In the writers’ class I teach on revision and self-editing, I encourage students to start big and work small. Start with the largest issues (plot, characters, points of view) and only when those are finished work on polishing the language; otherwise, the time spent polishing may be wasted when that scene or character ends on the cutting room floor.
The penultimate task in polishing a manuscript before the final proofread is to check for the author’s blind spot word usage. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last two weeks: performing the final polish of my WIP, Doubtful Relations, before sending it to the editor.
Blind spot words are ones we have already caught in our earlier rewriting. Some we read through without noticing they are duplicative (shrugging
her shoulders—try shrugging a knee). We need to take the ax
to flabby modifiers (almost, nearly, completely, finally, totally, absolutely,
literally). Filler words (just, so, of course, as you know [then why am I telling
you?]) must be excised when they have no real purpose. The list goes on, but
they have one thing in common: I find them difficult to spot in my own writing
without taking extraordinary measures. (These same issues often stick out in
someone else’s manuscript.)
To find my issues, I have compiled a list of words and phrases to check. With more than a decade of experience in this practice I have taken a generic list and personalized it to incorporate my bugaboos. Every novel has generated a few additions to my list and also provided some unique issues. With Doubtful Relations, I was enamored with “morphed” and the phrase “held herself together.”
Doing a search on words like began, started, turned, and finally is a shortcut way for me to catch stage directions in the form of a series of sentences that began when the point-of-view (POV) character started walking onto the scene, turned a corner, and then marched down a long hallway filled with description and no action before finally entering a room where (hopefully) something interesting happens.
Other phrases suggest my writing is telling rather than showing: I felt, I looked, I watched, I heard, I saw, I listened (replace “I” with “he,” which also catches “she” for third person POVs).
Phrases such as going to, planning to, and trying to are often indicative of two-step processes in which only the later one counts. Here’s a made up example: “After trying to call Abigail and having to leave a message, I planned to give my son, Paddy, a call and see what he knew. When I called him I discovered that. . . “I called Abigail, was forced to leave a message, but had better luck getting my son, Paddy, on the phone. “What do you know about . . .” [Thirty-two wandering-in-the-woods-waiting-to-spot-a-bear words become twenty-five direct words.]
How much of a difference can this make? For me, a lot. Working though my list for Doubtful Relations allowed me to eliminate more than four percent of the words. For perspective, that means a 300-page book shrinks to 288 pages. Twelve pages of bloat no longer slow down the story.
I realize many authors and their copy editors must not think that process is necessary. Reading published books, I find numerous examples of characters who nod
their heads (again, try nodding a knee), kneel down
(kneel up anyone?), tell me in paragraph one what they plan to do and then do
it in paragraph two. It drives me crazy.
What about you, what excess verbiage takes you out of a story?