So you’ve finished your novel. Or memoir. Or other piece of creative writing.

Now what?

You must have been driven by some purpose that gives this project life and meaning, but does your prose instill that same vibrancy into your readers? The language makes your story breathe, and publishers will be looking at this just as much as the story itself.

It’s Time to Edit

Let’s clean up your sloppy first draft (or second… or whatever—since any work can use some revising) with this easy-to-use checklist.

1. Tighten Verb Choices

Verbs are the facilitators of everything. Make them count.

Search your entire document for all “to be” verb forms: is, was, were, etc. In most cases, these are (see what I did there?) examples of lazy writing.

  • She was cold. vs. She shivered and rubbed her hands together.
  • He was excited. vs. He punched the air.

Strong verbs convey purpose and action that can help bring a more dynamic feel to the story. Too many “to be” verbs can make your story sound like telling rather than showing.

Note: Some instances of “to be” verbs can’t be avoided. E.g. “My name is Amanda.” Just use discretion.

2. Eliminate Adverbs

This goes hand in hand with #1. Adverbs “help” your verbs, but strong verbs don’t need it. Do a quick search for “ly” to find these suckers. Most adverbs indicate either a weak verb (such as in the first example below), redundancy, or both (such as in the second example).

  • He slowly walked. vs. He shuffled, he ambled, or he dragged his feet.
  • He quickly ran. But we already know that running is quick!

Delete redundant adverbs and choose a more descriptive verb. Many times, you’d even be able to strengthen the language with an image instead of an adverb.

  • He sprinted forward as if his pants were on fire!

3. Get Rid of Unnecessary Dialog Tags

  • “Hey, Tommy!”
  • “Hey,” Tommy said back. 

But we can already infer that it’s Tommy who responded. This is another way to eliminate redundancy and wordiness.

Aro started to laugh. “Ha ha ha,” he chuckled.
– A quote from the Twilight Saga.

Dialog tags should only be used for clarification purposes if the reader would be unable to infer who is speaking or what their inflection is like. If what is spoken ends in a question mark, it would be fairly reasonable to eliminate a “he asked” tag. The reader already knows what interrogative voice sounds like.

magnifying glass over text for proofreading

4. Watch Out for Prepositional Phrases

In one of my first creative writing classes, I wrote the dreaded (and, again, redundant) phrase, “Sarah kneeled on her knees.” If she’s kneeling, we already know she’s on her knees.

Too many prepositional phrases can bog down writing, and most of the time they only weigh down good description. Only use them when necessary.

One of the biggest clichés is the phrase, [something] “put a smile on his/her/their face.” Where else would we put the smile but their face? That prepositional phrase is an uninteresting aesthetic, which defeats the point of being aesthetic, and it drove my writing professor nuts. Writing “she smiled” or even using a clever metaphor makes for more elegant prose.

4. Nix Clichés

Speaking of clichés… get rid of them. Microsoft Word has a setting in its internal grammar checker to flag them for you to make it easy. Aside from using this tool, be sure to just keep an eye out for them. “She was as healthy as a horse” has been used so many times that it does nothing to enhance the imagination of your writing.

5. Vary Sentence Structure

The best thing to improve flow and up the interesting factor on your writing is through varied sentence structures. When you read your work, look for:

  1. Sentences that start with the same words in the same paragraph
  2. Sentences that all seem the same length

Making your language sound unique from sentence to sentence helps readers fall into the story, and alternating sentence lengths creates cadence. Have a super long sentence followed by a short one and a medium-length one. Use introductory phrases, coordinating conjunctions, and interrupters.

  • Brian rode his bike five miles to the store. He bought milk and eggs. He had to go, though. His car was broken down.

The above example has sentences with the same sentence lengths and structure (subject then verb and object). See how it sounds robotic? Even with the other issues (like the verbs), we can improve the paragraph by just varying our mechanics here.

  • Since his car had broken down, Brian rode his bike to the store for eggs and milk. The trip was five miles.

Reading out loud is effective at alerting you of cadence and structure problems you hadn’t noticed before.

6. Avoid Repetitive Wording

Repetition is one of my biggest pet peeves as an editor, and it’s more common than most realize. Our brains develop their own speech patterns and way of communicating that we must overcome.

In one story, I used the phrase “milling around” three times in only 30 pages to describe the actions of a specific crowd. Noticing this during revision, I replaced one of the instances with a different verb and another with an image/metaphor.

Repetition isn’t always redundant; it’s often just a result of lazy language during the first draft. Think of all the words ever defined! Why rely on the same ones over and over?

Use Grammarly to find repetitive words and phrases too close to each other. Reading aloud helps with this tip, too.

The Editing Process

Too many of the above problems in your piece does not mean you’re a bad writer. Do your damndest to get your story and thoughts on paper regardless of how they initially look. It’s when revising that the magic really happens, though. Take your prose to the next level before submitting!

To close, here’s a recap in checklist form:

  • Tighten verb choices (CTRL F for “to-be” verbs, specifically)
  • Eliminate adverbs (CTRL F for “ly”)
  • Get rid of unnecessary dialog tags
  • Watch out for prepositional phrases
  • Nix clichés (Use Microsoft Word internal checker)
  • Vary sentence structure
  • Avoid repetitive wording (Use Grammarly)

Happy writing!

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