Suggestions for tightening and brightening your writing.
Some Practical Matters
* Work on a copy. Save each draft as a separate, findable, identifiably named document.
* Get into the habit of paginating your manuscript. (Very important!)
* Consider starting each major revision in an entirely fresh document. Work from a printout of the previous draft, re-keying the revised text. This can liberate you from attachments, and from being locked into the downward scroll of the screen. (If this seems like a duplication of labour, imagine classic authors working at their typewriters; back in the day, producing a revision was even called ‘putting it through the typewriter again’.)
* Draw up a To Do list for each draft, tackling different requirements in different drafts. A first draft might involve simply getting the words down. A second draft might deal with aspects of focus, structure and pace, and later ones with point of view, or character, or tone, or spelling and punctuation.
* Seek out other reads from reader-editors whose opinions you trust and who won’t just tell you what you want to hear (good feedback is about more than validation). But regroup and come back to your own intention. Too many chefs spoil the manuscript, and you can’t please everyone.
* Is the work clearly organised and easily followed, free of points of confusion? If a detail halts several readers, it might need another look (unless these readers simply don’t get it). All the same, take a pause. An easy fix for clarity can avoid unwarranted interruption.
* Scrivener is very useful software for organising your material on screen.
* Get off the Internet – or take a Facebook/Twitter/email holiday. (Try Macfreedom.)
* Know when to stop, or rather: know when to put a piece to one side for now. You may return ready to make that simple, transforming change. (Maybe write some short stories, essays, poems.)
* Know all the rules, and when to break them. As there is only one rule in writing: Don’t Be Boring.
Listening To Your Own Writing: Gifts, Games, Missions, And Tricks
* What are you giving your readers? Take your print-out and ask yourself: what gift am I giving my readers on every page? (Write these gifts in the top margins.)
* Without looking back, summarise your draft in under 100 words. Then 50 words. Then 20. What does your instinct tell you is its intention: not only your intention, but the intention of the writing? Use this to craft a mission statement to evaluate your book. Intention evolves: be prepared to move with it, redoing mission statements at later drafts.
* Describe your book to a friend or writing partner. Listen to what comes up. The words you instinctively use (1) often belong somewhere in the book, and (2) can go in a mission statement or pitch, and (3) can help work out a focus.
* Breathing techniques can take you out of the head and back to the body.
* Play with your book. Without grasping towards outcome, do freewriting and writing experiments in/around the text. Also outside it, for practice (e.g., voice, POV, dialogue).
* Read your book aloud. Maybe record it to play back as you reread your text. Listen. The human eye and voice catch things missed on a computer screen: the typo or missing word, phrasing that stumbles, long sentences that make you run out of breath. Trust the body’s relationship with your writing, and the natural speaking voice. (I Remember exercises are BRILLIANT for practising voice.)
* Rewrite tricky sentences by hand (notebook/Post-its/index cards) till one feels right.
* Get off the screen. Print off a hard copy. Interact with it physically. Write notes and edits on it. Organise/reorganise chapters, sections, paragraphs, or pages: shuffle them around on a large table or the floor (I’ve heard of writers pinning pages to the wall or hanging them on a washing line). Do fresh changes speak to you?
* Print a hard copy in a font different from the one you usually use, and edit that. A different format may draw your attention to new things. Maybe print off a draft single-spaced, justified, and two pages to an A4 sheet (or in columns), so it looks like double-page spreads in a book (try a bookish typeface and typesize, e.g., Garamond, Baskerville). Or flick through screens on Kindle or GoodReader, instead of scrolling down and down.
* But: use a standard font for submissions. My preference: unjustified double-spaced serif fonts 12 pt Times New Roman and Georgia. (I avoid sans serif fonts, e.g., Arial.)
Related link: Revising: A Craft Checklist.
Updated and revised 20 September 2016.