Making the words good after you already writ ’em

I’ve had a few requests lately to explain how to edit a book once the first draft is done. I’ve started a long and exhaustive post on just that, but it’s not finished, plus Maureen already wrote about it. In the meantime David Louis Edelman has a really useful ten-point guide to line editing:

1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both “weasel” words that lessen the impact of your prose and useless modifiers that emphasize for no reason. Words like possibly, simply, really, totally, very, supposedly, seriously, terribly, allegedly, utterly, sort of, kind of, usually, extremely, almost, mostly, practically, probably, and quite. Why write “It was quite hot out that day” or “It was extremely hot that day” when the sentence “It was hot that day” accomplishes the same thing? The more clutter you can get rid of, the better your sentences will be.

What he said. Add “actually” and “just” and “though” to that list. But remember there are always exceptions. Like many of those words are dead useful in dialogue for conveying dithering etc. For example:

“Actually, I was totally going to set the zombies on the unicorns. Seriously I was! But I was possibly maybe almost kind of sort of distracted by the troll invasion. They’re really big!”

Edelman’s list—like all such lists—is a guide not a set of rules.


  1. kim on #

    now i have some advice for when i write stories for school.

  2. Rebecca on #

    since you’re in the midst of writing that big blog post, maybes you could answer a couple questions in it. last night i was editing, and i did the modifier thing, yay me, but what is really driving me nuts is that every bloody sentence i write starts with “she” or “he” or the character’s name. i’m trying to switch things around, change up the sentence structure, whatever, but it seems like it takes five centuries just to write a paragraph. is this one of those things i just have to keep doing and doing over and over again? or is there a trick to it.

    also, second question, are there some tricks you know to writing description? i suck at it. i remember i read something here (i think it was here) about nondescript doors and colors and how that kind of description sucks. i know this in theory, but putting it into practice is proving difficult.

  3. Elodie on #

    Oh, add “suddenly”! I feel the need for everything in my stories to happen “suddenly.” As in, every new paragraph, if I am not paying attention XD It’s horrible.

  4. Rebecca on #

    and “then.” then she did this, and then, when she was finished, she did that. then, suddenly! he walked into the room. and then he smiled, and then then then then the writer’s head exploded.

  5. Danica on #

    Oh my goodness. Justine, you typed out the word “unicorns” without any aterisks and LIVED!
    I’m impressed.

  6. Rebecca on #

    Justine, thanks so much for reccing Worth the Trip. I know it doesn’t have much to do with this post, but it’s nice to see blogs for glbtq ya. I guess I’m not young enough to qualify as the target audience for ya anymore (22!) but it’s still my favorite… ‘genre.’ it just seems like there’s going on in the ya world… either way, i know when i was younger a site like that would have been amazing, and i relish finding stuff like that now. yay! However, one of the posts makes me want to write my own lesbian ya. there’s an audience for it, i just know it!

    thanks again!

  7. Sabrina on #

    Aw, you took my “suddenly,” elodie. I’ve also heard one should try to limit the number of “that”s as well.

    And now I picture hordes of zombies (you need to have a horde, it’s no fun if you don’t) chasing a couple of unicorns. That example made me laugh.

  8. Rebecca on #

    *sees double*

    “And now I picture hordes of zombies (you need to have a horde, it’s no fun if you don’t) chasing a couple of unicorns.”

    Hee! Someone needs to draw that. Where is Katerate?

  9. Stevo on #

    ‘Tain’t nuthin’ like a good beta.

    I file off the burrs and I fill in the potholes,
    I beef up the verbs and make note of the plotholes.
    I tighten the phrasing and cut to the bone
    Killing “that”, “then” and “suddenly”, paired or alone.

    I’ll shorten the sentences, clear up the scene,
    Canonize dialogue, oil the machine.
    Activate verbs and cull adjectives back,
    Annihilate adverbs and tighten the slack.

    Make all the characters speak in my head
    If their words are not right then rewrite what they’ve said.
    The cadence important and phrase plays a part
    Or canon is ruffled and readers depart.

    I beta-read fanfic, I beta-read filk
    I beta-read much of the worst of that ilk
    I fix up your stories, I clean out the murk
    So readers will want to read more of your work

    It’s your name as author, it’s your name on show
    My name isn’t something your readers will know
    But we both are aware that your textual grails
    My fingerprints sport on their finer details.

    So think of your editors, once in a while
    When fans of your stories queue up for a mile
    To Betas: a toast. Ladies, gents, raise your glass
    To friends who make sure you don’t fall on your ass.

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