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November 17, 2009 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – Self Editing Part Two

Professor Old SillyWelcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction.” Again, we have much to cover in very little time – studies show that most blog-hoppers have an attention span of about five minutes per post, max, so I would ask you to turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, adjust your monitors and undies, and pay close attention. None of your usual nonsense, class, I’ll not have it.

Okay. Picking up where we left off last week, today’s lesson is in two short parts, and will conclude this short series on the all important skill for authors to have, that being self-editing. I’d like to begin this session with …

Quirky Loon! I saw that – throw one more spitball and I’ll have you sent to the Principal’s office!

Ahem – where was I? Oh yes … 

Today’s Lesson, Part One:

1. Get rid of weak, qualifying words and phrases.

You’ve already searched and destroyed those dreaded words ending in “ly,” but other words can weaken your prose. They don’t appear as adverbs or adjectives, but they function the same. Seek out and eliminate these words:

Almost, less, seldom, even, always, maybe, soon, more, perhaps, then, very, many, far, never, today, well, sometimes, just, perhaps

Next, search for and rewrite or eliminate worn-out “turning phrases” like these:

Of course, nevertheless, for example, in fact, however, seemingly, in spite of, besides which

These short lists contain the most overused and abused. Others exist, but this is a good start.

2. Eliminate all clichés.

Clichés are boring, plagiarized bits of wisdom expressed in a set formula. You are a writer. Show us your creativity, amaze us! When you write your first draft and a cliché seems to fit and no better phrase comes to mind, go ahead and key it in. But when you go back to self-edit, use clichés as opportunities to shine. Rewrite with originality and in keeping with your style and your story. Where you might have written the cliché, “My whole world was turned upside down,” you might rewrite, and for this example let’s say you are writing a sci-fi, “My entire universe got sucked into a black hole.”

And now, for part two of our little lesson today, I have three words for you.

Cut the fat.

Typically, a well done self-edit should reduce your manuscript’s total word count by at least 10 percent. Cut the fat and get to the meat of the story. Here’s an example:

Mary decided that enough was enough and that John had abused her just one too many times. She decided then and there that she must stand up for herself. She quickly snatched the rolling pin that she had on the counter and slammed him very hard, right squarely in the forehead with it.

The above example is loaded with unnecessary words that slow the action. Look at all the needless uses of “that;” and several other words can be cut without losing any story. Look at this rewrite:

Mary decided, enough. John had abused her too many times. She must stand up for herself. She snatched the rolling pin on the counter and slammed him in the forehead.

See how much more direct impact that has? Here’s one more:

John staggered backward, all the way back into the wall, holding the wound that Mary had just delivered, his hands on his forehead, coated with the blood that was spilling down quickly.

Lots of excess here. You’re probably smiling at my blatancy. Here’s how I would rewrite this overly plump passage:

John grabbed his forehead and staggered back into the wall with blood spilling down his hands.

One more final recommendation and then we’ll be done for the day. You should have a trusted “Designated Honest Reader” (DHR). Have someone read your manuscript who is well-read and who knows good literature from bad. Someone who loves you and cares enough about your writing career to tell you straight-up what they like and/or do not like about your story, even if some of the feedback hurts. Preferably this person is close enough that you can be in the same house and observe them when they read your book. When the DHR puts it down and goes to fix a cup of coffee or do something else, walk over to the manuscript and see – which scene was so easy to put down?

In closing I’m adding to your recommended reading the following books: On Writing, by Stephen King, and my all-time favorite “how-to” handbook for self-editing, The Frugal Editor, by Carolyn Howard Johnson.

So. With that, I’ll dismiss blog and, as usual, please leave your comments on my desk before clicking off into the Blue Nowhere. Next week we’ll reconvene with the start of another highly important topic, and …

Class, are you listening? Class? What – who – where did … this is an outrage!

Empty Classroom

Sigh, lost ’em again. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the effort. Oh well, off to the teacher’s lounge for a nice salving cup of peach tea with a dallop of organic honey …

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Leave a Comment
  1. unwriter1 / Nov 17 2009 6:37 am

    Well, almost always, do I seldom not never usee very many of these words in more or less of a sentence. But perhaps maybe I soon, well, today at least, even I sometimes, find ways to nevertheless, of course, seemingly and in fact, in spite of which use some of these tried and true, never to be forgotten, worked for mother phrases. For example: Ok, the for example slipped my mind for a moment, maybe after a pot of coffee or somethng.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 8:38 am

      My my you certainly take these lessons to heart, Ron! 😉

  2. Elizabeth Spann Craig / Nov 17 2009 6:54 am

    Great advice, Marvin. Especially on cutting the fat. Absolutely right. Part one was such a hit on Twitter that I’m tweeting part 2, as well…

    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 8:40 am

      Thanks, Elizabeth – and Twank you for the Tweets! 😉

  3. Glen Allison / Nov 17 2009 7:49 am

    It is SO much easier to cut someone else’s story. Almost impossible to cut the fat from our own writing. Good tips, Marvin.

  4. L. Diane Wolfe / Nov 17 2009 8:19 am

    Great advice, Marvin!

    Can I quote some of this for my online writer’s club, with credit to you and a link back here to your blog????

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 8:38 am

      Thanks Diane, and of COURSE you can! 🙂

  5. Stanley Berber / Nov 17 2009 8:20 am

    Even though I’m not a professional writer, I can see why these tips make prose stronger. Good post, old silly.

  6. Cactus Annie / Nov 17 2009 8:35 am

    Cut the fat. I like that. Wordiness drags a story down. Good tutorial today, Old Silly! 🙂

  7. Barbra Kelser / Nov 17 2009 9:01 am

    I write a little – not professionally, but these tutorials are well written and easy to understand – love the examples. thanks, Marv!

  8. John Standish / Nov 17 2009 9:08 am

    Good post. I like the advice on haveing a DHR – and also where you go over and look to see “which scene was so easy to put down?” – DHR’s can be brutally revealling but very good results can come from having them read and give you feedback on your ms.

  9. katrina / Nov 17 2009 9:14 am

    If I put you on a plane so you can sit in my LR and let me watch you, will you be my DHR??? Just don’t wear the jacket!!

    Love you … love the editorial … and soooo happy to have you on my side. Thanks for everything.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 9:26 am

      Flying down right now. I’ll expect meals cooked for me of course – and coffee, keep a pot brewing at all times … we’ll get through this together. 😉

      • katrina / Nov 17 2009 9:35 am

        Well, I have 3 coffee pots and they are ALWAYS brewing. As for the meals, does nuking it count?

  10. Crystal Clear Proofing / Nov 17 2009 9:44 am

    Excellent post, Marvin. Great tips presented in a very succinct and concise manner.

    Switching gears here I’d also like to comment on your observation about long, drawn-out posts. As with writing, a blog post that goes on forever – obviously not having “cut the fat,” many times results in losing the reader. Good point.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 11:13 am

      Agreed on the loooooooong posts, Crystal. Most blog hoppers, and I’ve read articles with studies done on this topic, when they load a blog page will do a quick scan to see how long the post is. If it seems like it will take too long to read it (5 minutes is the threshold), they will either A) skip reading it altoghether and move on to another blog, or B) skim read it and MAYBE leave a short comment that often is written so generically you can pretty much ascertain they didn’t read enough to get the full content of the post.

  11. quirkyloon / Nov 17 2009 9:56 am

    And pray tell, next week we shall learn about spellchecking our work?

    “a dallop of organic honey.”



    Anyone? Anyone?

    hee hee hee

    I couldn’t resist!

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 11:08 am

      Ahem, Ms. Smarty Aleck Quirkster Loony – “Dallop” is a “dallying amount of something.” Anotherwords, an infusion of some material, in this case thick honey, that takes a bit of time to spoon into the libatious concoction.

      (hope she bought that – this looks BAD for the Old Silly! 😦 )

  12. tdryden1 / Nov 17 2009 10:25 am

    Marvin I swear you are killing me! I won’t have a word left in my ms with all these “don’t use” words. I never realized writing could be so difficult.
    Gotta love it!

  13. yvonne lewis / Nov 17 2009 10:53 am

    Wish you’d been a teacher at my school, you make writing sound more interesting.
    loved the lesson.


  14. Karen Walker / Nov 17 2009 10:56 am

    I’m leaving the teacher an apple. Never did that before! This is wonderful. Thanks so much. I find examples so helpful in tutorials about editing.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 11:09 am

      Hey thanks, Karen! My favorites are Macintosh and Yellow Delicious! 😉

  15. Carolyn Howard-Johnson / Nov 17 2009 2:02 pm

    Love that! “Cut the Fat!” I have a continuing series on my Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor blog on wordiness. And yeah, I need help with it. I wannt know the tip-off phrases that we’ve gotten wordy. And, I’m open to guest spots. Yes, I am!

    And thank you, Marv, for the fine recommendation for The Frugal Editor. I know it can help many.

    Wow! what a line-up of comments for The Old Silly!


    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 2:06 pm

      Guest spots, eh? Hmmmm, we’ll just have to see what we can spot up, then! 😉

      You’re welcome on the book plug – EVERY aspiring author – even established ones – should have the Frugal Editor in their library.

  16. Marcus Franks / Nov 17 2009 2:13 pm

    Cut the fat and get to the meat of the story. Great advice and visual metaphor. I like my books lean and well done. 😉

  17. Arlee Bird / Nov 17 2009 2:52 pm

    Useful material here.
    About those “ly” and qualifying words, I use them in dialogue when I think it sounds natural, or in stream-of-conciousness prose (which I typically avoid). I try to limit too much repetition, but I’m guessing that if it sounds natural that might be okay?

    When you don’t have those loving, caring pre-editor editors, where would you suggest a writer find someone who can tear their work apart for them and beat them into submission? I have people who will tell me how wonderfully I write, but of course my wife and kids are going to say that.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 3:01 pm

      Arlee, yes – dialog can contain adjectives and adverbs because that’s the way people talk. Perfect use for them. Also a character may have a certain quirky overuse of a certain word or phrase, and there again, good use of such, but you DO want to avoid overdoing it even then.

      As for pre-editor editors – I assume you mean the DHR? You might go online and see if there are any writing/critique groups in your area. They are all over the place and you can get objective feedback from peers other than your (always wanting to please) immediate family. 😉

      And if you are looking for an EDITOR, of course you can always contact The Old Silly!

  18. ReformingGeek / Nov 17 2009 3:25 pm

    Poor John. 😉

    Good advice, as usual. I started a new blog post but after I read this post, I did my self-editing and my post is blank. Oops. Too much fat trimming, huh?

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 3:52 pm

      Well just put up a blank post and blame it on the Old Silly, I guess! 😉

  19. E. Marie / Nov 17 2009 3:49 pm

    I have a nice shiny red apple for you. Good grief, I have to print this out and keep it next to my laptop…..I’ve already eliminated all of my reallys and actuallys and now you hit me with this. What’s a gal to do? Sigh.

    • theoldsilly / Nov 17 2009 3:54 pm

      LOL, I’ve read lots of your posts, Kissie – really really actually very good! Being funny, but seriously …

  20. Jane Kennedy Sutton / Nov 17 2009 6:59 pm

    Excellent tips. You make it sound so easy! Now I must get busy trimming the fat…sigh… many of what seemed like perfectly good words at the time they were written simply have to go.

  21. AmyLK / Nov 18 2009 10:51 am

    HEEELLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOO! I was still there and had a question! 😦 Oh well. it will wait for the next class.

    Loved the post!

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