The next time you’re scrambling to fix all of those tedious, nitty-gritty things in your draft, try a few of these exercises:
1. Creating potholes
What I mean by a pot hole is this: divide your work into sections of three sentences. Delete two sentences out of every three sentence group. What remains will seem completely disjointed, and that’s okay. Read through your draft and fill in the holes, but without looking at the sentences you deleted. Think of the original idea you had and rewrite it; don’t try to just rework the words you had written. This is a fantastic way to rewrite and it often results in a more concise draft.
2. Vary long and short sentences.
Whether on paper or electronically, highlight all ‘short’ sentences – sentences that are one line in length or shorter. Ideally, there should be close to a 50/50 balance between long and short sentences. Edit as necessary.
My fiction writing teacher once told our class to do this, and I thought she was crazy. The exercise sounded too tedious for me, but once I tried it, I believed. In my stories, I often use short sentences, sometimes to emphasize certain thoughts, which is alright, but other times I am simply too lazy to link two thoughts into one witty sentence. Consequently, several months ago I wrote a very flat story for my writing class, with around 95% of the sentences one line in length or shorter. I highlighted all of the short sentences in gray, and as you might imagine, most of my document was discouragingly gray. I found ways to combine sentences, delete unnecessary short ones, and ultimately, I picked up the pace of the story.
3. Commonly repeated words
Search for your ‘lazy’ words and strengthen them. If you used the word ‘very’ 12 times in the first page of a draft, you’ve found a problem. Instead of having a character who is “very tired,” say that she is exhausted instead, or better yet, show how the character is exhausted, as number 4 talks about.
4. Highlight and change places where you could show and not tell.
I know I have been guilty of telling instead of showing. That little rule is so difficult to follow sometimes, but the results of following it can strengthen any sentence or scene. Telling is when you say a character is “scared.” Showing is when the reader sees the physical affects of the fear. “Unaware of what might be awaiting him on the other side of the corner, his breathe quickened and his hands clenched defensively into tight fists.” That may not have been the perfect description, but I think it serves its purpose. Showing instead of telling is all about taking a cliché, vague, or dry statement and turning it into tangible imagery.
What editing tactics do you use?