Eight Things to Cut or Reconsider When Editing Fiction
I often say the magic of writing happens in revision.
When you revise, you transform a lumpy first draft into a powerful and cohesive story, cutting filler, strengthening the narrative, and shoring up your story’s foundations. As you edit, that same magic manifests in your prose, helping you transform weak and clumsy writing into an irresistible read.
In last week’s article, I shared an overview of how you can strengthen your prose at every step in the writing process, from drafting to revising and editing. Today, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty. As you work to tighten your prose during edits, here are eight things in your manuscript to cut or reconsider…
Item #1: Adverbs
You’ve likely heard it said that the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Though it’s not necessary to cut every adverb from your writing, bear in mind that adverbs are often a sign of poor word choice. Inexperienced writers frequently use adverbs in a vain attempt to strengthen weak verbs. For example:
“The boy pushed him roughly to the ground.”
“The boy shoved him to the ground.”
“She moved clumsily, as if drunk.”
“She staggered, as if drunk.”
“He spoke nonsensically, and her frustration rapidly worsened.”
“He blathered on, and her frustration spiraled.”
Seeking clarity, many writers also tack redundant adverbs onto their sentences.
“The bell clanged loudly,” and “the bell clanged” carry the same meaning, right? The same goes for “he whispered softly” and “he whispered”. Can a person whisper harshly? Sure, but whispers are typically soft in nature and readers will assume them to be so without the added adverb.
As you edit, interrogate any adverbs you uncover. Some may serve a purpose. Above, I used the adverb frequently to indicate that inexperienced writers don’t abuse adverbs at all times. But frequently, adverbs reveal an opportunity to choose a verb that packs a more powerful punch.
Item #2: Adjectives
There’s nothing wrong with a well-placed adjective. The trouble comes when writers overuse adjectives in an effort to ensure readers can visualize their imagery. For example:
“The woman was tall and thin, with long, tanned limbs and beautiful pale blonde hair.”
“The peeling walls in the tiny, ramshackle room seemed to loom over me, dark and menacing.”
To tighten your prose, cut redundant adjectives and scale back on your usage. Remember that readers have strong imaginations. Choose the most pertinent and evocative adjectives, then trust in readers to fill in any details that remain. Let’s rework our examples together:
“The woman was lithe, her limbs tanned and blonde hair bleached by the summer sun.”
“The walls in the ramshackle room loomed in the dark, setting my nerves on edge.”
Notice how these descriptions use far fewer adjectives?
I also reworked the first example to deepen the woman’s characterization (readers now know she spends a great deal of time outdoors), while I crafted a more immersive description in the second example by grounding readers in the point-of-view character’s experience.
Item #3: Intensifiers
Intensifiers are a subset of adverbs designed to intensify the meaning of a verb. Common intensifiers include very, extremely, completely, utterly, rather, quite, and really. Like general adverbs, there is a time and place for the use of intensifiers. But consider Robin Williams’ famous speech from Dead Poets Society:
“Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not ‘very tired’, he is ‘exhausted’. Don’t use ‘very sad’, use ‘morose’.
Yet again, intensifiers are a sign of weak word choice. They exist to make a verb more extreme yet rarely do. In fact, I originally wrote “they exist to make a verb more extreme yet very rarely do”, but what purpose does “very” serve in that sentence?
Is a man described as “really rather stupid” any more or less dull-witted than one described as “stupid”?
Which description holds more power: “she is extremely beautiful” or “she is stunning”?
Item #4: Vocabulary
I’ve harped on about the importance of word choice in this article, and I’m not done yet. Choosing the vocabulary in your fiction with care is essential.
If you’re writing from the perspective of a narrator or point-of-view character, that person will have a unique voice. Everything from their upbringing, experiences, education, cultural background, personality, and beyond will affect the words they use throughout their narrative.
As you edit, be mindful. Is your character having oatmeal for breakfast or porridge? Would they truly know the meaning of the word anathema? Do they use improper language to describe their work because you haven’t done the proper research to understand their profession?
I once read a fantasy novel set in a medieval Arab-inspired world in which the point-of-view character described themselves as adopting a laissez-faire attitude, a French phrase that didn’t even exist in medieval times. The anachronism pulled me out of the story in a flash. Don’t make this same mistake.
Item #5: Metaphors & Similes
Metaphors and similes are figures of speech that compare two objects to create imagery or deepen meaning. Unfortunately, many metaphors and similes found in fiction are too cliché or ill-considered to carry much emotional weight. Consider the following examples:
“His eyes pierced me like twin daggers.”
“Anger rolled off her body in waves.”
“The boy ran like a gazelle.”
“Nerves fluttered in my stomach like a thousand butterfly wings.”
These examples are unlikely to make or break the overall success of your prose, but they are tired — and there’s little power in tired writing. When you uncover metaphors and similes in your prose, consider their purpose. Would removing them weaken your writing?
If so, consider your point-of-view character and craft a phrase unique to their voice. As I said in last week’s article, your character can’t describe another’s eyes as “a storm at sea” if they’ve never seen the sea.
Item #6: Dialogue tags
There’s a good deal of contradicting advice concerning dialogue tags on the internet. Some writers insist that “said is dead” and encourage others to use flamboyant tags like barked, sniveled, preened, hissed, and cajoled, believing these verbs to be stronger word choices.
But it’s important to remember that dialogue tags are marks of authorship. Because they aren’t a natural part of your point-of-view character’s voice, they remind readers that an author exists behind each word, disrupting the flow of your narrative.
To maintain this flow, consider using common tags such as said, whispered, and shouted. Because they’re common, these tags are unlikely to jar readers out of your story while still achieving their purpose in indicating the speaker and tone of voice.
When possible, cut dialogue tags altogether. The fewer marks of authorship in your story, the better. You can use action tags such as the following to replace them:
Meg’s lips parted. “You can’t be serious.”
“Just a moment, please.” I shuffled to my feet.
He rolled the vial between his fingers. “They say it’s a poison.”
For more guidance on writing and editing dialogue, check out this article from the blog.
Item #7: Filter Words
Certain words place a degree of separation, or a filter, between the reader and the point-of-view character’s experiences. Examples include watch, heard, saw, felt, thought, realized, and wondered. Removing these words from your narrative will bridge the gap between reader and point-of-view character, without affecting readers’ understanding of your prose. For example:
“I watched as the sun set low on the horizon, wondering if this would be the day daddy didn’t come home.”
“The sun set low on the horizon. Would this be the day daddy didn’t come home?”
Removing filter words is a key step in writing in Deep Point-Of-View, a popular technique that immerses readers in the point-of-view character’s experiences.
Item #8: Leading Words
Leading words are those intended to draw readers from one sentence (or clause) to the next. In fiction, common leading words include then, suddenly, so, soon, shortly, a moment passed, and in order to. Rather than add context or act as transitions as intended, leading words serve as filler that disrupts the micro-pacing of a scene. Consider the following example:
“I sat on the bench as the tide rolled out to sea, a sense of calm descending as my mind emptied. Suddenly, a cry tore through the air, startling me to my feet.”
The word suddenly is intended to bridge the gap between calm and chaos, but consider its usage. If our character is sitting on the bench in a state of calm, a cry would prove sudden regardless of whether we explicitly state that it is. Let’s review this example without the leading word:
“I sat on the bench as the tide rolled out to sea, a sense of calm descending as my mind emptied. A cry tore through the air, startling me to my feet.”
The action in this scene is easily understood without the word suddenly. If you did want to add a transition, set the second sentence on its own line. Paragraph breaks indicate a shift in focus, revealing to readers that the event in the second paragraph is unlike the first.
Ready to tighten your prose? Remember, you don’t need to cut every instance of these items from your work. Writing is both an art and a craft. Though re-evaluating these items will generally lead to better quality prose, good writing is also subjective and your writing style is your own.
If including an unnecessary adjective improves the flow of a sentence, keep it. If your character is fond of using intensifiers or metaphors in their dialogue, let their voice continue to shine. Adverbs have their place, as do the occasional filter, leading word, and dialogue tag. As you work to tighten your prose, don’t forget to leave it — and yourself — a little breathing room.