I work with a lot of new authors, and I love it. New writers have so much creativity, and I genuinely enjoy seeing how they approach plot and character. It never ceases to amaze me how many different ways there are to say the same thing. Every manuscript offers new insight to writing and storytelling.
But there are definitely things new writers do that immediately reveal their inexperience. So I’ve come up with this short list of things you can look for while self-editing your manuscript. Look at each case individually though. Sometimes, you want these things in your writing—they give emphasis or provide variety. You just need to be careful about using them too much.
1. Filter Words
There are two categories of filter words I’m going to address right now. First are sensory words, things like saw, heard, know. The second are intention words like started to or tried to.
As long as the POV is clear, your reader will know the character is seeing, hearing, or knowing what is being described. Using these words in your initial draft is a good way to get into your character’s head to figure out what’s happening in the scene, but you should remove them as soon as you can.
- Incorrect: Jessica saw the sun set and heard an owl hoot as she walked to the store.
- Correct: The sun set and an owl hooted as Jessica walked to the store.
- Incorrect: I knew there was a secret door behind the bookcase.
- Correct: There was a secret door behind the bookcase.
If you can remove the sensory word without changing the meaning of the sentence, then it’s best to hit that delete key and move on to the next one.
Intention words are only needed if the character is unsuccessful in whatever they are starting or trying to do. The reader only cares about the final action.
- Incorrect: Lydia started to weed the garden and left it clean and neat.
- Correct: Lydia weeded the garden and left it clean and neat.
- Also Correct: Lydia started to weed the garden but was unable to get it completely clean and neat before the rain drove her inside.
2. Too much progressive tense
There are so many different tenses in the English language. It’s a rare manuscript that is written solely in simple past or simple present tense. And you should have multiple tenses to add variety to your prose and keep your reader engaged (though you should stick to past or present overall). Progressive tense is when you are using a combination of to be—was, is—with the participle—verbs that end in –ing. Often, this combination is an appropriate way to show simultaneous actions or that the action is interrupted.
- Correct: Mark was cooking dinner when he heard an alarm down the street.
- Correct: Jen is changing her clothes while listening to her voicemail.
But this tense leads to overuse of to be verbs, which can lead to reader disengagement. Whenever possible, delete the to be and use the action verb alone.
- Incorrect: Justin was cleaning his room before going to school.
- Correct: Justin cleaned his room before going to school.
- Incorrect: Mary is wearing a sparkly pink top, and Jon is looking sharp in his suit.
- Correct: Mary wears a sparkly pink top, and Jon looks sharp in his suit.
Again, don’t delete all instances of progressive tense. But if it doesn’t change the meaning of your sentence, correct to the simple verb.
3. Too much emphasis on…everything
There are multiple ways to show how important something is to your story or your character. It’s very easy as a new writer to overuse them, and then nothing is important because you’ve made everything important. Trust your story to show it, and trust your reader to understand.
First, exclamation points should be used sparingly. Use your narrative text to show shock or excitement. Never use double exclamation points (one of the few strict rules), and try to limit yourself to only one per piece of dialogue. Too many exclamation marks can feel like the reader is being shouted at.
- Incorrect: “Wait!!! What do you mean by that? You can’t be serious!” I shouted at them.
- Correct: “Wait! What do you mean by that? You can’t be serious,” I shouted at them.
Second, italics for emphasis should also be used sparingly. Trust your reader to intuit the important words from the strength of your writing. The surrounding text should provide all the context a reader needs to understand what your character is feeling or thinking about something.
- Incorrect: What did he mean when he said I couldn’t have dinner right now?
- Correct: What did he mean when he said I couldn’t have dinner right now? [Honestly, this sentence probably doesn’t need any emphasized words, but it depends on what happened before and after in the story.]
Finally, don’t use bold or all-caps. I was going to say never use them, but there are very rare occasions in fiction when bold is appropriate and even rarer times for all-caps. Really think about the necessity before adding bold and all-caps to your manuscript.
My final caveat is to tell you to be aware of these issues, but don’t follow my guidelines to the point you lose your own voice. Implement these corrections in the way that best serves your story, and you should be fine.