I’m going to reprise the series, add a few more tips, and consolidate others. Please feel free to add anything from your experience, or ask questions in the comments.
My goal is to create a road-map for making all our books better!
The following words can often be deleted with little or no change to the surrounding material. Observe:
Seek and Destroy "that"
Yes, you heard me. Obviously there are ways and times the word "that" is crucial to correct grammar. But those moments are rarer than you might expect.
Exercise: Take 4000 words of your WIP and paste it into a new document. Do a word count and write it down. Do an automatic Find and Replace in which you replace 'that' with nothing. Now read the chapter. The only place 'that' should be re-inserted, are the sentences which no longer make sense. Now do another word count.
TIP: Do this exercise on a portion of the manuscript you haven’t read for a few weeks. That way you’re not anticipating what the sentence will say.
Seek and Destroy "had"
(NOTE: We've had some great advice from editors / writers in the comments on this post about specific grammatical rules regarding the use of 'had'. Check those out before embarking on your Seek & Destroy for this word as there are occasions where it needs to be included).
Again, there will be moments when the word 'had' is critical. But since this word automatically places whatever it references into the past tense, it makes present action passive.
Here’s an example from a traditionally published book I read recently (I’ve changed the character names because I don’t want to point fingers):
“Harren had died during that fateful night, so long ago. The night when Peter had first killed a man, the night Peter had first lost control of himself in battle. Harren didn’t owe Peter anything, but he had saved Peter on several occasions – in fact, Peter realized that Harren’s intervention had helped to keep him from losing himself...”
Now, if I remove some of the "had"s (and one "that") the paragraph reads:
“Harren had died during that fateful night, so long ago. The night when Peter first killed a man, the night Peter first lost control of himself in battle. Harren didn’t owe Peter anything, but he saved Peter on several occasions – in fact, Peter realized Harren’s intervention had helped to keep him from losing himself...”
The paragraph is only four words shorter, but can you see how it reads with a great deal more immediacy?
Seek and Destroy "was"
I've left this one to last because when you search your manuscript for 'was', prepare to be there for a while. And each replace will be a little more involved. In most cases you won't be able to simply delete 'was' because you'll have to change the tense of words around it. But the seemingly endless task is worth it.
In most cases, the change is simple: "I was leaning on the windowsill." becomes "I leaned on the windowsill." Or, "I was faced by a horde of Horse Lords." becomes "I faced a horde of Horse Lords."
Sometimes the changes will be more complex - especially when there are several 'was' in quick succession. Observe this example from an early draft of my first manuscript in which the protagonist describes the school uniform she's being forced to wear:
"I was wearing plain black, lace-up leather shoes over dark nylons. The skirt was a dark green and navy plaid shot through with tiny stripes of red and white. My blouse was white and a dark blue, v-neck cashmere sweater topped the lot."
"I wore plain black, lace-up leather shoes over dark nylons, a dark green and navy plaid skirt shot through with tiny stripes of red and white, and a white blouse. A dark blue, v-neck sweater topped the lot."
(NOTE: I'd actually change that paragraph significantly now, but that's a self-editing tip for later).
I know this sounds involved, and when you take each example on its own, it seems like little difference. but when you make these changes throughout an 80,000 word manuscript, you'll drop hundreds (maybe thousands) of words. The overall impression will be tighter and stronger.
I think that’s enough for one post. I’ll be continuing the self-editing series over the next few weeks and have a lot more words and phrases to help you streamline your novel.
Your Turn: Any questions? Feel free to tweet or email me any words or phrases you'd like to see included in the series.