As some of you know, I am a freelance editor. I offer both copy editing (proofreading) and developmental editing (story feedback, to put it briefly), but I never quite stay in one lane or the other unless explicitly directed. Below is a list of the most common feedback I give, as well as a few other pointers:
First and foremost: Always, always, always re-read your work. Re-reading is the best way to catch the most glaring mistakes, such as an instance where you repeated yourself (She said with a gasp, “Over there!” she gasped.), repetitive words or phrases, or other inconsistencies. I know you are thinking, I’ve read this thing a million times, but what you did and what I’m describing is probably not the same: While writing, we’re reading things piecemeal, or we start reading, then get bored (yes, because we’ve read it a million times). What I’m referring to is allotting time to read it all the way through, as a reader would, in as few sittings as possible.
Note: Never send an editor your first draft. You should re-read and tweak it at least once before you send it off. For agents, wait until after at least one round of heavy revisions after your editor has returned it. You can get away with sending unrevised first drafts to beta readers, but it would be courteous to clean it up a bit for them beforehand.
For my own revisions, I refer to Nat Russo’s checklists (especially for words to ctrl+f and delete). I recommend bookmarking these. A few other notes are below:
Show, don’t tell: Describe the physical symptoms or responses associated with emotions rather than saying, “I became angry.” Say, “I clenched my fists” or “My face flushed with rage.” This will be especially useful when describing emotions like lust, anger, and fear. This gives the reader a familiar physical sensation they can relate to; It makes the book come to life. (for more on this, I recommend checking out Angela Ackerman’s line of books) Likewise, include sensory language. To make a book an experience, hit three of the five senses in every scene. I have other posts on this specific topic here, here, and here (as if it’s important or something).
Perception filters: Remove the character from between the reader and the action. Rather than saying “I heard tires squeal” or “I saw people dancing,” say “Tires squealed” or “People danced.” (These examples are plain and stark. Build the scene with more description of what this would look like.)
Said tags: There is a great war over the use of said tags, which is anything that states a person is speaking (He said, she groaned, I replied, etc.). I recommend using them like salt, just enough to follow who is speaking without getting lost. Also, use a tag if it’s not obvious how a line is conveyed (“whispered”). Allow the action that frames the dialogue, as well we the words being said, to imply how the words are said. Too many tags, in too many forms, tend to be jarring and slow down the reader.
Pronouns: (Re-reading will also help with this issue) If it’s obvious who is doing what, use a pronoun. Don’t use names too often, because it tends to sound repetitive. You run into issues, however, if there are more characters of the same gender in the scene. It may be necessary to kick around how best to phrase your sentences; Spend some extra time on it.
Contractions: Re-read all dialogue aloud. It’s OK is a character does not use contractions as a part of his manner of speaking, but don’t be arbitrary. More than one character like this makes the dialogue feel awkward or unnatural. Real speakers use contractions, and you want your characters to sound like real people.
“It” sentences: Avoid beginning sentences with “it,” unless you are referring to something identified in a recent sentence. It is OK to break this rule occasionally.
Cut most adverbs: Opt for verbs that convey how a thing is done, rather than a weaker verb and an adverb. Especially avoid using a strong verb and an adverb, because then it sounds redundant. For example: “I screamed loudly.” Screaming is already loud; Emphasis is unnecessary unless you say, “I screamed as loud as I could.” Even then, you can refer back to “Show, don’t tell,” and scream “to the point my throat felt like it was tearing.” (If you’ve ever screamed like this, I’m sorry.)
On that same note, avoid “just then / instantly / suddenly / without warning.” These phrases tend to slow down the action rather than speed it up. However, using the proper verb helps the reader feel the necessary urgency.
Active voice vs. Passive voice: Active voice is “[Person] [action verb] [thing].” For example: “Jim threw the ball.” It’s very straightforward. Passive voice either does not have [Person] (whether the person is unknown), or [Person] is not identified until the end of the clause. This could build suspense, or it could just be awkward. For example: “The door opened.” We don’t know who opened the door. Spooky. “The door was opened by Jim.” This sentence is unnecessarily long and awkward. One example I assisted a friend with recently was “A string of obscenities were yelled by Jim” (content modified, of course). Putting this into the active voice would be “Jim yelled a strong of obscenities.” The active voice is shorter, but stronger and less awkward.
Cause and effect: Whenever writing action, always consider that every action has consequences. I recently read a manuscript in which someone was thrown into the wall, and that was the end of that. We don’t know the condition of the wall afterward (the could be a gaping hole in the drywall), or where the someone ended up (sliding down the wall and crumpling to the floor), or how the other characters responded (gasping and running to break up the fight). Whenever something dramatic happens, and others are in the immediate vicinity, it’s important to know how they respond, to paint a fuller picture of the event.
All of this being said, these aren’t something to keep in mind for the first draft! For the first draft, just get the story out. Once it’s done, that’s when it’s time to arm yourself with your highlighter and red pen. For COLOSSUS, I printed out a later draft and highlighted passages specifically to elaborate on brief descriptions and add sensory details. (This is a bit extreme, but I could use the printer at work for free.)
If you have any pet peeves you’d like to add to the list, please comment or @ me on Twitter!