Editing your novel-3: Trimming the prose


ANNOUNCEMENT: This weekend (Dec 31-Jan 1) The Mosaic (Kindle version) will be on sale for 99 cents, those two days only. You can click the cover at the right to link to it on Amazon.

Chris Keaton and I would also appreciate an honest review from anyone who purchases and reads it.


From Rick:

When helping writers, I try my best to give good, concrete advice, but honestly, I’ve been struggling with doing that in this series. At times I’ve felt as if I’m stumbling in the dark. I looked at my last post on editing and I felt as if it I really didn’t tell you much. Therefore, I asked myself how I edit and how I might best impart my editing skills to others. When I did that, I had a revelation about what it takes to be an editor.

Let’s take a step back and consider how one learns a foreign language or how to play a musical instrument. Basically, it’s practice. With a language, you learn the vocabulary, the pronunciation, and the grammar rules. Then you practice putting the words into the right places in the sentence and with the right forms of the nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. It’s not necessarily that difficult (although some languages are harder than others, and you may need to learn a special alphabet and writing.) As I said, basically it’s practice.

When learning to play an instrument, you first need to learn to read music (except for those enviable individuals who are able to play by ear), then you learn how to play the notes on the instrument. Again, it’s practice, mostly with coordinating eye and hand movement (and possibly breathing). And some instruments are harder to master than others. Both of these skills can readily be taught and learned, even if it takes time to master them.

My revelation with editing was that it represents a different problem in learning. At its core, editing combines many different skills, many of which are the same as in writing. It involves knowing not only the language in question but many experiential elements. On top of that add in that an editor must be able to work within both the limits of the language and also be able to work with different styles of writing. Add in that the editor must also deal with facts and knowing a lot about words, expressions, slang, trademarks (because trademarks have to be capitalized, and some words, like “Laundromat” and “Dumpster” we may not realize are trademarks), etc. In short, being an editor means calling upon a lifetime of experiences with the language and having learned it properly in the first place.

Even when doing simple proofreading, an editor needs an extensive knowledge of the language. He or she needs to know when to look up something to check it, particularly if it’s an unfamiliar term. When should something be written as two words, one word, or hyphenated? This gets difficult to remember because words seem to be changing at an alarming rate these days. Technical and scientific terms often present the greatest problems. I find myself questioning and looking things up a lot, rather than relying on my memory (simply because there’s so much to remember).

This is precisely why it’s is very difficult to edit one’s own work and why it’s hard to tell someone how to edit. A good editor must multi-task as he or she is reading. You must be able to look simultaneously at spelling, word usage, grammar, and punctuation while at the same time looking at the content, not just within a given sentence, but in the paragraphs that have preceded it.

This is also the reason that spelling and grammar-checking software, and writing software in general, fails on many levels. These programs can tell you if the sentence is properly constructed, but they cannot tell you if that sentence fits properly with those around it or if it even makes sense in context. Perhaps in the future, someone will figure out how to write software that mimics the human aspects of editing, but I’m not expecting to be put out of the editing business by a piece of software anytime soon.

What’s the upshot of my revelation and how does it apply to you? Just this: If you’re going to edit your own work, then you have to call on a LOT of skills that you may or may not have at your disposal. Your challenge is made more difficult by the fact that it is your own writing and that it’s hard to be totally objective. I’m not saying you can’t self-edit, but you have to work that much harder at it because we don’t readily see the problems in our own writing. And every book is different. General advice only goes so far. Even examples are of limited help. This is why you NEED outside readers, maybe not an outside editor, but SOMEONE to help you see what you can’t.

Here are some possibly useful article links.




In a future post, I will try to list what I look for during an editing pass of other writers’ work.

For now, let’s move on to the next editing step, where you try to make your writing stronger.

STEP THREE: After you’ve REwritten your book at least once, it’s time to perform the first fine edit. This pass looks for all those problem areas we’ve pointed out before: sentence structure, habit phrases, and weasel words (which we’ll talk about in just a moment).

When it comes to habit phrases, there is no good or easy way to spot them except perhaps by having someone read the manuscript aloud to you. And there are no good lists of habit phrases because each writer has different ones, and a writer may latch on to new ones at any time.

Here’s an illustrative example of writing that’s had one editing pass to clean it up, but which now needs to be looked at for redundancies and phrases that should be removed or tightened.


To be innocent is to believe in all of life’s possibilities. The world was what we wanted it to be. The world perceived was all we knew; it was our reality.

The future was just that, and as far as I was concerned, or I suppose most who are young are concerned, the future was only a distant thing. In fact, it was of very little concern, if any.

Today was at hand, and tomorrow was a long ways off.

The present is the only thing that truly matters when young, but of course time would erode all of that away, taking away both youth and innocence, and at least for me, my current love and, alas, the most precious commodity of all that we are born with: naiveté.

As we grow older, imagination changes into reality. Life kinda gets in the way of our dreams, at least for most of us.

However, life was still a ways off. I was still young and dumb and innocent, and ignorance truly was bliss. Once the innocence is lost, the world around us seems to change as well. The world we perceived turns into the reality of the life we live.


At first sight, this may not seem too bad. It certainly contains some good truths about life. But how does the language strike you? Does this seem bloated? Are there redundancies? It might be easy to spot the problems here, but what if this was your writing? Would you see those problems? After I did my first editing pass for this author, I gave it back to him (this is part of a whole book) to read over and look at places to revise. It will be interesting to see what changes are made.

As an editor I could certainly fix this and polish it up very nicely. I could even preserve the author’s style and voice. But that’s NOT MY PLACE as an editor because it it’s NOT MY BOOK. I can offer suggestions on revision and rewording, but I must not overstep my role. The author needs to do the work before I go back over it.

However, if it’s your own work, and you’re editing it yourself, then you have to determine how best to communicate your thoughts and to make your writing look as professional as possible.

This brings us to the weasel words and phrases. The list of such words can get extensive. Here are a couple of articles to get you started. You can use Google to find other such lists. Look over these lists, then be mindful of them as you go through your manuscript.



One possibility to apply these lists is to search out each of these words or expressions in your book to discover if you are overusing any of them, then make changes as necessary. Yes, I know, it can be a lengthy process, but hopefully once you become awae of them, your future writing will be cleaner.

Also, these lists represent only the commonly overused words and expressions. The problem is that an author my latch on to a particular word and overuse it without realizing it. Be aware especially of overusing uncommon words. Using a rare word even just twice in a manuscript may make it stand out because the reader will remember it.

For example, in a book I’ve been editing, the author latches on to “piercing” with stares, gazes, glances, and looks. The author used it only twelve times in a book of 50,000 words, but even twelve times can feel like a lot more when one character (in this case) is always the target of those “piercing” looks. It tends to stand out to a reader, but not for the author, and the fact that “piercing” is spread throughout the book and not bunched within a couple of pages is what makes it hard to spot. It usually takes an outside reader to spot it, and the only reason I eventually spotted it is that at one point the author did use it twice in close succession. What was interesting was that I’d read this manuscript many times already over the course of many months and only recently caught this problem.

I’m going to end this post here. What I suggest is that you pick up your work in progress and look critically at the WORDS you use, paying close attention to repeated words and phrases. Especially look for pet expressions or particular ways of saying things that you may be repeating.

Next time I’ll offer advice on finding an editor and how to tell if you’ve found a good one, for you at least.


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