Revision Step One: Delete for Style!

           I’m doing some major revisions of a manuscript. I recommend beginning the revision process by looking for things to remove. Many times deleting content will improve clarity, voice, logic, and flow. As an added bonus, by deleting content in your first step of revision you won’t waste time polishing material you will only remove your labor of love later on. And if deleting content leaves holes, you can brainstorm and fill the gaps with something even better.

Whether you have found your writing voice or are still flailing around, there are still ways to make your narrative more logical, precise, and clear to the reader. The blog does NOT intend to place greater value on any particular type of voice (wordy, terse, slang, etc.) or to influence you in a particular direction. If I did, then it wouldn’t be your voice, would it?

  • Definitely delete any cliché or colloquialism that don’t fit with the setting, character background, time period, or genre. Otherwise you risk throwing the reader out of the story. Even if using these is part of your style or you are deliberately using them in dialogue for a particular character and it seems to work, consider deleting most of them. Use just a little bit and your favorites will shine.

  • Be concrete. Convince the reader. Delete words like bright. A bright shirt is not a concrete description. A bright yellow blouse is still not concrete. You can get away with yellow (probably) but is the blouse “bright” because it is sequined, caught in a shaft of light, or is it neon? Convince the reader that it is a bright shirt or a bright day or a bright person.

  • In line with this last point are adjectives. Search out endings: -ly, -ing, -er, -est, etc., and remove them without mercy. Be concrete, remove most and the few that are left that you absolutely love will have more impact. The On a related note, a and the are also adjectives. Your character leaving the room usually opens the door, not a door. The door is specific and concrete. A door is more abstract. Which door did he open?

  • Then there are verbs. Look out for any form of “is” or “being”. These sentences can usually be shorted with those words eliminated. For passives and linking verbs, you can usually cut out half the sentence. Also keep a look out for generic verbs like walked, jumped. Improve clarity by telling the reader how the character does these things. A person can jiggle, skulk, shimmy, disappear into the crowd. Consider modifying generic verbs to show character or mood while staying true to POV and voice.

  • Avoid redundancy. The reader is not stupid. A really important point that you want to be obvious about probably shouldn’t be said more than three times in the entire book. And remember that what is important to the writer may not be important to the reader. And reader trumps writer. So consider being more subtle than the rule of three. An exception is the character’s goal which should be explicitly stated as close to the start of the scene as possible and repeated as often as necessary – like when it changes or is thwarted along the way.

This is Part 1 of a series of five blog entries that look at deleting to improve Style, Events, Summary and Description, Characters, and Dialogue.

Three very different book on voice…

Edgerton, Les. Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality In Your Writing. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2003.

Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Payne, Jonny. Voice & Style. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1995.

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