There are a dozen theories about manuscript editing and endless books with tips about it. But, in the end, editing is rarely pleasant. It’s an annoying process, and almost all writers dread it.
This article doesn’t claim to solve that problem. By all means, if you find a solution, let me know! Instead, this article contains a list of things you can apply right now to lessen the burden of the editing process. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still have to read that manuscript endless times and chop it up, but if you can do some things in bulk, from the start, why wouldn’t you?
Quick and Dirty Manuscript Editing Tips
I am talking about a series of word combinations that you can find using your word processor’s search function and fix them one after the other. If you consider all of these and fix them all, when you are ready to start the actual line editing, you will find the process much faster because you had already fixed a bunch of issues.
Note that this kind of bulk editing is great, but it’s not a substitute for a full line-edit. This is just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg. However, you’ll be glad you did it.
“Started to” / “Began to”
The use of “started to” stems from the desire to explain everything to the reader, to the smallest detail. It’s your ‘he got up from the chair, walked to the window, turned the handle with his hand, closed the window, walked back to the chair, and sat down.’ Exaggerated, I know, but I wanted to prove a point. That entire sentence can be replaced with ‘He closed the window.” The reader knows the man was sitting, and he knows he will be sitting again later because you give him the proper action cues for that. So it is only reasonable to assume that he had to get up, walk, close, and return to the chair unless he possesses some magical powers. The reader can put things together.
Using ‘started to’ comes from the same place. You want to pinpoint to the reader when someone began doing something, but it is what that character is doing that you are trying to convey, and not the moment when he/she started doing it.
Look at this: “I’m done with this,” he said and started walking toward the car.
If he started walking, what happened right after? Did he stop? If he did, tell us, but if he didn’t stop, he didn’t just start walking, he walked:
“I’m done with this,” he said and walked toward the car.
Do you see the added power in this sentence? You can almost feel the angry character walking toward his car. That’s because the ‘started to’ adds hesitation. It undercuts the strength of the emotion conveyed through the action.
You should look for all “started/began to” and “started/began ____ing” in your text and replace them with the right verb. Your characters will actually do something, instead of thinking of or beginning to do something. Try to use the strongest verb to show the right action every time.
“Kept / Continued”
When somebody does something, for example, looking at something, and a few moments later they are still looking, do you really need to specify that he/she ‘continued’ to look? The answer is no.
Read this: ‘The girl continued to look at the ocean waves[…]’
Did you mean: ‘The girl stared at the ocean waves[…]’
Since the combination ‘kept doing something’ or ‘continued to do something’ implies that whatever the person was doing before, they are still doing it now, just mentioning what they are doing is fine.
There are exceptions here too, for example:
‘Look at me when I’m talking to you,’ Jim yelled. Margaret continued to stare out the window.
In this case, we put the emphasis on ‘continued.’ Margaret is defiant; she keeps on ignoring the other person. We don’t care that she was looking out the window; we care that she continued to do something the other person doesn’t like.
‘Could’ weakens sentences in many ways. Here’s an example: ‘She could see teardrops forming in the corner of his eye.’ We know she could see them, as long as she’s looking at them and she is not blind. But does she really see them? If the answer is yes, then why not: ‘She saw the teardrops forming in the corner of his eye.’
Introducing ‘could’ adds hesitation and doesn’t convey the proper message. If the character was blind before and now she ‘can’ see, it’s a different story. In this case, the fact that she ‘can’ do something she wasn’t able to do before is the focus.
I hate ‘felt.’ In my first manuscript, I must’ve removed 100 instances of ‘felt,’ and the text improved tenfold. That’s because a good story must create an emotional response in the reader. That emotional response connects the reader to the characters; it makes them love them or hate them. Either way, they connect. You must allow the reader to get those emotions by passing the characters’ feelings onto them. You must let the reader feel it; you must not tell them what to feel.
Using a sentence like ‘She felt the blood boiling in her veins‘ robs the reader of experiencing that feeling and being in the character’s shoes. If the blood boils in your character’s veins and she doesn’t feel it, then tell us. That’s interesting. But if you are trying to convey that she was angry, this will suffice:
‘Blood was boiling in her veins.’
Here’s another example:
‘She felt the warm breeze on her face and through her hair.’
‘The warm breeze caressed her face and tousled her hair.’
Using ‘felt’ is the essence of ‘tell, don’t show,’ e.g., the opposite of what you want to do. Scout for that word, banish it and replace it with a sentence to show what the character felt.
‘That’ is good in many instances, but a lot of times, it is redundant. See these examples:
a) ‘She looked at the table and grabbed the cup that she liked the most.’
b) ‘She looked at the table and grabbed the cup she liked the most.’
a) ‘She knew that Jack was going to hate it.’
b) ‘She knew Jack was going to hate it.’
Sometimes you need to use ‘that’ to add flow to your sentence, but make sure you only use it when you have to.
Side note: I won’t get too deep into the adverb usage theory here, but I want to touch on a couple of adverbs that I find particularly nasty and that crawl into first drafts like the plague.
Suddenly is another word used as a prop to mark something that has changed unexpectedly. You say ‘suddenly’ as if to give the impression of the suspense music from a movie. The thing is, you don’t need it. Let the reader feel it’s suddenly. Most of the things that happen suddenly can only happen suddenly. Consider this example:
‘She pulled the covers over herself and opened the new book. Suddenly, a creak in the ceiling made her jolt.’
‘She pulled the covers over herself and opened the new book. She was about to start reading when a creak in the ceiling made her jolt.’
Read it out loud, and you will see how using the word “suddenly” actually kills the suspense. It’s like screaming, ‘hey, something unexpected is about to happen!’ Instead, state the unexpected situation, and readers will get it.
Finally makes the sentence reek of the author’s feelings. When you say: ‘he finally looked up,’ you create a fake sense of tension. You can make this better by some visual cues and pauses. Example:
a) With ‘finally’:
“You either give me the money now, or I am calling the cops,” Mary shouted.
John looked at her and knew she wasn’t joking. “Fine,” he finally said, “take it. Take the damn money.”
b) Without ‘finally’:
“You either give me the money now, or I am calling the cops,” Mary shouted.
John looked at her and saw a glimmer of madness in her eyes. He drummed his fingers on his thigh, trying to gain some time. “Fine,” he said, convinced she wasn’t joking, “take it. Take the damn money.”
Of course, the second version is longer because we are trying to create that tension and pause captured by the word ‘finally’ through internal thoughts and actions. The result is that the pause seems natural, and the answer after the tension created by the pause doesn’t need the ‘finally’ to send the same message of exasperation and giving up.
“Quickly / Slowly”
Both quickly and slowly are words that are fine by themselves, but you must be careful not to use them redundantly. Did he ‘walk slowly to his room’ or did he ‘drag his feet to his room’? Did she ‘ran quickly through the kitchen’ or did she ‘sprint through the kitchen’? There are a lot of verbs that can be used to show an increase or decrease in intensity. It is far better to find and use those verbs directly rather than add the modifiers quickly or slowly to others.
Unless used to expressly emphasize something, “exactly” doesn’t add any new information. It’s redundant. ’10 marbles’ is the same as ‘exactly 10 marbles.’ Sometimes the writer feels that ‘exactly’ helps emphasize the number that he or she is referring to, but, in reality, it distracts the reader from those facts. Don’t even get me started on ‘exactly the same.’
Notwithstanding the neverending discussion about using “he/she said,” all the time as a dialog marker, versus anything else, in this article, I wanted to point out a different technique: removing the “said” altogether. This should not be a manuscript-wide rule, but just a method that you would sprinkle here and there to add diversity to your dialogue. Basically, instead of saying that he/she said something, make the character do something as though to make it clear that he or she is talking. Here are some examples:
“I get it,” Andrew said, “he doesn’t want to see me.”
“It’s not that,” Jane said. “He needs more time. Give him a week or so.”
Andrew waved his hand. “I get it. He doesn’t want to see me.”
Jane shifted in her seat. “It’s not that. He needs more time. Give him a week or so.”
So, we conveyed the same information without any speech cues. You can use this to add movement to your characters, especially when there is nothing else going on in the room. To avoid the ‘talking heads’ syndrome, you can replace some of the speech cues with action, thus serving two purposes.
“Saw” is used a lot when the writer is trying to be too much inside the POV character’s skin. ‘She saw him move the vase back in its old spot.’ Well, again, if she is looking, she’s probably seeing. Why not turn it into action and load it with some emotion? Does she hate that he keeps moving the vase there? Then why not: ‘He had moved the vase back in its old spot for the tenth time and….’ In other words, if a character sees something and you want to describe what he/she sees, it’s best to state it, with the understanding that the character sees it, and add a line about how the character feels because of what he/she sees. Instead of stating something obvious, like the fact that a person with eyes can see, you are also loading emotion into the paragraph.
“Was _____ing” and “ing” verbs
The “ing” verbs slow down the pace of the story, so you should try to limit their usage, unless, of course, you are purposely trying to slow the pace down. In the past tense, the combination of “was” followed by an “ing” verb is even slower. Consider these:
“He was walking down the sidewalk, heading toward the bank, when a red car passed him at high speed.”
“He walked down the sidewalk, toward the bank. A red car passed him at high speed.”
Read the sentences out loud. Do you feel how the second one seems faster?
That’s it! I hope this helps you. Let me know if you have any other suggestions in this category? I am always interested to know what other people do when editing their manuscripts.
UPDATE: Since I wrote this article on manuscript editing many years ago, several tools have appeared on the market that automate the tasks I describe above and do a lot more and faster. I am going to write an article soon about their usage, but here are the links in case you want to check them out:
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You About Manuscript Editing
- Do you enjoy editing, or is it a dreadful activity for you?
- What are some of the things you mostly edit out in your first drafts?
- What are the things you find hardest to edit out?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!