My editing process, and words to be wary of…

I've made this all blurry, so you can't read my shame.

I’ve made this all blurry so you can’t read my shame.

I mentioned here that I like to let a completed manuscript sit for a month before I do my first edit on it. I have one very good reason: to give myself a bit of distance from the draft, so I can start to see issues with the text, pacing, plot, characters—everything. This month, between reading and thinking about my next book I’ve started re-editing Isla’s Inheritance (my first MS).

One of the other tricks I use to give myself some impartiality on my work is to edit a hard copy printout. I draft on screen (well, duh), usually in a san serif font like Arial or Calibri. Then I convert it to Times New Roman, a serif font, and print it. Some studies claim san serif fonts are easier to read on screen and serif fonts on paper; it works for me, at any rate.

I love Word track changes when I’m editing other peoples’ work. It saves me (or them) having to enter in the edits, which is great. But if I read my work on screen I tend not to see things that need fixing. Incorporating all those hard copy edits onto the electronic manuscript is tedious, but I have yet to find a better way that works for me.

Other tricks I’ve heard writers use to try and give themselves that mental space include changing font size; formatting it so it looks like a book (justified text, number of words per line, etc); reading out loud; or even using a text-to-speech function so their computer reads it out loud for them. Maybe one of these will work for you.

I waffle when I write. Unnecessarily passive sentences, wordy sentences—you name it. This time around, I’ve been especially brutal with dialogue tags. You know the things you put after someone speaks? Those. I try and avoid using them if it’s obvious who is speaking. Sometimes I can indicate who’s speaking by having them do something in the same paragraph as the dialogue. For example:

“Get stuffed.” He scratched his chin with his middle finger.

If I can’t avoid a dialogue tag, my first choice is “said”. Readers don’t even see “said”; they skim right over it without pausing, so it doesn’t slow them down (if they stop and notice a word, it’s usually the wrong word). The only time I use any other dialogue tag (whisper, grunt, gasp, cry, wail, snarl, growl) is when there is no way the reader could get the tone from the words. For example, I wouldn’t usually use “yell” or “shout” because you can convey that with an exclamation point and the words the character is using.

If you do decide to use a dialogue tag other than “said”, make sure you don’t go overboard. A conversation in which everyone is gasping, crying and growling is, well, silly.

I’m also a big fan of the find and replace tool as a supplement to a thorough read of my work; if I notice I’m overusing a word or phrase, I’ll search for it throughout the entire document.

Here is a list of words and phrases to be wary of; some of these I’ve added to my list after folks on Twitter commented on them. Thanks, Twitter. 🙂

Suspicious words

Adverbs (words usually ending in ly) – Stephen King describes adverbs as being like dandelions; one might be an unusual and attractive feature in your garden, but if you leave it, it will spread until you have no lawn, just weeds. I do a search for words ending in “ly” and see whether I need them. Sometimes I can delete them outright; other times I can write around them. I rarely leave them. (Note: “rarely” in the previous sentence is an adverb, which I decided to leave. So too would be “seldom”, which doesn’t end in ly. This is why a word search is a supplement to a proper edit, not a replacement for one.)

around – I tend to use this to qualify numbers. “I woke at around seven.” The reader doesn’t care about whether the number is that precise. As the Cyberman said to, well, everyone else: DELETE, DELETE, DELETE!

began to, started to – “She began to run” is a long-winded way of saying “She ran”. Sometimes “began to” can be useful—say, when a girl begins to cry halfway through an argument with her boyfriend—but not usually.

had – I’ve seen some people suggest you never need the word “had”. I don’t agree; in a past-tense novel it can be useful to flag that you’re talking about something that happened prior to the current scene. For example, “I had been to the shops”. If you say “I went to the shops” the way you would in a present-tense document (or life) then people will get confused about when the event happened. That being said, it’s not always necessary so use with caution.

of the – This is a typical indicator of a passive sentence, which is often unnecessary and always more wordy than an active sentence. For example: “The hair of the dog” vs “The dog’s hair”. Times you might want to keep a passive sentence include when the actor in the sentence is irrelevant or unknown; for example, “He was killed” versus “Bob killed him”. The latter is spoileriffic!

possibly, probably, likely, usually, almost, mostly – Do you need the qualification? If not, it should go.

seemed to – Because both my books are in the first person I overuse this phrase to describe my character’s interpretation of others’ feelings, thoughts or opinions. But nine times out of ten it doesn’t need to be there.

suddenly – I tend to include this one (when drafting) to give the reader that sense of shock. But really, “the house suddenly exploded” isn’t any more shocking than “the house exploded”. Roll out the Cybermen again.

that – Sometimes you need “that” in a sentence. There are quite a few of them throughout this blog post. But you can often delete it with no impact on the meaning. When I searched it in my first manuscript, I removed it 600 times! That was horrifying. (See what I did there?)

very, really, pretty (when it’s being used to mean “very”), just, simply, totally, finally, apparently, allegedly, supposedly, usually, awesome, fabulous, fantastic, incredible, wonderful – I keep these in dialogue and thoughts (because that’s how people talk), but at almost no other time. Note a lot of them are also adverbs?

What words do you try and edit out of your manuscript?

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7 Comments on “My editing process, and words to be wary of…”

  1. SJ O'Hart says:

    This is great – I’m going to check my work-in-progress for words like these! One word I definitely overuse is ‘almost’ – e.g. ‘She was almost ready to cry,’ or something like that. Come on – either she is or she isn’t! 🙂 Thanks for a great post.

    • You’re welcome. 🙂
      As far as being almost ready to cry or ready to cry, I try and describe how being ready to cry actually feels: “her throat closed tight over the words; her eyes burned with unshed tears”. That sort of thing. I’m far from perfect, but I try. :p

  2. […] this post I had a bit of a rant about words to watch out for when you’re drafting or (more likely) editing. […]

  3. I would add “little.” I overuse it more than a little. 🙂

  4. Steve says:

    I would add “just” to the list as well. Whenever I’m critiquing or editing and I come across a word or phrase more often than I would expect, I like to do a “highlight all” to get a count of how many times it’s used. It’s often surprising.


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