One of the first things they may or may not tell you in your writing classes or seminars, is that in a novel it’s all about the action. It’s about doing things. People don’t ‘begin’ to do things, they don’t ‘start’ to do things, they DO them. I start by doing a search for those particular words. So for example – ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair again’ vs. ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair again.’ Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse by the way…) Don’t have your characters start to do anything unless it’s the first in a series of things they’re going to do.
- Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better – When he kissed her it felt like she tingled all over -or- When he kissed her she tingled all over? (added by Rik) For #1 and #2, a professional editor will often scribble “SDT”. This is not a disease, it means “Show Don’t Tell”.
- Next, do a search for contractions. For some reason many writers – and I’m one of them – don’t write in contractions. Especially with ‘had’. He had, she had, rather than he’d or she’d. But be very careful not to do a universal search and replace, you’ll hate yourself in the morning for it, because once it’s saved that way you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made of things. (I usually start a new copy when I’m editing, just in case. It’s a lot easier to start over sometimes) For example a universal search and replace for ‘had not’ to ‘hadn’t’ will also changed ‘had noticed’ to ‘hadn’ticed’
- ‘There was’ Sometimes it’s justified. I’d still look at each sentence and see if I can rephrase it to take those words out. Sometimes the sentence becomes much clearer.
- Speaking of there – their (possessive) there (in that direction) and they’re (they are)
- *arrggh* The dreaded ‘that’. That she, that he, that they… In most cases the use of the word ‘that’ is completely unnecessary, but we use it in speech and so it can sound right when you write it. Then there’s my personal bugaboo, using that rather than who. “The man that…” when it should be “the man who… “
- Just and only. Always make sure you really need to use them and that they’re next to the word you want to modify. only costs vs. costs only, for example
- Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those ‘ing’ words. If you see a lot of them in your writing in conjunction with was, you need to change that sentence.
- As if/like. Make sure you know which of them you really mean. Do a search for like, and in each place see if ‘as if’ doesn’t sound better.
- Also watch split infinitives. Not all of them are bad – to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go – is generally accepted. “I decided to not go” can sound awkward.
- Of…. that’s another sneaky little beggar. ‘Inside it’ works as well as ‘inside of it…’ in most cases.
- ‘Then’ and ‘and then’ are telling words, don’t use them. For instance: Then he went to sit down. Just say: He sat down. And then she set a bowl on the table. Just say: She set a bowl on the table. Using those words is like a narrator in your book telling us a story, it slows it down.
- Commas. If you have more than two it might be a good idea to look at the sentence and decide if it would work better as two separate sentences. This is DEFINITELY true if you have more than three. For more information on commas and their proper use – http://mindslaponline.blogspot.com/2011/05/efficacious-yet-overused-comma.html
- Singular and plural pronouns. When speaking about an individual, the pronoun should be singular, when speaking about a group, it’s plural. Ex. It brought him to their feet.
- (Although this is primarily a grammar document, it is about writing, and this point has been seen too many times to go unremarked.) Don’t ‘Slug a Nun’. In other words, when opening a chapter, any chapter, get to the point. Don’t say “Mikey slugged a nun” and then take ten pages, eight of which explain the history of the Catholic Church before you explain WHY Mikey slugged the nun.
- Another very common mistake – Her eyes wandered. (Please put them back in her head, that’s disgusting.) Gazes may meet, or lock, etc., they might stare at each other, but his eyes will never wander over her breasts unless it’s a zombie movie and they’ve gained legs. Some editors might let this go by, but still, there are many synonyms for look, you should be able to find a much better way to say it.
- Watch for sentences that begin with the same word, same type of beginning. He did this, he did that. Change it up so the reader doesn’t get bored.
One last little hint. By not doing a read-through sentence by sentence but using search instead, it forces you to look at each sentence individually, in isolation. It makes it much easier sometimes to spot errors you might otherwise have missed or question the wording of sentence. I’ve often caught mistakes that way, or sentences that could have been worded differently. Try reading it out loud, or using text to voice to read it back to you, sometimes that will pick up errors in flow.