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 five 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.