Micro-editing points: Writing

The reader
Who is the reader? Who do you want to read the book? Is it intended for adults or children? Will it appeal more to women than to men? Is there too much description and not enough action for your intended reader? Or too little?

How have you used location? Readers today generally don’t want a lot of description, but every scene takes place somewhere. The location may make a difference to how the scene proceeds. A rocking boat may make movement uncertain. A noisy cafe may impede conversation.

Is all the punctuation correct, with quote marks, commas, full stops in the right places? Is there a new paragraph for each new speaker? Is it clear who is speaking? Endless repeats of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ get tiresome, and you can miss them out for two or three paragraphs if you only have two speakers.

However, don’t make the mistake of using lots of synonyms for ‘said’ to create variety. Variety is essential in descriptive words but they make the reader stop and stumble if you use them for speech tags. Provided there aren’t too many speech tags, the mind skims over ‘he said’ easily.

As an alternative to the ‘he said, she said’ speech tags, you can use beats, small bits of action to label who is speaking. For example, ‘Tom scratched his head. “What should we do about it?”’
Inserting bits of action into long chunks of dialogue is essential. People rarely just sit and talk without interacting with their environment in some way. One of my bad habits is writing pages of dialogue without action that punctuates it.

This is where micro-editing becomes really micro. You need to go through your text word-by-word. This is what I’m doing at the moment with The Golden Illusion. Obviously you want to check for spelling mistakes. But there’s a host of other things you need to check for too.

  • Favourite words: We all have favourite words or constructions we tend to overuse. Seek them out and destroy them. For example, I tend to writing ‘I’m not going to do that’ when it would be much simpler to say ‘I won’t do that.’
  • Overused words: Some words are routinely overused. All of us tend to overuse words such as can/could, seem, think/believe, feel/feeling/felt, was/were, know/knew, hear/heard, look, see/saw, watch/notice/observe, it, that, just and maybe. Slash them down. You can’t eliminate every one, but make sure you don’t overuse them.
  • Words that aren’t working for their keep: Also on the hit list, words that aren’t doing any work. For example, ‘It seemed to him that she was interested.’ The phrase ‘It seemed to him that’ is just padding. Eliminate words that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Adjectives and adverbs: Look out for overuse of adjectives and adverbs. It’s often a sign of weak writing. Why say ‘She looked at him angrily’ when you can use a stronger verb and say ‘She glared at him’?
  • Sentence length: Don’t make it hard for your reader. Hunt down sentences that are too long, and break them up. As a rule of thumb, keep sentences below 30 words. Same thing with paragraphs – break them if they’re running to more than 5 sentences.
  • Pronouns: Overuse of pronouns at the beginning of sentence is another common fault. I’m often guilty of in first draft of having up to 40% of my sentences start with pronouns – “I opened the door and stared at her”. “She looked at me”. It makes for boring writing. Varying the sentence structure makes the writing flow – “Once inside the door, I stared at her.” As a general rule, keep those initial pronouns to 30% or less of sentences.
  • There are many other technical elements, such as avoiding the passive voice – it’s weaker to say ‘Tom was invited by Sue’ than to use the active voice ‘Sue invited Tom.’

Going through all these checks is time-consuming, but it’s worth it to improve the readability and power of your writing. I automate detection of problems by using editing software. This saves some time, but it still takes me the best part of a day to copy edit a chapter.

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