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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tightening a Manuscript

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?

~ Jim


Sylvia A. Nash said...

And here I thought I was almost finished! Thanks for adding some new words to my delete/change list.

Jim Jackson said...

Sorry (sort of) about the extra work, Sylvia. What are your biggest word challenges?

Clamo88 said...

Thanks for sharing such a helpful process. I haven't done a list yet, but go through the basic exercise with my short stories. Will have to do this on the novels, too, but they're on hiatus for the present.

Kait said...

Printed - I always find your posts on writing useful. I have a collection of them and use them often. I'm a just and reached person myself. My characters reach so often in the first draft they might as well be octopi!

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

just, shrugged, nodded, smiled. I eliminate -ly words. Dialogue tags. She whispered becomes she said with a whisper or her voice was a whisper. I have a master list.

Jim Jackson said...

Claire -- I use the same list for short stories, whose one big advantage is I don't do a search on "that" and come back with hundreds of the beast. [Of course over the same 90K words of accumulated short stories, I'd have the same problem -- it's the optics that matter!]

Kait -- I am going to picture a pod of octopuses whenever I read "reach."

Margaret -- I attack my -ly words a bit earlier in the process. I find they often serve the fuction of covering up a weak verb. Strengthen the verb and the adverb need disappears.

Ramona said...

Great advice, Jim.

I am plagued by "a" words: annoyed, aggravated, astonished, appalled, amazed, awkward. It's like I once read a thesaurus but never got past the "a" words.

Jim Jackson said...

Haha Ramona, although I suspect you meant to pick up the thesaurus to find new ways to say those words, but found the dictionary so interesting you're still in the a's. There's hope though, there are very few troublesome words starting with ax, ay and az. :)

Rhonda Lane said...

I'm trying to train myself to avoid those pesky "thats" in the first draft. Not easy.

Warren Bull said...

I still have a "hangover" from my day job where I consciously added "appeared," seemed," "reported" and the like.

Rhonda Lane said...

Like Warren, what I've heard described as "civic voice" used by news reporters lingers for decades. I also have difficulty switching from The AP Style Book to The Chicago Manual of Style.

Gloria Alden said...

I'm working on eliminating a lot of different words, however I know I have smiled a lot, and wonder if it's because I smile more than I frown, or is it because a lot of my characters - except the nasty ones - are friendly and mostly happy.

Shari Randall said...

I have a very weird affliction - my contractions disappear. "Jane, do not shoot!!" instead of "Jane, don't shoot!" It's like I'm possessed by the Dowager Countess.
Plus, everyone shivers and smiles a lot. A lot.

KM Rockwood said...

Reading my first draft, you could assume I am writing about a world full of bobble-heads, they nod so often.

I have discovered that my words to target do vary by what I'm working on. I find a word that seems so right for this work, so on-target, and then proceed to use it twice on every page.

Sometimes I catch the repeats, sometimes someone else has to. I remember once when the very able editor pointed out that I'd used "swirled" multiple times. In a short story. Sigh. As soon as she pointed it out, I could see it, but "swirled" wasn't on my "be careful about" list. Yet.

Jim Jackson said...

Rhonda -- I'm glad to know [that] I'm not the only one.

Warren -- I find when I have my MC argue, it begins to sound like my business writing until I rework it.

Gloria -- I like smiling characters as well.

KM -- yep, I have nod on my list too.

Edith Maxwell said...

This is perfect! I just removed dozens of entirely unnecessary "finally" and "try to" - thanks, Jim.

Jim Jackson said...

Edith, I'm glad you made the effort to try to finally eliminate those words -- crafty devils they are. :)

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