A few words on editing

Just when you think it’s done with you – it pulls you back in. No, I’m not talking about the Mafia, I’m talking about the manuscript you just finished for your short story or novel.

A brief word on Strunk & White’s Elements of Style: Get it. Use it.

The best advice Strunk & White ever gave? OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. Here’s the quote:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

If it was easy to follow we’d all have perfect, tight manuscripts but that’s not what we’ve got kids, right?

As a rule of thumb, cut 10-15% of your manuscript (yes, even for flash fiction pieces!) when you edit. Be ruthless. That section where the main character recedes into the background, and it’s not moving the plot forward? It’s got to go. It doesn’t matter how great the phrasing is or how much you love those sentences. They aren’t doing anything for the story.

From the feedback I’ve gotten from editors over the last few years, it’s safe to recommend removing all adverbs from your work or the vast majority of them. Think of words ending in LY, like admiringly, or frustratingly.

As Stephen King says in On Writing (a great, amusing reference book to own…) cut any adverbs used to modify the word SAID.

Never write this: “Does my butt look fat in these jeans,” she said cheekily.

King’s point is adverbs weaken the writing. When a writer is insecure about their writing, they can hide behind adverbs to emphasize a point. It’s a way of directing the reader when the writing isn’t clear enough. Anyway, King says it’s a weak-ass move, and I agree.

Who needs an adverb when you’ve got verbs like smash, tickle, illuminate, and love?

Right behind the clean-up of adverbs is the removal of adjectives. I’ve found this challenging because you’ll no longer have a blue dress. But you could have a frock, or a gown. You won’t have a gigantic bowl of pasta, just the linguine remains. When you stop relying on adjectives, you find a new way of using more descriptive nouns, which strengthens the writing.

There are other bad habits to avoid, and I refer you to my other post This About That for your reading pleasure. https://cdeminski.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/this-about-that/

Here’s what we covered today:

– Have a good reference library, especially Strunk & White’s Elements of Style

– Omit needless words

– Get rid of adverbs

– Remove adjectives

Good luck with your edits!

Feel free to pass along your editing advice in the Comments section – you know you want to share those gems so go ahead!


9 Responses

  1. Agreed on the omissions. I don’t think there’s a problem with using adverbs + “said” occasionally, it adds variety versus describing everything through action. But 9 times out of 10, they probably have to go. Basically, whatever the device, don’t go overkill.

  2. Good advice, generally speaking (ah ha! see? an adverb, and one indispensable to the meaning of the sentence!), though every rule exists to be broken. Even wordiness sometimes has a place, depending on the shape, the character, the feel, of the idea you’re trying to express. Sometimes that circling around the essence of something is the thing itself. Woolf can write a single sentence, two and a half pages long, clauses inside clauses inside a tangent within a digression, about the shape of the shadow of a hedge on the lawn, without wasting a word.

    • Thanks Harry. It’s possible the online literary magazines with their short story writing brigades – and the editors of same – have drilled the no adverb clause into me. Writing online these days is lean, it’s got legs for running, with muscle to provide energy, but zero body fat (in this case, adverbs and to a lesser extent adjectives.)

      It may not be fair to use V. Woolf as your example because she was a writer from another century. That’s not to say her work isn’t good (it is classic.) But if we start looking at the E.M. Forster’s, and the Theodore Dreiser’s of the world, we’re going to see a different writing aesthetic, no?

      It’s also possible my editing comments should be more directed to short story writing than novel writing, because novels are larger/longer and the writer has more freedom to describe “the shape of the shadow of a hedge on the lawn…” 🙂

  3. July 1840.

    But the critic must not be an infallible adviser to his reader. He must not tell him what books are not worth reading, or what must be thought of them when read, but what he read in them.

    We do not want merely a polite response to what we thought before, but by the freshness of thought in other minds to have new thought awakened in our own.

    Margaret Fuller.

    Carol, this made me think .. and I think Margaret Fuller is right.

  4. Carol, it is not easy to give edit advice. I have no idea how hard a person has worked on his/her writing. I find the person who writes important. If a were an editor I would like to help by telling what I don`t understand and give the writer more words to use. Not in numbers, but words that sounds or mean the same.
    I see that in your words. [I think] Small is small enough. Big is big enough.
    The more words a writer knows and the meaning of the word, the more nuances she/he can write.
    The problem for me is writing in proper English. The more I read in English, the more words I learn. But .. that is not enough. I want to avoid repeating words. So .. I use the English dictionary.
    I have no idea if this helps me in the right direction.

    For example: “idea”

    “I have an idea that it won’t work.” opinion; belief:
    “I’ve an idea for solving this problem.” a plan
    “This will give you an idea of what I mean.” mental picture

    Now use this in a [for me new] way like I was writing a part in a pulp-novel.

    ~~ Dear writer, it is my opinion that your novel is well written. I can mentally picture me what you try to say. I would like to give you an idea what would happen if you use less words. For example … etc.

    Now another way.
    ~~ Dear writer, love your novel. Please edit 500 words and send it back.

    And now the pulp-part.
    ~~ Dear editor, I killed 513 darlings. With those words I wrote another novel. Hope you like this one too.

    Sincerely yours, George.

    • George, I loved this comment. You get to the heart of it.

      And as for your writing in English as a second language, for blog comments if your English isn’t 100% – it’s fine. It’s more important to participate in a global community of writers.

      But if you write stories and novels in English and you suspect some portion is incorrect, but you cannot fix it, you’ll need an editor’s help because the things you don’t know will slip by unnoticed. I know another novelist in this situation and he seeks help from English speaking editors.

      Also, a word about vocabulary…it depends what kind of material you’re writing. If you’re writing more literarily, you might want the vocabulary of an ardent bibliophile; but if you are writing popular fiction, a high school level vocabulary will give you all the flexibility you need to produce a fantastic work of fiction.

      Thank you George. 🙂

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