I’m primarily a content/structural editor. So I’m looking for a consistent plot, characters revealed through action and dialogue, and tone that doesn’t change whenever you get to the harder parts to write.
But while I read for content, there are some common mistakes writers make that will save you time on your edit and give me more time with your story if you fix them yourself. Many of these problems are fixable using the search feature.
Lets start with filter verbs. Filter verbs are words like think/feel/see/hear and their synonyms. What happens is you write.
Dang, its hot. Joe thought.
If were in Joe’s point of view, it isn’t necessary to tell us he thought. Who else is going to be thinking in his POV?
So put thought in the search box, then look at every time you use the word. Do you really need it, or is it clear from the context?
When you’re done reviewing thought, put saw there. When you tell us Sally saw her parents waltz through the kitchen. You give us a nice visual, but it comes to us through Sally. If were in her POV, you don’t need to tell us she saw it. Having her parents waltz means she saw it or you couldn’t write it in her POV. Most time you can cut saw and have a stronger scene.
When you’ve finished with saw, do watched noticed heard listened felt and synonyms you use for them. Keep in mind, your goal is to cut where you can. Sometimes you need the verb for clarity. Until you get used to writing without filter verbs, you will find you can cut at least half of them.
Now that we’ve got rid of filter verbs, you want to work on writing in a more active voice. Search for was and look hard at every was + verb construction you find. Most of the time you can use simple past instead of was. One exception is when you need the passive voice the passive is used when action happens to the character rather than by the character.
Bob was mugged by zombies on the way home. is passive
Zombies mugged Bob as he walked home. is active. Notice the zombies are the actors in both sentences, but you will want to decide what works best for that place in the story you are writing.
This will be places where characters are being acted upon rather than acting. The other is where you are describing an action in process that is interrupted by another action.
John was kissing Sally when her husband walked in. This sentence shows us that they were still in full lip-lock when the hubby walked in.
After you’ve done was check were.
Since we are looking at tenses, let’s look at past perfect. The past perfect is an action in the past that is completed in the past. This is the had + verb construction.
He had kissed every girl in his school.
The past perfect shows up in flashbacks, especially unplanned ones. You know what I mean, where you introduce a character in the midst of some action, then go back to tell us why they are there. Time is best when it flows smoothly. The past perfect may alert you to those mini flashbacks.
The next set of words are what I call weak modifiers. We need an extra word for rhythm. Rhythm is vital, but you don’t want filler words. Every word needs to carry its own weight.
Search for that, if you’re like me you can cut eight out of ten uses without any problem. You want to use that when you are picking one out of a group that cat when it is a specific animal amongst a herd of cats. Even when you can’t cut that look to see if you should have used which or who instead. If you aren’t sure, check a grammar site to learn more about the words’ use and misuse.
Now you are going to search for seem in all its forms. Properly used seems is counter to reality.
It seems hot, but it is actually cold.
Most people use it in describing non-POV character emotions.
He seemed angry. You are always better to show his anger or other emotions without labeling them. Nine out ten times you don’t need seemed.
Do similar searches for just, then, very, virtually, really actually and any other word you tend to over use. All writers have catch phrases they use a lot. If a reader points one out, add it to your list.
The last group of words I am going to talk about are the emotional words. If your character is angry, show the anger through body sensations and body language. If you want your reader to feel what your character is feeling don’t name the emotion. Naming the anger shortcuts the process of reading the words and attaching them to our own experience of anger. So the reader nods their head, the character is angry and on they go. You haven’t evoked any emotion in them.
Sad, happy, angry, afraid and their synonyms go into that search box and you assess each use. Find a way to show the emotion whenever you can.
I am sure by the end of this process you will loathe that search box, but your writing will be immensely stronger. The good news is as you work on it, you will stop using these words so much. I will tell you, you never get past needing to double check.
One last trick, and it doesn’t use the search box except to set it up. Open a duplicate file then open the search box. Type in a period (.) then in the replace box hit the enter key. This maneuver will make every sentence start on a new line. Skim down the page and look for groups of sentences that start with the same word. Two is Ok, three or more consecutive sentences starting with the same word needs to be re-written. While you are looking, pay special attention to pronouns. You want to aim for no more than forty percent pronoun starts. Since pronouns will account for most of your multiple starts, fixing one often fixes the other.
These tips will get you started, but don’t stop here, would and could might be words to examine, About is often over used as is some. You will find others. The search box is a great tool for self-editing because you aren’t reading the words in the context of the story. Now, you will see them clearly and be able to decide if you want to leave it or change it. I expect you already know most of what I’ve said about show not tell, active vs passive etc. What these tricks do is let you see the areas you need to work on so when you hire me or another editor, their comments are about characters and plot, not things you can fix yourself.