I’m noticing a theme here. My weekly writing topics are always self-interested. Right now, I’m in the throes of revision, trying to slash word count. So, in an attempt to spend half an hour evading this task, I’ve compiled all the best tips and tricks I’ve found for editing and revisions, including cutting word count. If you tend to write short, then the last one won’t be helpful. And I’m extremely jealous of you, whoever you are. ;)
With that, here it is folks:
1. Walk away from the manuscript
Yeah, you heard me. Hold your hands up where I can see them and back away slowly. Have a friend or loved one hide that thing where you can’t find it, and lock it away for at least six weeks. For your first big edit/revision, it really helps to come to the table with fresh eyes. If you try to revise immediately, you’ll be too close to it. If you’re like me and you can’t stand not to write for that long, start on your next project. I’ve got 100 pages of rough draft for my next novel that came from this period.
2. (Six weeks later) Print it out and attempt to read it in one sitting
Now that you’ve let the manuscript rest, hopefully you’ll be able to see it more objectively. Instead of beginning revisions on the computer, print it out. It’s much easier to see your own mistakes on paper than on a computer screen. Once you’ve gotten it all printed out, attempt to sit down and read it in one sitting, or as close to that as possible. On this first read, you’re looking for big picture stuff. Don’t get caught line-editing at this stage. Put the red pen away and look for story arc, plot holes, and other big picture items. Also, if there are any places where you’re bored –you can bet your reader will be.
3.) Revise for structure and “large-scale” items
Your first revision should be concerned mainly with the “big stuff” –plot, plot holes, tension building. You want to get the skeleton right so it looks better when you add the meat. (Eww. Just realized how gross that sounds). But, you get the idea.
4.) Save your first full revision as a separate file
Yes, tears may be spilled if you cut something you later decide you want. Avoid having to recreate what you may have already done splendidly the first time by saving each revision as a separate file.
5.) Once you get the “bones” right, begin revising on the small scale
Once you’ve taken a shot at the big picture items, you can start going back to address small-scale issues. When you’re revising on the small scale, it can be helpful to read your words aloud. Awkward wording tends to jump out at you when you actually say it out loud. At this stage, feel free to get out the red pen and line edit for typos, cut excess verbiage, mark any POV or tense digressions. Be on the look out for repetition.
6.) Fine tuning
Now that you’ve got a decently edited manuscript, it’s time to fine tune. Time for tedious line-by-line consideration of sentences. This is where Microsoft Word’s “Find” tool can come in very handy. (I don’t use Scrivener, so I’m not sure if it has a similar function). First, use the find tool to locate the words “was” and “were.” This will pick up many of your passive sentences ( Example :“was walking” should just be “walked”). Pay attention to sentence structure and flow during this pass. Do you have entire paragraphs of short, choppy sentences? Long and cumbersome ones? Varying sentence structure makes the piece flow better and is more enjoyable for the reader. This stage is also when I like to focus on chaptering. Chaptering shouldn’t be random –make sure you always end with new information, a question, or even a cliff-hanger. You want to keep the reader turning pages. Finally, look over your manuscript as a whole without reading (you can zoom out on Word to do this). Is there enough “white space?” Are some chapters exceedingly long? Go back and work on the sections that jump out from a brief scan.
At this point, I can share my personal experience for what has worked best. I’ve cut 22,000 words from my manuscript so far. That’s a lot. Cutting passive voice wherever possible (above) tends to help quite a bit. Passive sentences are usually wordier. Another trick I’ve found helpful: Start with the a sentence and see if you can remove the first word and still get the same meaning. If so, try it again. You can pare a lot of sentences down this way, by removing “fluff” at the beginnings. Another great use of the find tool is to put “space-there” in the find box. It will pull up sentences that begin with the word “There.” They can almost always be shortened. Using the same strategy with the word “they” can lead you to sentences where you may be telling instead of showing (Remember –it’s not always bad to tell –but show when you can, and when it works). Also, using the find tool for common modifiers can be a good way of cutting unnecessary words: very, quite, so, “ly” adverbs. Finally, look at your scenes. Are you “coming in” at the last possible minute? Or are your characters waking in bed or driving in the car somewhere. Cutting to the heart of your scenes will help you lose a lot of bulk as well.
8.) Find a few readers
Yes, no matter how much you do on your own, you’ll never pick up everything without another set of eyes to look at it. This is especially helpful for things like characterization, character motivations and reactions, etc. Plus, things that may not sound awkward to you, will scream off the page to someone else. Other sets of eyes are invaluable.
Have any other suggestions that have worked well for you? I’d love to hear. Leave them in the comment section!