I’ve been editing books for about 15 years now, so a lot of edits I suggest are based on intuition. Something about the writing irks me and I make note of it, sometimes without even knowing why it’s irking me. Often there’s nothing grammatically incorrect about the sentence, it’s just not amazing. Unraveling my reasons sometimes takes a bit of thought and today you lucky readers get to hear that bit of thought. Here are three tiny things that (in my humble opinion) will improve your writing effortlessly.
Varying Word Choice and Sentence Structure
As any of my poor, beleaguered clients will tell you, I lose my shit if I see the same word more than once in close proximity. Well, maybe not lose my shit so much as compulsively request that they change it. Why? It’s not grammatically incorrect, but it makes the writing feel repetitive and unimaginative. Writing is so much more sparkly and interesting when it has variety to it. And variety includes varying word choice and sentence structure.
What qualifies as using a word multiple times in “close proximity”? I tend to say twice in the same sentence or two sentences in a row, but it also depends on how it’s used. For example, you have a scene where your protagonist talks to a man at his house that goes on for five pages. When the protagonist gets to the house, his internal narration describes the house as “cozy.” A page later, he describes the house in internal narration again and he uses “cozy” again. Even though these two “cozy”s are a page apart, if you use “cozy” every time you describe the house, it’s going to get repetitive and boring pretty fast. There are a million synonyms for “cozy,” so use one of them instead of “cozy” for a second time.
Now I am not completely neurotic, so I know there are situations where there is no other possible word to describe something (like “kitchen”) or that any other possible synonyms will make the writing sound forced and unnatural (like using “dromedary” in the place of “camel”), so I allow exceptions to this compulsion of mine all the time. (I also don’t apply this rule to commonly-used words like “the” or “and”.) But if it is possible to use a different word without ruining the writing, I would prefer that.
Same goes with varying sentence structure. At a certain point using the same sentence structure repeatedly makes your writing become formulaic and flat. Here’s an example:
He walked outside and looked at the sky. He waited for the sun to rise. He stood there for a long time. He wanted to see the sun one more time before he died.
All of these sentences use the same structure (“He (verb)”) and they’re all short, simple sentences. To improve this, the author should change the structure of some of the sentences, maybe open some with prepositional phrases, and also try to vary the sentence lengths, so they’re not all short and choppy.
Cutting Out Unnecessary Words
For me, unnecessary words fall into two categories: 1) words that make a sentence longer and more convoluted than it has to be without adding new meaning, and 2) words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied.
Here’s an example of the first category:
I set my ring of five keys down on the wood table in the front hall next to the vase.
My first comment on this is: Why specify that it’s a ring of keys? Most people’s keys are on a ring, so mentioning the ring doesn’t add anything.
Also, why is it important that there are five keys? Unless the number of keys have been given some additional meaning (like there should be six keys, but he’s lost one of them), there’s no reason to mention how many keys there are.
Next, why is it important that the table is made of wood? A lot of tables are made of wood, so “wood” doesn’t impart any new meaning to the sentence. If you said “the 18th century, hand-carved Spanish oak table,” then I get the impression that the protagonist is rich, or really into antiques (which you typically have to be rich to buy), so it does alter the meaning of the sentence and add value to it in a way “wood” doesn’t.
And finally, does it matter that he puts the keys next to a vase? Does it matter that there’s a vase on the table period? If not, why mention it?
If one of my authors gave me this sentence, I’d suggest they condense it to: “I set my keys down on the table in the front hall.” See how much tighter that is? And nothing has been lost in the meaning of the sentence.
My personal philosophy is that any words that don’t alter the meaning of the sentence drag a sentence down with useless filler, so keep an eye out for any unnecessary words in your writing.
Now for words that tell the reader something they don’t need to be told directly because the meaning is already implied. Here’s an example:
“I’m totally over him, I swear!”
Trisha’s eyebrow shot up. She didn’t believe me.
The way that Trisha arches her eyebrow implies that she doesn’t believe the narrator, so it’s superfluous to then tell the reader, “She didn’t believe me.”
Here’s another example:
He put his hand on the doorknob, twisted it clockwise, pushed the door inwards and walked through it.
This is a really drawn out way to say, “He walked through the door.” All those little steps of putting his hand on the door and twisting it, etc. are implied in the action of walking through a door, so it’s unnecessary to mention them.
Avoiding Double Possessives
Now this is a truly tiny thing and it really could just be me, but I feel like a sentence reads better when it doesn’t have a double possessive in it. Here’s an example of a double possessive:
She placed her headband on her dresser.
In this case, I would prefer: “She placed the headband on her dresser” or “She placed her headband on the dresser.” Why? To me, it sounds clunky to use “her” twice, or at least it sounds more smooth and seamless not to use it. Yes, it slightly changes the meaning so that the noun without the possessive might not belong to her, but my question is—is it important that the noun belong to her? Does it matter whether the dresser in question belongs to her? Probably not, unless this passage is about her fighting with her sister over their father’s old furniture. In that case it might be really important that this is her dresser. But if it’s unimportant that it be made clear that both nouns belong to the character, to me, it sounds better to just use the possessive with one noun. After all, you’re not definitively saying the noun without the possessive doesn’t belong her, you’re just leaving it open to interpretation. And most people will interpret it to mean it does belong to her unless they’re given a reason to believe it doesn’t. For example, if she’s staying at a hotel, then the reader knows the dresser doesn’t belong to her (unless of course her family owns the hotel).
These are just a handful of types of fun suggestions you’ll see on your manuscript if you become my client. That is, of course, unless you’ve already fixed these things, in which case you get a gold star!