At the home stretch of getting my novel finished and readable, I’ve noticed certain trends in the things that I’ve had to eliminate during the editing process. We all have our own style of writing – unless we’re really hell bent on trying to sound like someone else – so naturally we also have our own quirks that we often have to delete or change when editing a novel.
There aren’t exact rules for what should or shouldn’t be in your book. In any case any “writing rules” aren’t really rules made by anyone rather than examples of what works best in writing. There is a time and place for everything, and if you came here to read about adverbs, just keep reading!
So what are these pesky things that I keep having to eliminate when I edit my novel?
Delete any remnants from the first draft
The first draft truly is you telling the story to yourself, so it’s more than fine to over-explain things. Your characters can also grow during the writing process, so sometimes something you’ve written before just doesn’t apply anymore. This is why editing and rewriting are such important parts of the writing process and why you shouldn’t get too attached to anything you write in the beginning. During the editing process, look for and eliminate anything you can’t justify keeping there anymore.
My protagonist Maura has not been dealt the best cards in the world but she’s smart and well-read despite her difficult childhood and humble beginnings. Although she’s now a very grumpy and argumentative adult, she’s never been one to cause trouble on purpose. So why, I wonder, did I write this:
[…} like a teacher scolding her for misbehaving between classes. Always between the classes, never during.
What’s the significance of getting in trouble between classes and not during? Desire to learn, I guess, but why would she go and be naughty anyway? To be quite honest, I can’t even remember what I had in my mind when I first wrote that in the early drafts, and still it somehow made its way to the final round of edits.
This is exactly why I’m writing this post: to show you the things you might not have noticed in your own writing. I do want you to write your best story because I want there to be more great books in the world.
Remove irrelevant character descriptions
These might also be first draft remnants, or maybe they’re just things you wrote because they sounded good. I hate what a cliche “kill your darlings” is because to be honest some people say it just to be edgy, but sometimes you really do have to erase the things that you wrote just because you liked them.
Something I’ve noticed myself and what I read on Wired For Story, readers assume that everything they read is relevant. People who haven’t ever taken the time to analyse storytelling probably wouldn’t be able to point out what they didn’t like, but irrelevant details can leave a feeling of unfulfilment and confusion in the reader. This is one of the most important things to remember when editing a novel
Don’t tell what you just showed
Again, this is fine in the first draft, but most of it should be gone by the time someone else is reading the book. This is something I see many beginning writers struggle with, so you should know it’s common, but it’s not difficult to learn to avoid doing this in the future.
To be clear, sometimes it is appropriate to emphazise something by repeating it. But if you’re frequently telling the reader what just happened or explaining why your characters are doing something when they already know, you’re diluting your own writing and underestimating your reader (and your own writing skills).
Here is another example from my novel:
Now five of the poles had been struck into the ground and there seemed to be at least a million more. Maura would never get out of this. But she would not be the reason they had to slow down either, and in fact, the others had better catch up to her. Josie was perhaps being too gentle with the hammer and she often stopped to switch places with Meredith. Maura straightened herself up again, she would not be weighed down in front of them.
This is very subtle but because I didn’t start writing this post sooner, I have already dealt with the more obvious examples. My bad. What do you think I deleted from this paragraph?
she would not be weighed down in front of them
Again, sometimes it’s okay to repeat something for emphasis, but if you want your writing to be tight, you need to eliminate unnecessary repetitions. When I re-read this passage for what seemed like the millionth time, I realised that straightening herself up already implies that she was not going to let the others weigh her down.
If you use body language in your writing, and you should, there isn’t usually a reason to explain what it means. Either you need to trust your readers more OR use better body language in your writing.
Try not to use italics and exclamation points for emphasis
This is sometimes a tough one for me to accept, but excessive usage of italics and exclamation points can make your writing look, well, amateurish. I know! They’re totally fine when writing blog posts and other stuff like that, but in fiction you should make your point in other ways. They can also be distracting for readers and they can make them realise they’re reading a story instead of living it, which is something you want to avoid. Avoid!
If you have one or two occurences of italics or exclamation points, that likely won’t ruin your writing, though I would advise you keep them in dialogue. (If you’re using first-person perspective, you might have more leeway with the exclamation points.)
Definitely don’t use italics to show that someone is thinking something – your readers will understand what you mean without them – but you CAN use them to quote something that a character is reading. They’re also often used for flashbacks, but reading several paragraphs of italics can be tiring to the reader.
Should you delete all adverbs when editing a novel?
Somebody once said you should delete all adverbs from your writing and ever since then people have been very worried about their adverb usage. True, there often is a more effective and descriptive way to say something, but there is no reason to be verbose in those cases when a more minimalistic wording can be just as useful.
It’s the same thing with “show, don’t tell”. It’s an extremely useful piece of advice to remember (and one of the reasons why we’re deleting those repetitive descriptions we mentioned earlier) but you need to take your pace into account. “Showing” everything will inevitably slow your pace.
The right time to use adverbs in your writing
And you know what? Sometimes opening a door is just opening a door, and sometimes you have to say “she quickly opened the door” instead of “she opened the door faster than her pet hawk could locate a mouse in the backyard”. (Although that sounds REALLY COOL.)
You also need to remember a point I made earlier about readers assuming everything is relevant, and if you spend several words on describing an action that readers should have no issue imagining themselves, they assume it has some kind of a significance. In the least it should be setting the mood and revealing something about the character that we didn’t know earlier.
Where you want to be extra careful with adverbs is after dialogue, as in, decribing the way someone says something. If you find yourself writing things like “he said sadly” or “she said angrily”, ask yourself this question: How do you know? Surely you know when someone sounds sad or angry, so just infuse that knowledge into your writing.
What do YOU frequently have to delete when editing your book?
I want to hear from YOU now because I’d like to write another version of this post where my fellow writers share their experience with editing their novels. What is your “pet mistake” that you keep making in your writing? Do you use the word “actually” on every single page? Share in the comments and help other writers!
Can you become a better writer in just 30 days?
You are going to have to edit your writing, there’s no getting around that. But what if you made that process easier for yourself by making your writing just that much better? That way you’d have fewer things to fix AND you’d get a better sense of what needs fixing and how.
I created the 30-Day Writing Challenge for writers who want to get into the habit of writing every day and improve their skills in just a month. Each day comes with a unique writing exercise that teaches you a new skill and you also get an explanation why it matters. You can stop reading writing tips and start to actually apply them to your writing.