I’ve worked on both sides of the editor’s desk, reading nonfiction, short stories, and poetry, as well as submitting both short and book-length projects of my own. I’ve edited for several small presses and for Scribner, for print and for the web. I’ve written for anthologies and magazines, published a novel, two chapbooks, and a collection of essays of my own. The one thing I’ve learned from all of that: every manuscript benefits from editing.
A good editor wants your work to shine. She wants to add polish and clarity. She’ll suggest changes and be able to give you the reasons behind them. She’ll ask you questions to open up the text so you can see for yourself what you’ve left unclear or unfocused.
The bigger publishers offer editing as part of the deal. Some of the small presses have started requiring authors to hire their own editors so that the submitted manuscript is print-ready when it’s accepted. If you self-publish, hiring your own editor is an absolute requirement.
Your writers group can help you hone your story. Your friend the English major can help you buff up your prose. You need a professional, though, to give your manuscript the final gloss, the attention that lifts it from acceptable to professional.
Every editor has pet peeves. Personally, I hate gerund constructions and passive verbs, but I’m fine with conversational writing and starting sentences with but or and. I just worked with an editor who hates dialogue tags. I worked with another who preferred academic writing. It may take a while to find an editor who meshes with your work.
It’s totally worth the search. It’s all too easy to discount a book that’s poorly written or full of typos, even if the subject matter is life-changing. Don’t give readers — or publishers — a reason to reject something you’ve labored over. If you’ve poured your heart into it, give it the best possible start and hire an editor.
Loren Rhoads served as editor for Bram Stoker Award-nominated Morbid Curiosity magazine as well as the books The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, Death’s Garden: Relationship with Cemeteries, and Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues: True Tales of the Unsavory, Unwise, Unorthodox, and Unusual.
Her newest book is Tales for the Camp Fire, an anthology of stories written by Northern Californian horror writers, which raises money for survivors of last year’s devastating and deadly wildfire.
Let’s take your manuscript from finished to polished by searching out the Cling-Ons lurking within it. Doing so will reduce word count, tighten your writing, and impress the agents, editors, and publishers who read it.
What are Cling-Ons? Useless words taking up precious space and weighing your writing down with wordiness. Fighting them off is a constant battle, but if you succeed, you’ll see a huge difference in your final manuscript.
When you encounter a Cling-On, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does the meaning change if I remove it? 2. Do I need it for clarity? 3. Does removing it change my voice/style?
If you answer yes to any of those questions, you can keep the Cling-On! It’s revealed itself as a Federation member. But most Cling-Ons will try to convince you they’re allies when they truly plan treachery. Consider each one’s usefulness and delete whenever possible.
Cling-On #1: That
That seems like an innocuous word, but in fiction, it’s often not needed at all. Remove it, and if you don’t notice its absence, keep it out.
Weak: The Star Fleet ensign feared that Klingons had taken over the bridge so much that he didn’t beam up. Better: The Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons had taken over the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.
Cling-On# 2: Qualifiers
A qualifier is a word or phrase that increases or decreases the modified word’s effect. Strong writing takes a stance and sticks with it, rather than qualifies it. A partial list: very, quite, rather, more, most, less, too, so, just, enough, still, fairly, really, pretty, even, a bit, a little, a (whole) lot, a good deal, kind of, sort of, only, much.
Weak: The really scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t much want to beam up. Better: The scared Star Fleet Ensign didn’t want to beam up.
Cling-On #3: Passive Verbs
Few things make action drag worse than encountering a passive verb. Most commonly, a passive verb is a form of to be + another verb, but these are also common: begin, start, going, seems, got, and becomes.
Weak: The Star Fleet ensign became scared as he began to fear Klingons controlled the bridge, so he wasn’t going to beam up. Better: The scared Star Fleet ensign feared Klingons controlled the bridge, so he didn’t beam up.
Destroying passive verb Cling-Ons comes with a bonus: you’ll probably catch most instances of passive voice in your manuscript as well.
Cling-On #4: Stage Directions
Stage directions are when we write every movement a character takes, much like blocking an act for a play. But readers can, and do, infer most movements on their own. Words commonly appearing in stage directions: turn, put, rose, stand, walk, reach, look, enter, exit, glance, lift, push, pull.
Weak: The ensign rose, crossed the room, went up to the bridge, and readied her phaser. Better: The ensign headed to the bridge, phaser readied.
Cling-On #5: Prepositions
Prepositions are often superfluous because readers assume the information they give, especially for directional prepositions. Common ones to delete: at, to, up, down, of, in order to, toward, forward, back, along, away.
Weak: The ensign of Star Fleet ran away from the transporter bay in order to avoid the advancing Klingons. Better: The Star Fleet ensign ran from the transporter bay to avoid the advancing Klingons.
Cling-On #6: Sensing Verbs
When the five senses are literally invoked to describe a scene, chances are you don’t need them. If your character’s point of view is clear, we only need the description. Writing that the character hears, feels, or sees something are the most common Cling-On sensing verbs.
Weak: McCoy heard thundering feet as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. He saw the Bat’leth’s shiny edge before he felt its cold metal slice his finger. Better: Feet thundered as the Klingons took over Sick Bay. The Bat’leth’s cold, shiny metal sliced through McCoy’s finger.
Cling-On #7: Adverbs
Destroy adverbs mercilessly—oops, I mean without mercy. Editors frown on heavy adverb use, and that preference isn’t likely to change anytime soon. The earlier Cling-Ons include many adverbs, so use this step to hunt down ones ending in -ly.
Weak: The scared Star Fleet ensign shakily hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons terrifyingly rushed the bridge. Better: Shaking, the Star Fleet ensign hit the self-destruct button as the Klingons rushed the bridge. They held Bat’Leths high and chanted, “TlhIngan maH!”
Now you have the weapons needed to defeat the Cling-Ons hiding in your manuscript. To battle!
Rebecca Gomez Farrell writes all the speculative fiction genres she can conjure up. Her first fantasy novel, Wings Unseen, debuted in August 2017 from Meerkat Press. As Kirkus Reviews describes it: “War, treachery, and star-crossed lovers abound in this high fantasy novel. . . . Farrell’s book is imaginative, filled with detailed worldbuilding, but rarely bogged down in exposition. Each of the protagonists’ stories is engaging in its own way.”
Her short stories, nearing 20 in all, have been published in the Future Fire, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Pulp Literature among other outlets. You can also find several of her short stories in new anthologies: Little Letters on the Skin, Through a Scanner Farkly, and Dark Luminous Wings.
Becca’s food, drink, and travel blog, theGourmez.com, has garnered multiple accolades and influences every tasty bite of her fictional worldbuilding. She lives in Oakland, CA, with her tech wizard husband and two trickster cats. If this writing gig doesn’t work out, becoming a tour guide is next. Website: RebeccaGomezFarrell.com. Twitter: @theGourmez.
I’m a firm believer in independently publishing my novels. I enjoy the marketing process since it involves getting out and meeting people. Being a working artist for the past twenty years or more, I find working a table at a convention or being in a booth at a fair to be a normal state of existence. I would miss the experience if I allowed others to do this for me. There is nothing like the personal touch when it comes to learning what your readers like (or not) about your work. Other pluses include retaining complete control over my writing and gaining the maximum profits on my sales.
Part of being an Indie Author is making sure your manuscript is the best that it can be before you release it into the world. Instead of accepting the cover art the publishing house insists upon and using their editor, I take the responsibility to hire people to do the work myself. It can be costly, a good editor doesn’t come cheap (nor should they), but in the end, I feel that keeping control of my work is the better end of the equation. Self-editing can help to reduce the cost of an editor and proof-reader since they will not have to do as much work.
During my self-edit process, I use beta-readers to provide insight into the content. I follow with editing software to catch general grammar, punctuation, passive voice, and adverbs. I spend far more time rewriting and editing a work than I spend in the rough draft. However, there is more I do during self-editing than rely on machines.
Below is a checklist I use to polish a novel, novella or short story before I send a longer manuscript to an editor and proofreader or submit a short story to a magazine.
1. Do not express emotion via mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes. “The horse…is…DEAD!” doesn’t make an equine any more expired than “The horse is dead.”
2. Remove mannerisms of attribution. People speak. They do not wheeze, sigh, laugh, grunt, gasp, snort, reply, retort, or exclaim, ect.
3. Do not use similar names for your characters, it causes confusion with the reader. You should also avoid using the same first initial in names of your main characters.
4. Show, don’t tell. If Alex pounds on the door and demands entrance. You do not need to tell the reader he is angry.
5. Along with showing instead of telling, you do not need to explain the emotions of the characters. Let their actions do it for them.
Alex pounded on the door. “Let me in!”
Alex was angry at Mary. Furiously, he pounded on the door and shouted at her, “Let me in!”
6. Avoid cliches. This means not only common words and phrases, but also cliched situations.
Examples: Starting with your character waking up. Having a character look in a mirror so you can describe them via their POV. Having future romance partners bump into each other on their first meeting. It has all been done before. Don’t repeat history.
7. Remove stage directions. You don’t need to describe every single action of all the characters in every scene. Leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. We live in an age of television and movies. The reader’s mind has been trained to use similar images when they read about a place or situation. There is no need to describe it as much as authors did 100 years ago.
8. Use adjectives sparingly. Instead, find a strong noun and verb to convey the same information. Keep it simple.
9. Remove the word “that”. It adds extra weight to your sentences without giving any substance.
10. Avoid the words “up” and “down”. Only use them when needed. He started [up] the car. She walked [down] the street.
11. Do not be redundant. Do this in content with your ideas, but also in your sentence structure.
12. Choose regular words over the more unusual. Don’t show off your vocabulary. Make your content and ideas shine instead. Don’t get in the way of what you are trying to say.
13. Start the action right at the beginning. Don’t start it after a couple of pages of descriptive scene setting. Just get to it!
There is much more to self-editing, but this checklist is a place to start. Don’t let revision and editing daunt you. While it is a huge task, in the end it is rewarding to know you have polished your manuscript and made it the best you can.
Writing a novel is a many step process. Your first action is to sit down and write the rough draft. For me, this means sitting in the various coffeehouses in my local area with my trusty AlphaSmart typewriter, a notebook with a brief story outline, and plenty of ice coffee.
When I write, the characters become friends to me, real people that I care about and want to spend time with. During the drafting process, this is a positive since it keeps your butt in the chair and working. However, after drafting, this love of story becomes a liability. Distance in the relationship is needed in order for you to take the next step in the process. Once that messy manuscript is completed, I stick it in a drawer or a computer file and take a long break from the work in order to allow my minds to reset on the story.
Once a sufficient amount of time has passed, it is time to open up that file and take a long look at what I have written. This is the point where I cringe and wonder what the heck I could have been thinking during those long sessions at the coffeehouse. I think that most authors feel this way at this stage in the game. What comes next is a read through of the book where you note places where you have repeated concepts, where plot holes have developed and other problems that need to be fixed. In many cases it is necessary to reorganize the book so that it has the plot twists and other major actions happen at the proper places in the book. The theme of your book needs to be discovered so that you incorporate it into the book and micro-scenes should be clipped to make the action more streamlined.
My process uses some of the techniques that I learned in the four books I am reviewing below. My favorite is Blue Print Your Bestseller. I use Horwitz’s method to break down my story into scenes, color code them in order to find plot holes, take out tiny transition scenes that slow down the pacing of the book and, most importantly, find the theme of my story if I have not done so during the drafting process. Then I reassemble the story into chapters and go forward in a more traditional manner toward the editing process. His method is a beautiful match to Scrivener and works wonders in that writing environment, although he personally uses paper in his descriptions. However, there is much value to be found in all four of these books. If you find that you have trouble with plot and structure as I do, these books will be of good service to you.
Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method
By Stuart Horwitz
I found this book to be an excellent primer on how to organize the first revision of your novel. The method starts with taking an unfinished manuscript, such as a Nanowrimo effort, and walks you through a process to break apart the work into its component scenes, identify the various threads that weave through the work, discover the book’s theme, and then finally put the book back together into a better more cohesive whole. The examples were clear, the language friendly and knowledgeable, and the content very useful to any writer. I feel that this book should be in every author’s library and recommend it to all my author friends.
By Larry Brooks
I have found this book to be instrumental in explaining the components of what makes a good story and how those elements can be combined. Brooks takes you from story concept through character development, scene construction and the basic structure of your tale. I found the book to be easy to understand and to have a fresh viewpoint on the subject. Once you have finished that rough draft, this is a great primer on where to move the various elements of your story or how to strengthen scenes and characters to make them more memorable.
The 90 Day Rewrite
By Alan Watt
I have to include Alan Watt’s sequel to the 90-Day Novel in my list. The first book helped me overcome a major blockage in a series that I was writing and allowed me to complete a Nanowrimo project on schedule. I recommend the former book for anyone prepping for the 30 writing experience of Nanowrimo, it will get you to the finish line.
It was with great expectations that I picked up this book once my first draft was done. Once again, Watt designed a workbook that guides you through the process, in this case, of the first rewrite. Your work is broken down into thirteen weeks of tasks to accomplish that lead you on to clean up your book’s structure, strengthen characters, and do all the necessary things in your rewrite. If you feel as if you are wandering lost in the woods when doing your first rewrite, this book will leave you a trail of breadcrumbs to follow.
The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Author Can Master
By Martha Alderson
As you may have guessed by now, plot and structure are my two problem children as a writer. I come up with real characters and interesting locations, but what they do in those places sometimes is a struggle for me. The Plot Whisperer helps to address these issues. She shows you have to create plot lines and subplot that work together, a method of scene tracking, how to show character transformation during the climax of your story and much more. This is a well-written book with many good ideas to help you become a better author.