Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Death by 1,416 Cuts

 by James M. Jackson

I have a love-hate relationship with my rewriting/editing process. That’s incorrect. It’s love-hate-love. I love taking a dreck-filled first draft and turning it into a novel people want to read. I love finding and filling plot holes, fixing unintended ambiguities, adding complexity, simplifying complexity. The list goes on and I enjoy it all until the day I wake up and hate it.

Once I have the manuscript polished (many months, several drafts), I begin the spit shine process. I search for words I overuse (about), or are flabby modifiers (almost), or action delayers (going to, planning to, trying to). I keep an alphabetical list; “about” occupies the lead-off position. The hate builds seconds after Microsoft Word tells me my WIP Niki Undercover has 251 instances of about. How the hell did I let that happen? I know how it happened: I can be overly meticulous. Few roads are exactly eight miles long; they are about eight miles long. About is technically correct and not one reader in a million wants it included. I check each usage and eliminate 107 of them. I swear the remaining 144 must remain.

The next troublesome word is “after.” I address either of two questions. 1. Is this the best way to show a sequence of events? Or 2. Have I slipped from deep point of view into narrator telling? I start with a depressing 156 uses of “after.” Ah ha! Afternoon includes after. I search for after with a following space and eliminate 20 of the buggers. Oh, but there could be punctuation. I find two periods, one comma, no question marks. I consider each of the 129 uses and keep 88.

“All of” is my next bugaboo. I can usually eliminate the “of” and sometimes all shouldn’t be “all” because it isn’t. I know this will be quick. The search kicks up four pure instances plus a couple of “wall of.” I turn those into possessives, eliminate three of the four “all of” uses, leaving one that occurs in dialogue.

I eliminate five of the ten uses of “almost” and seventeen of twenty-seven “always.” Next up is “appear,” which after ignoring disappear and reappear leaves me fifty to check. I frequently use appear to replace seem, but that’s not the real issue, which is obfuscation. Often I can find a clearer, crisper way to write the sentence or paragraph that includes appear/seem (Before I hit my delete key, I wrote . . . paragraph in which appear/seem appears.)

I’m not done with the “A”s and I hate my writing; I hate my novel; whatever made me think I could write anything? I should stop wasting my time and do something I’d enjoy, like drinking cod liver oil.

I soldier on based on a vestigial memory that I’ve done this before, and it worked out.

After four or five days of self-torture, I finish the revision by rewriting a quarter of the sentences that include “would be/would have” to eliminate indirect/passive construction.

I compare word counts of the before and after document: 1,416 fewer words remain after the process. And the result is tighter, stronger, more compelling. I’ll do an auditory review to allow my ears to catch a few issues my eyes missed and I’m ready for my copy editor.

I love rewriting. What about you?

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. Furthermore, a novella is the most recent addition to the series. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


  1. Even if we manage to eliminate one pet word while we're drafting, we find another one to overuse. Every. Time.

  2. What amazes me is how often I have a brief, but torrid, love affair with some overused words. They'll show up in a series of paragraphs in the same chapter and then, poof - gone for a few more.

    I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I love it in the beginning, tackle it with great gusto and rewrite with zest. By the end I wonder if I'm in the right profession and why I thought I could put interesting words on the page. Still, slogging through gives me a feeling of amazing satisfaction about three days after I finish.

  3. Words and gerunds. I have a whole list. And another list of compound words, hyphenated words, and two words I combine into one.

  4. Words are tricky, aren't they? After screaming in horror, at the mess I've made, I love revising.

  5. I hate revision...or the idea of doing it all at once. That's why I think I massage every piece as I work on it .... writing, rewriting, polishing.... and hoping it is close to being done.

  6. I like editing. The story's there, ready for some tweaking. No plotting involved, except if I have to rewrite a situation that requires attention. I love the word "just." Sometimes it just hits the spot.:)

  7. Oh, this struck home. If only I could stop myself from overusing "just"!

  8. It's fascinating how each of us approaches our editing -- once again demonstrating we are unique.