Tricks for Writing a Better Manuscript
March 29, 2014
WHETHER WE ARE a budding novelist, a blogger, or a text junkie, how we write may say more about us than what we write. Most of us can improve our written communication – whether it’s in a manuscript, an email, or a Facebook message. And one easy way to do it is to sow good habits whenever we communicate with the pen or the keyboard.
I’m a writer so I’m going to use the manuscript as my example.
According to Hemingway, the first draft is always crap, though he used a different four letter word to make his point. Getting 100,000 coherent words onto paper is an achievement to be celebrated, but unless we are meticulous in editing as we go – a practice I’d discourage – then it’s when the manuscript is in draft that the heavy lifting, revising and editing, really begins. And that’s how editors make a living.
But self-editing is essential to improving our craft skills as writers. The problem is, no matter how much we re-read, correct and polish, familiarity and ignorance causes us to miss many opportunities to improve our writing style. So here’s my three tricks that will not only pick up on weaknesses we might otherwise pass over, but will also self-teach us as we apply them. And all three tricks rely on the ‘Edit-Find-Replace’ tool in our word processor software.
Tip 1: Purge the ‘was’ and the ‘were.’
The ‘to be’ verb, essential as it may be, can be our deadly enemy. Overuse ”was’ and ‘were’ and we bore our readers to sleep. Cut them out. That’s why whoever wrote “the boy stood on the burning deck” chose ‘stood’ over ‘was’. The first time this tip was brought to my attention it staggered me how often I used ‘was’ and ‘were’ in my descriptive writing; it’s a sure sign I wasdoing too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’. And it’s a cinch to cut out the ‘was’ and the ‘were’; most times it only takes a few seconds to come up with a stronger verb or better word order. I was amazed…Sorry…it amazed me how big an impact this simple trick had on my writing style. And a little bonus, hunting down ‘was’ and ‘were’ will also help eliminate the dreaded passive voice – “the car was driven by a strange man” – better said as “a strange man drove the car”. If this trick works for you as it did for me, then carry on and see how you get on with a purge of all the ‘is’ and ‘are’ words…
Tip 2: Attack the ‘ly’ words.
If ‘was’ and ‘were’ are our mortal enemies, then adverbs and other words ending in ‘ly’ arecertainly not our friends, particularly in dialogue tags. “He pleaded desperately” may make us laugh because it is a ‘swiftie’, just like “she shouted loudly,” but use of ‘ly’ words wherever they crop up suggests lazy writing – ‘suddenly’, ‘immediately’, ‘quickly’, ‘slowly’ and so on are alldeadly, and we are best to avoid them. But this tip is not a mantra. For example, check out the first few pages of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” by Helen Fielding, where ‘ly’ words litter the sentences like acorns under a mighty oak. If we delete every instance of ‘ly’ words like ‘softly’, ‘diplomatically’, ‘ironically’ we risk stripping out too many textual indicators of emotion. If a novel is about people and relationships, and most are, then we want our readers to be fully invested in our characters and their emotional journey. This is why an ‘ly’ word, such as an indicator of tone and mood in a dialogue tag, can sometimes be helpful.
Tip 3: Use the ‘Find’ function to fix personal tics and eliminate redundant words and phrases.
There is no end to the usefulness of the “Edit-Find-Replace” function on our toolbar. Most of us have personal tics in our writing – words and phrases we know we overuse, yet pass over them in our editing. These need the hatchet. The trick is to make a list of those words and phrases, and search for them in the Edit function. One of mine is ‘surely’ (an ‘ly’ word to boot), and a phrase I often overuse is ‘so that’. The Edit function let’s me sweep the manuscript, and delete or replace every instance. Beyond personal tics, there are many words and phrases commonly (sic) overused. Just like personal tics, it’s a good idea to make a list and search for them in our writing: “To be fair,” “in order to,” “the fact that,” ‘very,” “without a doubt,” “big/small/long/short” – these are all vague or imprecise words that take from the quality of our writing. Yet we are apt to skip over them if we self-edit by simply reading and re-reading what we have written. And that’s why the Edit function on the toolbar can be a writer’s best friend.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Tom Barry and his novels.