I’ve been overwhelmed with copy-editing work lately, which has been good for my bank account but not so good for keeping up with the blog. Copy-editing helps me as a writer, because when I notice issues in other people’s manuscripts, they stand out in mine as well. Here’s a quick list of ten tips I picked up while evaluating work. These are in no order; I’m just going through a manuscript I recently finished and picking them out. I hope it helps you in your next go-round!
1. Fire the gun. Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you refer to a gun in act one, it has to go off in act three. The corollary is also true: If a gun fires in act three, you have to place it in act one. But even objects less important than guns and gun shots need to be established before they become important. If a character throws a phone at her boyfriend, make sure you’ve placed the phone in her hand before she throws it.
2. Suddenly, last summer. Everything happens suddenly. Get rid of this word every time you see it. “The door opened” is more effective, and less Snoopyish, than “Suddenly, the door opened.”
3. Be careful to distinguish your narrative voice as the author from your characters’ internal narration. If you’re writing in third person, you’ll need to describe things dispassionately, while your characters will have their built-in biases in their voices. Don’t mix up the two.
4. Structure your sentence around your strongest possible verb. Don’t write “He gave her an angry look.” Write “He glared at her.”
5. Don’t over-explain. Readers don’t need to be told that a character got up from the couch, walked across the room, grasped the door knob, turned it, and pulled open the door. “Got up to answer the door” is fine. They will fill in the blanks.
6. “and then” are not a couple. “He took off his shirt, and then she pulled off his undershirt.” Delete “and.” “Then” will be fine without her.
7. Use vocabulary that matches your characters’ backgrounds. A high-school drop-out would not use Latin phrases. A PhD candidate would not make subject/verb errors.
8. Don’t repeat yourself, or say the same thing twice. When we edit our own work, we’re usually aware when we repeat the same word. But phrases can be repetitive without being duplicative. For instance, “There were no discernable bullets that she could see.”
9. “At” and “to” are not your friends. “He whispered to her.” “She smirked at him.” The reader knows who those gestures are for. Getting rid of your “to”s and “at”s cleans up your copy and brings down your word count.
10. Whether or not you agree with me, you only need “whether.” “Or not” is understood.
Ten tips, and I only scanned the first twenty pages of the last manuscript I turned in. I’ll do the next twenty if this is helpful!