This week, Jane Friedman shared this Q&A about developmental editing on her website. The interview was written by Sangeeta Mehta and shares advice from Sangeeta, me, and Susan Chang. If you or someone you know is thinking of hiring a developmental editor, I hope you’ll find it helpful!
In that interview, we touched briefly on how authors can strengthen their manuscripts themselves, before sharing them with a professional editor. While I’ve shared tips for revising areas like characters and plot in previous letters, today I want to talk about a more granular area: how to strengthen your writing at the sentence and paragraph level.
First, before you begin focusing on details like word choice and syntax, keep in mind that this is generally one of the last steps in the writing process. Often, a line-editing revision serves as a final polish before an author shares their manuscript with an agent, editor, or publisher. Line editing your work too early—such as in your first draft—can stymie your progress and lead to a frustrating cycle of revising the same a handful of pages rather than writing new ones.
In your initial drafts, give yourself permission to write as messily as necessary in order to move forward. That might mean starting sentences with “There was” more often than you’d like, or using “smiled” whenever a character feels happy. If you notice these habits while drafting, try making a note for yourself in a separate document you can refer to in later revisions, and then moving on. In the initial writing stages, it’s necessary to focus more on the substance of your story—discovering the characters and developing the plot—rather than the style of any one sentence or paragraph. Remember that you can’t strengthen sentences that aren’t yet written.
Once you have a solid draft in place—including a clear sense of your primary characters and the core plot structure—you can then turn more of your attention to editing individual lines. Still, it can be overwhelming to return to your draft with a broad goal like “strengthen every sentence!” Instead, try identifying one or two manageable areas to focus on and then working on one scene or chapter at a time. If you start to feel stuck on a certain part of your story, try setting a time limit for revising each chapter or set of pages. Once your timer goes off, force yourself to take a break from that section or to move on to another one.
Some specific areas to look for at this phase include:
- Unintentional shifts in tense or perspective, such as switching to past tense when the majority of the text is in present tense or switching between first person and third person narration
- Repeated words, phrases, and descriptions—we all have words we subconsciously favor, whether that’s a description like “gritted teeth” or an adverb like “just”; if you already know that you tend to overuse a certain word or phrase, try using Word’s “Find and Replace” feature to quickly highlight them throughout your manuscript
- Repeated sentence structures, like multiple sentences or paragraphs that open with “Julie/She was” or “There/It was”
- Overly relying on familiar clichés rather than character-specific descriptions (e.g. feeling butterflies in your stomach)
- Competing similes or metaphors (e.g. using “She felt like a bird with a broken wing” and “She was a mouse in a pack of greyhounds” to describe the same character in the same moment)
- Relying too heavily on similes and metaphors, which can bog down the text, slow the pacing, and make it harder for readers to discern what is actually happening (particularly in genres like fantasy and science fiction)
- Overly detailed descriptions, particularly of familiar logistics (e.g. if a character gets in their car and drives away, you likely don’t also need to describe them walking to the car, opening the door, putting on their seatbelt, and starting the engine—these intervening steps are implied and will be assumed by readers)
- Unnecessary words that lengthen the text or slow the pacing (e.g. if two characters are talking, you likely don’t need to say “he said” or “she said” every time)
- Sections with a lot of dialogue and little narration
- Sections with a lot of narration and little dialogue
- Multiple unusually short or unusually long sentences in a row
- Overlong paragraphs, particularly for books aimed at younger readers (e.g. paragraphs that are over half a page long)
In order to notice some of these more minute details, it can also be helpful to change your manuscript’s appearance in some way. Unfamiliar visuals can help to trick your brain into reading your story anew. Try:
- Putting every sentence on its own line (particularly helpful for picture book manuscripts and for identifying repetitive sentence structures in shorter sections of novels)
- Changing your manuscript’s font, font size, and/or spacing
- Reading your text aloud (this forces your brain to read every word, which can make it easier to find small errors like tense changes or typos; for picture books, this also allows you to experience your story like many of your readers will)
- Reading your text in a different format, whether a printed copy or on an e-reader or tablet
Ultimately, the goal of line editing is not perfection, or to remove all traces of personality and individualism from your manuscript. In fact, line editing should ideally achieve the opposite—clarifying your intended meaning and unique voice by removing distraction and confusion.
Your Editor Friend,
P.S. If you found this letter helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend or subscribing to receive new letters straight to your inbox. If you’d like to say hello, share feedback, or submit a question that I might answer in a future letter, please email me or ask me a question anonymously! I’d love to hear from you.