As a copy editor, I've learned a lot about improving the flow of my own writing as I've tweaked the manuscripts of others. Today I want to share four easy edits you can make yourself that invite the reader deeper into the story and provide the impact you want to have.
1. Eliminate crutch words.
Crutch words are words we lean on too much in our writing — used when unnecessary, repeated too often, diluting the point. Like many definitions, it's easier to understand when you see examples. Here are a few: just, so, definitely, really, very, suddenly, and (at the beginning of sentences), smiled, shrugged, knew, saw, heard.
Adverbs are most often the culprits, but you might wonder what's bad about knew, saw, and heard. Nothing is wrong with any of these words used well, but we tend to misuse or overuse them. It's a crutch when you write, "I knew I was going to be in trouble," when "I was going to be in trouble" is the same thing and a deeper point of view (POV) anyway. The same is true with saw and heard. If a POV character says a bell tolled, we know they heard it.
Bonus thought: Curse words can easily become crutch words too. Make sure you treat each like you would other words; that is, imagine substituting another common word in its place. If it feels overly repetitive, you have too many instances of that curse word — it's become a crutch and can interrupt the flow of the read.
2. Finish strong with sentences and paragraphs.
Way back when I was in college, I learned about the recency effect. Psychologists have shown that we remember what we heard or write mostly recently better than what's in the beginning and especially the middle. For this reason, deleting or moving around a few words in a sentence can make a real difference in the impact they have on a reader.
Let's take a quick example. Which do you think would have the recency effect a writer desires?
"No one seemed to know if the spell had any real power in it."
"No one seemed to know if the spell had any real power."
"In it" doesn't finish strong the way "power" does. Ditching those two words can give the sentence the impact it deserves. Here's another example, with moving words around:
"As I stared at the knife raised above my heart, regret was my strongest emotion."
"As I stared at the knife raised above my heart, my strongest emotion was regret."
The second clearly lets the word regret linger in the reader's mind. Look for places where removing a few words or moving them around draws attention to the words you want to echo in the reader's mind.
3. Substitute action or description for he said/she said.
"I loved him like a brother," she said. She placed a rose on his grave and wiped away a tear.
Why is she said included? A dialogue is needed to tell us who's talking, but in this case, the next sentence gives that information. The action fills in that information, so that she said can get nixed and nothing's lost:
"I loved him like a brother." She placed a rose on his grave and wiped away a tear.
Sometimes you'll have a double-hit like the example above, but other times a writer has missed an opportunity to give more information about a character by using he said/she said instead of describing their body language, vocal tone, actions, or appearance. Just compare the strength of these two options:
"I loved him too," he said. "Or I did until he backstabbed me."
"I loved him too." He clutched his rose tight to his chest, crushing its petals with his grip. "Or I did until he backstabbed me."
Door number two, anyone? Simply run a manuscript-wide search for those he said/she saids and see if you want to make any deletions or substitutions.
4. Break up some paragraphs.
When I edit my own books, one run-through always involves putting the book on my e-reader so that I can see it the way a reader would. The prose appears very different in this format than on a computer screen, and it's easier to see large, clunky paragraphs that need to be broken up.
Your book needs white space — that is, areas without text — to prevent the reader from being overwhelmed with the busyness of the page. Without sufficient white space, reading a book can feel like searching for Waldo; your brain gets overwhelmed.
What's the right size for paragraphs? It depends. What genre do you write? Historical will have longer paragraphs than thrillers. What's happening on the page? Description tends to have longer paragraphs than dialogue. Who's talking? An erudite POV character will have longer chunks of thought than a street thug. So you have to make that call.
Regardless, make sure no page is so overwhelmed with text that it's difficult for the reader's eyes to focus.
With so much of writing a book being hard, it's nice to learn about some easy ideas for improving the flow of your story. These four easy fixes can help you achieve the impact you want to have on the reader.
What other easy edits do you suggest for making a story better?
Julie Glover writes mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.
Julie is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency. You can visit her website here and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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Great reminders, especially "finish strong." Will have to add that one to my editing list.
So true, Terry. I tend to forget to finish strong,
Thanks, Terry! That's one of my favorites.
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These are awesome tips, Julie! And perfect timing. Just about to go back to the beginning of a manuscript to edit...Thanks!
Yay for good timing! It's nice to have in mind things to look for as you go through. Hope it goes very smoothly, Claire!
Simple changes but look at the power they bring to the writing. Thanks!
Yep. I love when the small stuff makes a big impact! Thanks, Lakota.
Excellent tips and reminders!
Thank you for the post, Julie. Finishing strong is something I need to do, especially after taking Margie's three courses. The end of my sentences, and the end of my paragraphs fade into wimpery (if wimpery is a word!).
Yep, Margie talks about sentence endings a lot, and it's great stuff! Wonderful courses for writers.
And if wimpery isn't a word, it should be! 😉
Excellent post, Julie - I'd add one more. 'Say it once, say it well'. I see this a lot (okay, I do it too), and it's usually because the writer doesn't trust that they said it well enough the first time. The problem is the reader takes it that you think they're too dumb to get it the first time - and it's never good to piss off readers!
And I'm way guilty of #1.
Thanks, Laura! And I love that add. Yes, we belabor a point sometimes, don't we?
And I suspect we're all guilty of #1. At least I see it in a fair number of manuscripts, including my own! Which is why becoming aware of it can help us look for and fix those instances.
She's totally talking about me, Julie. I know she is! I'm ALWAYS worried about whether I said it well the first time.
Great advice, Laura!
A great reminder for when I go back to polish my ms. Thanks!
You're welcome, Carrie! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Every writer can use these four in their toolbox. Thank you Julie.
Thanks! My editing toolbox is pretty full, mostly with the chainsaw taking up all that room. 😉
Oh yes. I’ve got a ginormous slashing knife. Ouchy.
Great helpful post. I too like to put my manuscript into ebook form just to see how it reads as a true book. You catch so much that way! Thanks, Julie! I'll be checking back in.
Thanks, Karen! Glad you stopped by.
Do you ever catch a lot, Karen. I never tried reading my ms on my e-reader until the last one. I caught six lil mistakes, after believing it was error free.
Loved this, thank you! The word "like" is the worst for me. I'm mortified when I do a search and so many highlights show up. The same for know, knew, thought, heard, saw, etc. I am gradually improving sentence construction being aware of these. Excessive pronoun use is another when writing romance. I became so frustrated how to reconstruct sentences to not begin with them. I still struggle with it. Signed up for a class to help me learn this 🙂 I use all of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi's thesauri to help me with deep POV (I get to meet Angela next weekend at our writer's conference!)
My crutch word is "just." All of my characters are just doing this and just doing that. I always have to run a manuscript research and knock out about 2/3 of them!
And Angela is just lovely! You'll really enjoy meeting her..
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Look at you, girlie! THIS is the post you were talking about. (Why yes, I AM very very blonde and distracted this week.)
I needed this today as I sit down to write another scene on the pregnancy memoir that keeps making me cry.
Yes, ma'am! And I can't wait to read your memoir. I just know it will be beautifully written and powerful.
I've been working on #1 and #4
Wonderful! I've been doing a lot of #3 (he said/she said substitutions) lately myself.
Great tips, Julie! And so easy to use. I'm checking this checklist close, to use it when I'm doing those short, periodic edits of recent work.
Thank you Julie, I tend to stumble with #1, get bogged down.
You are not alone, Wendy!
These are great tips, but your subject doesn’t match your action in the second example of tip No. 2.
“Staring at the knife raised above my heart, regret was my strongest emotion.”
“Staring at the knife raised above my heart, my strongest emotion was regret.”
Neither “regret” nor “my strongest emotion” can stare at the knife. Those two have to match.
Dangling participles slip past me all of the time, too, and I want to kick myself when I miss them.
Good heavens, did I really do that? So unlike me. That’s what I get for writing the post when I’m sleep-deprived! Thanks for letting me know…I’m correcting now. (And you just demonstrated why we writers need a second set of eyes!)
Wise advice. Never hurts to hear these things again.
Thanks so much!
Great advice for all writers. For those who want to self-publish: following these tips will help reduce your editing costs.
Yep, some copy editors give clean manuscript discounts! Thanks, Iola.
Good post, simple but true. Its the small things
[…] Writers are always trying to polish our writing after our drafts are finished. Rachelle Gardner has some tips for tightening your writing, and Julie Glover shares 4 easy edits that make your story flow better. […]
So how would you repair that dangling participle? True, these can be hard to spot, especially after re-reading your own work a bazillion times.
I think I did fix it. Didn't I? 🙂