The main purpose of line editing is to carve away the unnecessary words, leaving only the beautifully polished prose. There’s no black-and-white system for deciding which words need to go and which need to stay, but there are “red flags” you can recognize as needing a second look. If you see these during the editing process, check them out, and make sure they really need to be there.
1. Dialogue Tag + Action Tag
“I’m out of here,” she said. She slammed the door.
The dialogue tag is she said. The action tag is She slammed the door. You don’t need both. Hint: Always choose the action tag. It creates a stronger image.
“I’m out of here.” She slammed the door.
See? Fewer words, same meaning.
There are few moments when just is a necessity. Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, you can remove just, and your sentence will lose nothing.
I just want to go home.
I want to go home.
The just distracts from the sentiment. We use it in conversation so it tends to find its way into our writing. But more often than not, we don’t need it. To check, remove the just, reread the sentence, and see if it lost anything. Chances are, if you do need it, you can use only instead.
She took just a few lollipops.
She took only a few lollipops.
Depending on the voice of your character, just may be more fitting, but only is more specific. Use your best judgement.
Like before, remove the word very, and check out your sentence. Very is an amplifier, but we can usually accomplish the same effect in other ways, such as action or metaphor, which are much more impactful.
The tree was very tall.
The tree reached toward the sky.
Oftentimes very indicates a moment of “telling.” Consider, for example:
He was very upset.
He was upset. His hands trembled.
His hands trembled.
You can tell us he is upset, or you can show us his hands trembling. So when you spot a very, consider removing it or replacing it with something more image-oriented.
4. Seemed, Believed, Thought
This may sound familiar from your academic writing classes. Words such as seemed, believed, and thought indicate weakness in the author’s position.
The idea seems to be correct.
The idea is correct.
In fiction, they also pop up when we’re working around an idea, instead of getting to the heart of what’s happening in the story.
She thought about asking the man for directions.
She asked the man for directions.
Or… She wanted to ask the man for directions, but she was afraid.
Think about the main action you’re trying to convey.
5. Progressive (-ing)
You just don’t need it. (Seeing a pattern here?)
I was watching a movie.
I watched a movie.
Unless something happens while your character is doing something else, progressive tense is not the strongest option. Example:
While I was watching a movie, my wife was murdered.
6. Passive Voice
This is one of those rules we’ve all heard so many times, it begins to lose its meaning. But removing passive voice where you can will strengthen your prose. We’re not completely vetoing passive voice. Sometimes you need it. Most of the time, you don’t.
She was handed the switchblade.
He handed her the switchblade.
If you have trouble spotting passive voice, remember that someone (or something) will be having an action done to him/her/it by someone (or something) else—even though that person/thing is not always stated. For example, in the first sentence, he is implied.
She was handed the switchblade [by him].
That leaves room for ambiguity. Who handed her the switchblade? A man? A bear? An elf? Cutting down on ambiguity and increasing clarity is one of the major purposes of editing, and like it or not, rooting out passive voice helps the cause.
How often do your characters turn and then do something?
She turned and went to the window.
She went to the window.
Unless it’s imperative to the scene that your character turns, cut it. Most of the time, it’s a remnant of your first-draft self thinking through the scene.
This is an incredibly common crutch. Oftentimes, it’s used like turned.
He looked at the trees, their branches leafless.
The trees’ branches were leafless.
If you describe something, the reader gets that the character is looking at it. No need to belabor the point. But looked pops up quite a bit when writers want their characters to do something, but they don’t have anything for them to do. You’ll get lots of looking around the room and looking into each other’s eyes. A solution: Give your characters props. Keep their hands busy.
Remember how I mentioned cutting out ambiguity? Mentions of it is a great place to start. Every time you use a pronoun, step back and read the sentence as a reader would. If you weren’t in your own head, would you know to what or whom the pronoun refers? If not, spell it out. If you’re not sure, spell it out. Don’t leave your readers guessing.
But the it you want to be extra aware of is the one with a capital I. Starting a sentence with it is unnecessary. There is almost always a better way to rephrase.
She waited for a train. It would never come.
She waited for a train that would never come.
Merging the sentences is usually the simplest solution. Most of the time we’re using it to add a modifier to the previous thought. It , which doesn’t need a separate sentence.
10. Crutch Words/Actions
We all have our personal crutches. My characters love to chew and swallow their food (sometimes for days at a time). Be aware of the words or actions you fall back on when you don’t know what else to write, and keep a sharp eye during editing.
The easiest way to decide whether to cut is to remove the phrase-in-question from the passage, read it aloud, and decide whether anything was lost. Each word should have a purpose. That is the definition of tight prose. If you don’t need it, toss it.
Kill your darlings, baby. Your manuscript (and readers) will thank you for it.
Photo by Miles Evenson