re definitely not saying that every passage of vivid description should be cut from your manuscript. Using evocative, sensory language and innovative imagery is a great way to draw readers in. Do this too often, though, and you’ll detract from the effect. Excess description at the expense of storytelling runs the risk of boring the reader.
Bearing this in mind, read back over your manuscript while trying to put yourself in the reader’s shoes.
Are there long, overly detailed passages of description on every page? Has description overtaken action as the priority in any key scenes, overwhelming the reader with portraits rather than plot developments? Have you ventured into the realms of purple prose?
If so, it’s time to get out your objective editor’s red pen. Decide which moments benefit from detailed description, and which might work better if they were stripped back to basics.
TIP: If you’re a speculative fiction writer, your novel may include more description than the average piece of fiction. This extra description is usually warranted, as an important aspect of fantasy and science fiction writing is world-building.
However, you still need to be wary of overloading the reader with description. Good world-building provides just enough detail to immerse the reader without overwhelming them. Remember: straight-up description should never take priority over storytelling.
Which brings us to our next point…
Many a writer has fallen prey to the dreaded info-dump. And most of the time, they may not have even realised!
To clarify: an info-dump is basically a big piece of telling rather than showing. No fiction reader wants to be force-fed huge chunks of information, so the close-editing phase is the time to seek and destroy these lumps of pure exposition.
Info-dumps can manifest in many different forms, such as:
- Descriptions of characters’ appearances and personality traits.
- Long-winded or unnecessary backstory (contextual information relating to the current story).
- Explanations about the location/setting of the story (especially in speculative fiction).
- The ‘rules’ of magic or technology (in speculative fiction).
When you come across an info-dump, identify the exact piece of information you’re trying to get across. Consider whether you could convey this info through dialogue or action instead – or whether you actually need to convey it at all. If it doesn’t serve the story or the characterisation in some way, you can probably get rid of it altogether.
TIP: If you’re having trouble telling the difference between an info-dump and a regular piece of the story, ask yourself this question: ‘Is anything actually happening in this scene?’
If the answer is no, then the scene is most likely an info-dump, and it’s time to consider how (or if) you can portray its content in a more reader-friendly fashion.
6. Over-long sentences or paragraphs
The most beautiful writing has a sense of rhythm, an ebb and flow. It’s made up of sentences varying in length: from the very short to the long and complex. But when too many of those long, complex sentences come into play, things can get a little messy.
A reader should not have to work too hard to read your book. If they find themselves having to re-read paragraphs just to understand what’s being said, they’ll get impatient and discouraged. They might even stop reading altogether.
To ensure people enjoy reading your book instead of finding it a chore, you’ll need to make sure you’re not waffling on or over-complicating things.
To do this, begin by skimming your manuscript and checking paragraph lengths. If you come across any large, unbroken chunks of text, read back over them to see if and how they can be broken up.
As a general rule, you should take a new paragraph:
- To differentiate between speakers in dialogue. Different speaker, different paragraph.
- When you change who you’re writing about. If you’re describing the thoughts or actions of one character, then moving on to describe those of another character, take a new paragraph to break up the two.
- When you change what you’re writing about. Same basic principle as above: new idea/topic, new paragraph.
- For impact. New paragraphs can be used to great effect when you want to deliver a bombshell or make a particular image, fact or sentence stand out to the reader.
Once you’ve finished checking for over-long paragraphs, it’s time to take things down to the sentence level.
During your edit, pay close attention to the length of your sentences. Train yourself to pause at the sight of any sentence that stretches on for multiple lines, or contains multiple clauses.
Double-check these instances to ensure that they make sense. Steer clear of using too many semicolons and presenting multiple ideas within a single sentence.
Wherever possible, distil sentences to their basic essence by considering what you’re trying to say and whether you’re saying it in the most effective way possible.
TIP: Working from a hard copy might make things easier when checking for lengthy paragraphs and sentences. Paragraph lengths and patterns of text and white space are easier to see in the context of the printed page.
7. Passive voice
If you’ve ever had the preference for the active voice drilled into you – and most writers usually have – you might think you’ve made a habit of avoiding passive voice by now. But it’s still something worth checking in your manuscript. Instances of passive voice can slip through unnoticed, adding extra words and dragging down the quality of your prose.
As a refresher, passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is acted upon by a verb; in the active voice, the object of the sentence is being acted upon, and the subject is performing the action.
Here’s a simple example: in the sentence ‘Brutus stabbed Caesar’, Brutus is the subject and Caesar is the object. As Brutus, the subject, is performing the action, this is the active voice.
If the sentence read ‘Caesar was stabbed by Brutus’, Caesar becomes the subject of the sentence, but he’s the one being acted upon, so this is passive voice.
Compare the length of those two sentences. The one using active voice is much more immediate and succinct, isn’t it?
Rearranging sentences to be active rather than passive can really help tighten up your writing. As well as lending a sense of immediacy and clarity to your prose, converting to the active voice trims away excess words and makes the reading experience less work for your readers.
TIP: Here’s a fun little test to help you identify instances of passive voice. Every time you suspect a sentence might be passive, try inserting the words ‘by zombies‘ after the verb in the sentence. As a general rule, if the new sentence makes sense, it’s in the passive voice!
For example: ‘The rose bush was planted in the corner of the garden’ becomes ‘The rose bush was planted by zombies in the corner of the garden’. This addition makes sense, indicating passive voice.
Consider a change to something like ‘The rose bush grew in the corner of the garden’ or ‘There was a rose bush in the corner of the garden’.
8. Redundant words and phrases
As Thomas Jefferson once said,
The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
There are many words and phrases that have the potential to clutter up your writing. As the object of this close edit is to tighten the screws and sharpen the edges, redundant bits and pieces are a great place to start.
Here are a few common words that can usually be removed from your writing:
- That (as in, ‘He knew that she was lying’)
These are just a few examples of redundant or ‘filler’ words. There’s no universal, comprehensive list of these types of words, but author Diana Urban has helpfully collated a larger list of 43 words to cut from your writing.
An important note: we’re not advising you to perform a literal search and destroy on all these words – in some instances, they are genuinely needed! But do flag them when they occur, taking a moment to decide if they’re necessary, or if the sentence still means the same thing without them.
Be careful of redundant phrases, too. Tautological phrases are easy to miss – things like ‘absolutely essential’, ‘end result’ and ‘exact same’ are so common these days that they may slip through in your writing. But as Mr Jefferson pointed out, a good writer will use one word instead of two in these cases, realising that it retains the same meaning while creating more eloquent prose.
TIP: There’s one area in which the use of redundant words and phrases may be justified: dialogue. Humans don’t generally speak in perfect, streamlined prose. So if you’ve written realistic dialogue, you might find a few redundant expressions here and there in your characters’ conversations, and that’s OK.
As long as the dialogue sounds authentic and is true to the character, words that may otherwise be considered redundant might actually come in handy for making things conversations feel more realistic.
9. ‘Pet’ words and phrases
Most writers, whether they’re aware of it or not, have a few ‘pet’ words and phrases: things they use over and over again, usually without even noticing.
Even big-name writers have pet words. Slate Magazine performed an in-depth textual analysis on three of the biggest YA series in the world – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight – to discover their most-used adjectives and phrases, and found quite a lot of repetition!
Obviously this isn’t a big deal with very common words like ‘and’ or ‘the’, but you definitely want to be on the lookout for more distinctive words and phrases that occur noticeably frequently. They’re the ones that will start to grate on readers.
Perhaps one of your characters is always sighing, or your first-person narrator always describes people with the same adjectives. Perhaps the weather is too often described as ‘bleak and grey’, or perhaps you learned a fancy new word while drafting your manuscript, which you then showed off at every opportunity.
When you’re performing this rigorous close edit, be sure to pay close attention and flag any repeated words or phrases that stand out on re-read.
It’s also a great idea to have one or more beta readers, who will be more easily able to identify pet words and phrases that escape your notice due to your familiarity with the manuscript.
Once you and your readers have identified words and phrases that occur too often, run them through the ‘Search and Replace’ function and alter them, or simply eliminate them if they’re unnecessary. Remember, the aim is to prune your manuscript so that every word carries some meaning or function.
TIP: Some novel-writing/editing software programs, such as Scrivener and SmartEdit, offer statistics about word or phrase frequency. If you’re using a regular old Word doc, though, there are some free websites that will identify repeated words and phrases in text, such as WordCounter.com.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this editing, remember: the stronger your manuscript, the better the chance of success – and nothing makes a manuscript stronger than close revision.
Once you’ve gone through this checklist of things to cut from your writing, your manuscript will be streamlined and sharpened to a point. Your story now has the chance to shine through your words, rather than being smothered by them. And when it comes down to it, that’s what we writers are all about: the story.