Correct Line Editing: Ten Simple Steps
- Remove any unnecessary modifiers. Here, the word “unnecessary” refers to any words that reduce the impact or effect of your writing and add emphasis for no particular reason. Such words include allegedly, almost, extremely, kind of, mostly, possibly, practically, probably, quite, really, seriously, simply, sort of, supposedly, totally, terribly, usually, utterly, very, and so on. Why say, “It was really very hot yesterday” when “It was hot yesterday” conveys your meaning just as well? If you can rid your sentences of clutter, the better they will be.
- Get rid of clichés. What does the word “cliché” mean? Essentially, this is a phrase or group of words so commonly used that readers’ whiz past them without even knowing they are doing it. Hence, the words are a waste. If you say that someone is “clowning around” or “howling like a wolf,” do you think your readers will actually imagine clowns or wolves? Keeping your prose unadorned and plain is much better than filling it with unnecessary clichés. This is not to say, however, that you should remove every familiar or decorative phrase from your writing. You simply need to be aware of the purpose of every word. One of the things that the grammar checker in MS Word does is to underline clichés with a green squiggle. Try it out!
- Remove duplicate words and duplicate phrases. This is not just a reference to redundant words and phrases. It refers to, for example, characters in a story or book who keep repeating the same thing every couple of pages or where characters are constantly described in the same way i.e. as shaking their heads before speaking or folding their hands in front of them. Use the search feature in your word processing software to find repetitive phrases and use your system’s thesaurus to look for replacement words and phrases. You just need different words rather than flashy ones. A good rule of thumb is making sure you do not use value-added words more than once in any one chapter and you should only repeat them sparingly in any one book. In the case of more frequently used words and common phrases, try not to use them too near each other.
- Watch out for the words “that” and “had” where these are used extraneously. It may be that this is a habit of just some writers i.e. that they are too prone to using “had” and “that.” For example, “She had been saying continually how she had needed to buy more food.” This would read better as “she was continually saying she needed to buy more food.” It is common for writers to use the word “that” unnecessarily between the clauses within a sentence e.g. “I felt that I was cheated” instead of “I felt cheated.” This is often just a case of choosing a more suitable tense.
- Pay attention to metaphors, especially where these are mixed. It is a weakness in some writers to mix up their metaphors in a huge jumble of words. Some writers like hitting their readers with a plethora of metaphors in one go. However, you must understand when to do this and when to ease off. If any sentence gives you cause for doubt, try taking each word literally to see how the sentence works out. Be aware of each metaphor in your writing since these should not sneak in unbeknown to you.
- Check the meaning of any word you are not sure about. Even if it is just a two-syllable word your children use each day, you really need to know the meaning of every word you have written down, and you need to ensure you have spelled every word correctly. There are plenty of free dictionaries online, as well as Google, so there is no reason for incorrect word usage.
- Do not be afraid to use your thesaurus. Some seasoned writers say it is dangerous to use a thesaurus. Not true. Look for a thesaurus you feel comfortable using, whether this is an online tool or a CD or paper version, and use it. However, this is not to say you should add random or unsuitable words into your writing. Broadly speaking, you should in any case only use words that are known to you. If your written piece is about baseball, then players will not always “throw” a ball. They will also “fling,” “hurl,” “lob,” and “pitch” it and, at times, they will “catapult,” “chuck,” and “flick” it.
- Do not be afraid to delete words and sentences you are doubtful about. Writers can sometimes find themselves stuck on a sentence they cannot seem to make work. Even after rearranging the words several times, a sentence might still not feel right. Then, if you are willing to delete all or some of it, it can all come together as if by magic. It is best not to get so attached to any piece of writing that you become blind to its ineffectiveness. At times, even perfect sentences can be wrong in a particular place and they may need removing.
- Try a change of tense. Slipping into a particular tense that unnecessarily makes your writing complicated is an easy thing to do. It is easy for the past progressive tense, e.g., “He was doing his usual thing” to quickly become confused with the present perfect tense, e.g., “She has done this always.” It is not always possible to avoid those tenses that are complicated, but it is best to use them as little as possible. Instead, simply try to switch your sentence, paragraph, or scene to past tense, e.g., “He did such and such a thing.” Check out the useful verb/tense chart on TopThesis.com’s website for advice and examples.
- Rephrase, rewrite, and/or reconfigure your writing. Despite the fact many people have a romantic view of writing, prose does not always flow as if by magic and burst forth effortlessly from the writer’s pen. It is very much the case that even the very best writers must constantly revise and rework their written pieces. This is known as work. For a lot of writers, it is, of course, a fun type of work. However, even artists have to pay attention to their craft. Painters often make initial sketches of their work, pianists often practice scales, and writers often have to write several drafts. Quite simply, this is how the process of writing works. Some seasoned artists and writers will tell you that one of the most crucial things they have learned is that many pieces of work that seem the easiest are often the most difficult. Think of famous names such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Ernst Hemmingway, and Raymond Carver. These are all people who have worked hard to create great works of art but made them seem easy.
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