Tuesday, January 31, 2012


One of the most difficult tasks for an author is the editing of the completed novel.

You have reached the final scene, you create it, and it is finished.  You cry, you laugh, you feel a sense of achievement.  Depending on your genre - the mystery is solved, you have tied up all the ends, come to a satisfying conclusion, the lovers are together at last, the good guy has triumphed. 

You type 'The End'  And it's done!

Sorry, it isn't.

The most difficult process is about to begin.  In all articles to do with editing your manuscript, you will read: 'Now, put your MS away for at least three weeks and do anything and everything you can other than think about or look at your work. 

Well, you won't read anything different here.  It really is the very best advice you could follow.

Coming back to your work after this time you will see it in a different light.  Things you thought were there, won't be.  Mistakes will glare out at you.  Parts of it you thought brilliant when writing it will not appeal anymore.  Flowery, over-writing will make your toes curl.  This list isn't exhaustive, but you get the gist.

So, what do you look for when you edit?  How do you begin?  It is a slow progress, so begin with time to devote to it.  It is a very important process, so don't rush it.  Take it one step at a time.  The author's steps are scenes.  Yes, it really is as critical as that so, edit scene by scene. 

Look at each scene with these points in mind:

Is the scene really needed?  Yes, that sounds odd, but some may not be.  They are irrelivant to the story, but we think they are good.  Our best writing in the whole story in fact.  But if it does not move the story along, give vital information, link a scene to another, or build more depth into a character, it will only serve one purpose:- to slow the pace.  So cut it.

If it is to stay:

Look at it objectively:
  • Have you told / described this scene or did the action happen on the page?  If the first, rewrite!
  • Have you used an active voice or passive?  
  • Is there too much description of setting? - could slow the pace!
  • Have you started the scene with a weather forecast? (try to avoid this if poss as it does slow the pace)  

  • If the scene involves dialogue, does it 'sound' right, yes, you do need to listen to it, so read it out loud.
  • Have you used too many speech tags? (he said, she said, he turned as he said, she grimaced and said etc)
  • Is the conversation relevant, does it give information, move the story along, add to the character's personality in any way? If not cut it!
  • Have the characters blabbed on and on, could they put across what you want them to in a better, shorter way?
  • Is there a question and answer session going on between characters?  If so, give your reader a break and cut to the chase.

 Repetition needs to be kept in mind at all times as you go from scene to scene.  We often say the same thing twice, give the same information again but in a different way, or use a word over and over.

  • Repeated Information:  This often occurs when an event has happened and one character wasn't present but needs to know of it.  The reader finds themselves reading the whole scene over as it is related.  Or, you may have already said that a character doesn't like children, but you get the point over again later, and maybe again further still into the novel.  If the scene you are looking at contains this kind of repetition, cut it, or if something has to be related, just say, John described to Ian what had taken place - something of that nature, but don't have John giving a blow by blow account of what the reader already knows.
  • Repeated words: Look out for how many times you use a word in the same sentence, paragraph or scene, it can irritate.  For eg:  James traced his fingers over the smooth contours of her body, the smooth texture of her skin awakened his desire.  One 'smooth' should go. Use a thesaurus to find an alternative, or rewrite or just cut one:  James traced his fingers over the contours of her body, etc (the smooth has gone)  James traced his fingers over the smooth contours of her body, the satin texture of her skin, etc (smooth changed)
  • Repeated phrases: We come up with a great phrase and use it over:- this is called the 'dreaded, diminishing returns'.  It is us using something fresh and good, but if we use it again, it has less impact, and again, even less.    - As an example of diminishing returns, I read a book recently by a very famous author.  She had the phrase:- 'Her body fragmented with the intense pleasure'  I loved it so much I admit to using the word, 'fragmented' myself in my own book and in a sexual scene.  Problem was with this author, she used it again in a later scene and yet again, but by then it had lost its impact on me and I felt like saying, 'okay I get the picture,' instead of enjoying the fresh sounding description of the feeling after good sex.  
Flowery writing, or writing that isn't 'tight'

This describes writing where you have over described, or used unnecessary adverbs. 

  • Over description could go like this: The sun kissed her rosy cheeks blushing them with a hue which suited her so well, painting her otherwise pale complexion as if it had been brushed with the delicate strokes from an artists pallet. Beautiful, but not in a modern day novel, so cut the crap and tell it as it is: She had more colour in her cheeks than usual and it suited her. 
Adverbs, or 'ly' words

Search these out and get rid.  They are not needed.  Verbs can stand alone and have a lot more impact by doing so.  Adverbs also get in the way of pace and dampen down tension.

Here is an example: 

Walking towards his office he heard a noise, he crept stealthily along the corridor, convinced someone was in his office.  A shadow eerily passed over the window of the door.   A torch light flashed.  He hurriedly pulled out the gun he'd shoved into his pocket and kicked open the door.  Shakily he pointed it at the intruder.  His heart beat greatly increased.  Could he hold his nerve and pull the trigger?   The man slowly moved away from him, his hands held in front as if to ward off the threat he'd  found himself under. (Yes, authors do compose scenes in this way!)

So, what if you want to put over the feelings of the situation as well as the actions, how to do it  without telling the reader a thing was done hurriedly or stealthily, eerily, shakily, greatly or slowly or any other 'ly'? 

Rewrite the scene, change it around, introduce atmosphere, stop telling what is happening, let it happen on the page, and name the 'He'.  Here is an example of tighter writing of this scene:

The muffled sound of movement stopped Jack's progress.  Fear clogged his chest.  Sweat stood out on his brow.  He waited, fingering the cold metal in his pocket.  Light flashed on the glass door of his office, then danced away leaving an out of proportion shadow of a man in its wake.  Jack made his decision.  He moved forward along the corridor, taking his time.  Once level with the door he pulled out the gun, cocked it ready, aimed his foot at the frame and kicked hard.  The shock of the impact vibrated through his body.  His heart thudded against the wall of his chest.  His hands shook, but he fought his nerves and pointed straight.  The intruder backed away, his hands out in front as if to ward off the threat.

So, same scene, but tighter, more tension, more atmosphere and yet all the feelings are there without one adverb.  This is after just one try, sometimes, as I would with this scene, you need to write it many times over until you find the one that jumps off the page at you, then you can move on to line edit the scene.

Line edit: The best advice I could give you here is to engage a professional proofreader.  I would say this task is too difficult for an author to do. Especially if, like me, you find punctuation a mystery.  Creative writing, like above, yes, I can advise on that and edit work to inject it.  But unless you are very good at spotting mistakes in your own work and excellent at punctuation, then give this stage to someone who can once you have completed your edit as above. 

 Just in case you decide to go ahead, here's what you should be looking for - good luck:

Have you placed commas correctly?  Kept sentences short when the scene is tense?  Any typos or mispelling - don't rely on spell check, you may have put a correct word, but the wrong one.  Take the scene above, supposing you had put: Sweet stood out on his brow.  The checker would glide over it leaving you with a typo.  So read each word with care.

Look for the over used word, 'that' often it isn't needed at all.  Do a 'find' check on it and each time it is highlighted see if you can cut it or change the sentence around.

Check for 'left in words' these are random words we left behind when we deleted a sentence to change it.

Look to see you have used the right word when presented with two or three version:- there instead of their or they're, or vice-versa.  Always make sure you have used the correct one.  This can happen with many words, here - hear, bare, bear, etc...

Okay?  Happy?  Right move on to the next scene: - told you you need time, Good luck, hope this helps.

This is how I do it, but if you read it and can add other things to check please leave a comment.  I will update it as I go.


  1. Okay, you made a comment about not repeating things. And yet, in your blog post, you repeated one line which I saw immediately, and that same repeat (Diminishing returns) comes into play. "This list isn't exhaustive. . . . "

    Yes, I'm guilty of doing it as well. And while spell-check programs are nice, sometimes they steer you to the wrong word. Or they don't catch the word you really want. (e.g. They're, their, or there? Which is it you really want?)

    But it does catch words like one I saw: Illiminating. No such word in my dictionary, I fear. Context indicated the word ought be "Eliminating."

  2. Thanks to 'The Old Man' good spotting or should I say, editing? The only thing is I don't think I used the word, illimination/eliminating? But, on the diminishing returns question, I have altered that, now. Thank you, love Mary

  3. Hi Mary, Just found your blog after reading about your Pan MacMillan deal with The Bookseller. Well done! Nice to see that going it alone does come good! SD

    1. Sorry it took me so long to reply, thank you for your comment, Sandra, I take it you are going it alone? Well, I am living proof that it can come good! I am working very hard to make a success of my trad pub deal - 14 hours a day, no less, but if all comes good it will be worth it. Thank you for your best wishes, much love, Mary xxxxxxxxxx


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