SYWTBAW: Detail Your Manuscript for Maximum Performance

Why yes, this is my car.

Editing your work is like detailing a car. Wikipedia says it best:

Auto detailing (UK: Car valeting), is the performance of an extremely thorough cleaning, polishing and waxing of an automobile, both inside and out, to produce a show-quality level of detail. Besides improving appearance, detailing helps to preserve resale value of a car.

Sure, you've probably gone over your work a hundred times to make sure your character arcs are completed, you plot makes sense, the timeline is accurate. You've probably run spell check a hundred times since you started. So what's left?

Plenty. As car detailing implies, in order to get the best performance out of your vehicle, you have to take your writing apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word. The goal is to ensure every single word has a purpose and isn't gumming up the works.

A good way to do this is to isolate chunks of text so you can focus on the words rather than the flow, which you're likely so used to by now, you can't imagine how it'd sound without that loose, weak sentence in there. There are lots of different ways to do this. For example:

  1. Read your work backwards.
  2. Randomly select pages and read through them, but do not read sequential pages.
  3. Search for particular words, symbols or phrases that you may have overused.

I like the third method because my word processor can count and highlight all times I've used a search term in a book. This is especially good for spotting a word that appears more than once on a page—something your editor will immediately pick up on and will likely want to fix. Everyone has different words they overuse, so it might be easier to ask a critique partner to point them out to you.

A few search terms I've used and overused:

suddenly: I've not known many things to happen suddenly, and I've found there are better ways to surprise the reader. Suddenly only prepares them for it when allowing the event to happen is much stronger. A monkey attacks you and you scream!

rather, very, little, pretty: Strunk and White advises that you avoid these qualifiers as they suck the life out of prose.

seem: this is a weak verb and prone to overuse when simply stating a fact is better. See my post on Seeming and Feeling.

just: I'm just not sure where I picked up this habit. It just seemed to sneak up on me pretty suddenly.

!: According to Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, you should eliminate as many exclamation points as possible, limiting yourself to only 3 per 100,000 words. I caught myself with 101 instance in my most recent work.

smil*: for smile, smiling, smileyness, etc. I tend to focus too much on characters' faces, and will sometimes limit their reactions to what happens in the head and shoulders. Being more specific when something makes someone happy, or even eliminating the smile and letting the dialog speak for them will sharpen things up. A good resource to check out is The Emotion Thesaurus from the Bookshelf Muse.

Eliminating, replacing and rewriting will get your work to a buffed shine and have your writing performing at its peak.

What words do you overuse? How do you do your nitty-gritty editing? Tell me in the comments below!


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