The Nitty-Gritty of Editing: Deletion

CC image by Mrs TeePot

Oh yes, it is time to face this necessary evil. Editing. You may remember that I wrote a blog on content editing last summer. If you missed it, I hope you will go back and give it a read. It is frustrating that we separate the concepts of writing and editing to such a degree because they truly go hand in hand. If you are a writer, you must be an editor as well. Sentence structure, formatting, word choice, grammar—these are all tools of the trade. If you do not consider them, you are not a craftsman of writing. Many things in life have to be refined, writing is no different.

This blog series will consist of four categories that address a more technical side of editing. I highly suggest that you use these concepts not only after your piece is complete, but after it has gone through a stage of revision. I have compiled this list from what others have taught me and what I have learned through my own experience. It is nowhere near comprehensive, but it is a starting point for many problems that often go unnoticed. To begin, I will go through a sometimes painful part of editing that many of you are familiar with: deletion. What follows are six things to look out for and delete if you find them.

CC image by Matt Hampel

CC image by Matt Hampel

For me, this was the greatest sign that my work needed editing. When I noticed my redundancies, I nearly beat my head against my keyboard in embarrassment, certain that whatever I typed that way would be better. Let’s be honest, we aren’t that creative. As creatures of habit, we have fall-back phrases that we use any time it feels appropriate. For example, in the first draft of the book I am writing with Tracy Buckler, we noticed the phrase “for a moment” being used over and over. For some reason, it seemed oh so important at the time to have those moments. This is where the find tool comes in handy. We found them, bolded every one, and determined if they were necessary. Let me just say that we kept five. If that. This is where you need to be familiar with your own writing so that you can catch yourself when you fall back on these useless phrases.

Another example is redundant action. For some reason our characters sighed a lot. Sometimes in a conversation, it was as contagious as yawning. This forced us to think harder. What could my character do instead of sighing that would be far more insightful for the reader? And if it wasn’t important, it got deleted. Look for these; you will find them. You may discover that all of your characters constantly cross their arms, roll their eyes, wink, bite their lips, or any number of things. Delete them or find something better.

Usually the redundancies are more subtle. You’ll think of a really perfect word at the top of the page, and you’ll still be so caught up in its perfection that you don’t notice you used it again at the bottom of the page or two sentences later. If it’s a unique word like “gregarious,” it’s going to stand out, and one of them needs to be deleted. This could lead you to discover that the entire paragraph where you used the word again is, in itself, redundant. Let me also remind you of the wonders of pronouns. No one likes to read sentences like this: “He picked up his books and took his books to the table.” Believe me, these redundancies are very common, especially if you are distracted. Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to all of us.

CC image by Mrs TeePot

CC image by Mrs TeePot

Passives and Introductory Action
This was hammered into me during my creative writing classes. The problem with passive construction is that it’s not engaging. Which is more interesting? “His grandmother was hit by the bus!” or “The bus hit his grandmother!” If your story is full of passive writing, the readers will feel like they’re idly observing what is happening rather than being in the thick of it. This most commonly happens with “ing” verbs. There is a tendency to say “he was running,” rather than “he ran.” Look for all of your “ing” verbs. Sometimes they’re appropriate, but often, they should be changed to the active form.

A similar concept is introductory action. This is action that starts with words like “began” or “started.” This is okay if the action is interrupted. For example, “He began walking away, when she called him back.” That makes sense. On the other hand, “He began writing on the board as the teacher was lecturing.” There is no reason for this action to only “begin.” This sentence would be much more engaging as “He wrote on the board as the teacher lectured.”

Middleman and Listed Action
Here is an example of what I call middleman action: “He reached out and touched her shoulder.” If he touched her shoulder, it can be implied that he reached out. Don’t keep action that is easily assumed. Another example of this would be: “She knocked on the door. Hearing nothing, she turned the doorknob and opened it.” The problem with this construction is that it bogs down the action. You want to keep action fast paced or engaging. “She knocked on the door. Hearing nothing, she opened it.” See how much more fluid that is?

Deleting listed action is also important. This is basically words like “then” or “next.” I don’t want to overstate this; sometimes these words may work well. However, if you have an action sequence in which you are saying “Then he did this. Next he did this,” your action has become boring and disengaging. Suddenly, there is no stake or suspense in what is taking place because it sounds a lot like telling the story after the fact.

Weak Words and Fillers
There are words and phrases that inherently weaken your statements. The following are examples: even, just, sort of, seemed, really, a bit, tends to, etc. These make your writing lack conviction. I see this especially in the use of metaphors. A writer will say “She danced kind of like a grasshopper.” Be confident and write “She danced like a grasshopper.” Suddenly the statement is full of conviction, surety, and is actually funny. The last thing you want to do is weaken the impact of your words.

Fillers are phrases that do nothing to add to the meaning of what you have written. They act as fluff. “For a moment” is an example of this. There’s also “all of a sudden,” “in an instant,” and phrases that include senses, such as felt, heard, and saw. Be sure to evaluate these phrases as they could be beneficial. If you say “She saw him smile,” then there is an implication that maybe he didn’t want her to see it or that it was something very noticeable. If you use that phrasing all the time instead of saying “He smiled,” then you’ve lost a potential tool.

CC image by Nic McPhee

CC image by Nic McPhee

Vague/Meaningless Words and Overdramatic Words
There are words in our language that have been used so many times that they have lost their meaning or are so general that they are too vague to pinpoint. You want to avoid these words. Rather than deleting them, however, you probably want to find a better way of expressing the thought.

A good example is the word beautiful. Every person has a different concept of beauty, and to call a woman beautiful means something different than calling scenery beautiful or a man beautiful. Look for deeper, more meaningful words to use instead: breathtaking, captivating, surreal. However, telling me by using any of these words still isn’t effective. Show your reader. What about your character is beautiful and how, why? Look for those descriptive words that are actually meaningless and give them meaning.

On that note, be cautious of overreaching and writing clichés or overdramatizing. If you don’t like the word beautiful, you might end up writing something like “He couldn’t take his eyes off of her,” or “It was like nothing she had ever seen before.” We are all familiar with these lame statements. Don’t use them. And while you are hunting for these vague expressions, do look for the melodramatic words. Examples are agony, hideous, petrified, distraught, wrathful, etc. Basically any extreme word should be used with caution. I’m not saying they can’t be used, I’m saying use them sparingly and intentionally. If your character is in agony when he stubs his toe, the reader won’t take it seriously when he’s in agony over getting his hand lopped off.

Unnecessary Explanations
Finally, delete instances of over explanation. It often happens that you don’t trust your writing as it is. A single sentence can be more impactful than a paragraph, but if you don’t trust that sentence, you’ll pad it and spell things out for the reader. Here is an example: “Every room, every crevice was full of memories, and all he could think about was what would be lost when he left. He couldn’t bear the thought of moving.” The second sentence is fully implied in the first. It is as if you are saying the reader isn’t smart enough to figure it out. I also often see this after a line of dialogue. The writer feels they have to explain the implications of what their character just said. Don’t be afraid to let your writing speak for itself.

I hope that you found this guide helpful to you. Two weeks from now, Tracy Buckler will be taking the reins to go over the next category, consistency. From there we will also be discussing editing that influences impact and flow. For now, get started and delete stuff!

By Rachelle Clifford