Some hints on tightening up your manuscript

Editing your manuscript
Fading graffiti near Neuchatel

I am currently re-editing the first two books of the Boy & Girl Saga with a view to publishing the third book. When I mention editing, I am not talking about ensuring grammatical accuracy or correct spelling. That is important, but it is not the focus here. I refer rather to efforts to increase the impact of a novel while maintaining a high degree of precision in communicating what the author has in mind. To some extent there is a tension between making sure the reader understands and having a greater impact. 

There are many facets to editing. These include, the music of the words, cadence, rhythm, word order, impact, the treatment of time, questions of point of view, distance or lack of it,  style. Not to mention aspects linked to the audience addressed. After years of practice, editing my own novels but also articles of clients, there are many things I instinctively sense as ‘out of tune’, but they can be hard to explain. The musical metaphor is appropriate, as much of editing has to do with the ear and the rise and fall of words. Training your ear involves a great deal of listening, reading and writing.

If your prose is leisurely and you have all the time in the world, then much of what I say may not concern you. Some people’s writing is full to overflowing with words. That’s their style. It can work, especially if wordiness is a trait of a main character or the narrator, although it can be risky. But much modern writing, especially for a younger audience, needs to move forward rapidly using tight, impactful prose. Impact invariably has to do with the twists and turns of the plot, but it also depends heavily on the tightness of the writing. Although the challenges are different in academic texts, the need for a wider reach for research work also calls for attention to concision and impact. It is improving the impact of writing by tightening up the prose that is the subject of this article.

The facets of editing treated here are possibly the easiest to describe and the most common as well as being accessible without having to venture into the details of a wider context. I do not pretend to exhaustivity. The few examples given are meant to hint at some of what to look for when editing a manuscript.

Unnecessary words

One common problem is unnecessary words that bloat the text and diminish the impact. Consider the words ‘the idea of’. In the following sentence, The idea of being punished by Fi sounded fun… The first three words might be construed as stressing that it is the idea and not being punished that is fun. However this clarification is hardly necessary as it is implied in the word ‘sounded’, Being punished by Fi sounded fun.

A second fill-in is ‘of them‘. Consider this extract: “Don’t ask men. Most of them are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration…” It would suffice to say, “Don’t ask men. Most are pretty hopeless at dealing with adoration… It would also be tempting to omit the word ‘pretty’, but it says something useful about the character of the speaker.

A further habit is adding ‘feeling of‘ before stating the feeling being referred to. Here’s an example, …added to his feeling of confusion. Those couple of unnecessary words lessen the impact of what is being said. Just write, …added to his confusion.

One final example. The use of ‘they were in‘ ostensibly to underscore the fact that they are talking about the place they are in. Here’s an example, Peter was about to warn her to respect the holy place they were in…We know from the story they are in a chapel so the extra words are not necessary.

Trying to add nuance can be counterproductive

As hinted above, one of the challenges of writing is to communicate the author’s nuances to the reader. While precision is extremely important, especially as expressed in the choice of words, communicating many nuances may not be essential to the story and can hinder the flow and impact. One way we seek to nail down nuance is by tacking on additional words. Academics are particularly fond of doing so as they strive to avoid ambiguity. As a result, academic texts can be unnecessarily repetitive if not laborious. But novel writers can also be over cautious and verbose in wanting to dictate, or at least channel, what the reader understands.

Take the verb to manage. If we write, Despite the broken lock, he managed to open the door, the verb expresses his ability to overcome a difficulty and its use is justified. But what about the following sentence, We managed to clear the room out earlier with the help of the new girls. The suggestion is that clearing out was not easy or that there was little time to do it. But if the difficulty was not the key point, insisting on such a nuance only wedges words between us and what we are trying to say, diminishing the impact. Better to say, We cleared the room… 

This example above gives us another frequent use of unnecessary words. The sentence says, the help of. This is not necessary. It is understood from the context. In a similar case, “Fine,” Sandra said, striding up at that moment, the words at that moment are unnecessary. When else can it be?

We often include words that double up for ideas expressed elsewhere in the sentence. Take, …she let her emotions of disgust and shame flow with her words… We don’t need to say emotions. Write rather: …she let her disgust and shame flow with her words. 

Consider the words at the expression in this extract. “Who’s your friend?” Kate groaned at the expression. The words seek to make sure we know it wasn’t for some other reason she groaned. But depending on the context that precision may be superfluous.

Here’s another example where being over precise may be counterproductive. “As a leader, it’s your job to figure out how to deal with it.” The words to figure out how seem to add additional precision pointing to a need to struggle to understand. But is stressing the nuance worth the weakening of the impact? How about: “As a leader, it’s your job to deal with it.”

The risk of tacking a second idea on to a sentence

Another common trait is tacking on additional ideas to the end of a sentence. Some adepts string together numerous ideas that leave the reader whirling and breathless. In the following extract the phrase causing them to gasp tagged on to the end of the sentence dilutes the first part which, as an idea in itself, has much more impact on its own. The action of gasping can be usefully shifted to the second sentence, replacing wonder, a word that refers back to the gasping and in so doing diminishes its impact.

Here are the two sentences: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens causing them to gasp. Their wonder was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape. Edited this, it would become: A couple of shooting stars darted across the star-studded heavens. Their gasp was the only sound in the silence that inhabited the snow-shroud landscape.

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