Before we begin, there are two things you should know.

(1) There is no point reading this article if you haven’t written your book yet. In fact, there is no point reading this article if you have just finished the first draft of your book. This article isn’t going to cover the massive hurdles every writer faces when editing a book for the first time (like realising the pacing of your third act is all wrong, or realising you need more signposts to set up a crucial twist). This article is about when you are finally happy with your story, because that’s when most people need help. This article is about all those tiny little details; those small technical quirks that make the difference between a good story, and a good BOOK. What I’m trying to say is, if you’ve just finished your book, put it in the drawer. Forget about it. Leave it for a month, and then go back to it with fresh eyes. Read it again, and then come to terms with the following:

(2) YOUR BOOK IS TOO LONG. I don’t care if you’ve written 100,000 words or 20,000 words. You’ve written too much, and you’ve used too many words. Admit this, and you can finally start editing.

Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the two things that make your book too long. After that, if you’ve got the stamina, we’ll look at some techniques for improving the quality of your prose.

(A) Your book is too long because you’ve written too much:

It’s hard to admit, but a lot of what you have written needs to be trimmed. The problem is, you know your world. You created your world, and you love your world, and you want everyone to know all about every single aspect of your world.

In your world, flying fish really have wings, and they chase fairies along rainbows. Your story isn’t about flying fish, but you’ve worked out how fish managed to evolve into flying creatures, so of course you drop in a 10-page description of the evolution process. Why wouldn’t you?

In your world, there are beautiful jewel-encrusted caves under the mountains. Your heroes have to travel through these caves on their quest, and even though nothing happens in those caves, and in essence those caves are just a means to get to the next town where the villain is hiding, you want to describe those caves. You want to describe them in huge detail, and you want to talk about all the animals that live in those caves. You’ve worked all this stuff out in your head, so why wouldn’t you want to put it in the book?

The answer, of course, is that this information is not relevant to the story you are telling. Don’t get confused between what you need to know as the author, and what your reader needs to know. Don’t get sucked into the trap of putting in every cool thing you thought of, because the resulting “info-dumping” will bore your readers to tears. It’s surprising how quickly people will say, “Man, they’ve been in these caves a long time. When are they going to do something interesting?”

This is the part of the editing process that will break your heart, because you have to be ruthless. Of course, I’m not suggesting you cut out every last piece of description; but description should be relevant. You may end up cutting some of the best things you have ever written. Your description of those caves could be utterly exceptional in terms of your mastery of the English language. Doesn’t matter. If the description is irrelevant, cut it.

The same thing goes for your descriptions of “extras”. You know those two elves in Eldest that travel down the river with Eragon? Remember how boring it was when they were described in excessive detail? Remember how pointless it felt, having trudged through that description, when they simply disappeared from the story, never to be seen again? They’re elves. We didn’t need to know anything more than that.

Just remember: Don’t delete anything. Cut it out, and save it in a “cool bits” file. One day, you will be writing a story in which your heroes must fight a race of mutant shrimp in an underground maze, and you can use that wonderful cave description after all.

(B) Your book is too long because you’ve used too many words:

This is much easier to deal with, mainly because if you can spot these problems, it won’t make you die a bit inside when you cut them. The best way to talk about using too many words is to give some examples, so here goes…

1. All of a sudden.

Man, doesn’t that sound awful? Use “suddenly” if you really have to.

2. He rose up. He fell down. The Sahara desert. His heart thundered in his ribcage. He couldn’t go on, he thought. The sky above was clear. Then she thought for a minute. The secret that I keep is none of your concern.

Anything underlined can be cut out. There will be no loss of clarity, and yet your writing will be fluid and clearer. In particular your attention is drawn to “he thought”. Lots of new writers like to tell us what the characters are thinking, but it is implicit that what the narrator tells us is what the characters are thinking.

3. He was very big.

Here’s a test. Cut the word “very” from any sentence you use it, and then read the sentence again. If it still makes perfect sense, you don’t need the word very. However, the word you were “verying” might seem a little tame on its own. In that case, you need a different word. For example:

Don’t say he was “very big”; say he was “huge”.
Don’t say he “walked very quickly”; say he “hurried”.

( C ) Everything else:

Okay, this article is getting long, and I still have lots of ground to cover. If you’re still with me, here is some more technical stuff:

1. Its use is what it’s all about.

This is everyone’s favourite mistake.

“It’s” means “it is”.
“Its” means whatever you are talking about belongs to “it”.

On the subject of “it”, remember that “it” replaces the preceding noun. This is really important, as if you get the usage wrong, you can get some unintentionally funny results. For example:

Instead of saying, “he bought a beer at the shop and drank it”, say “he purchased a beer and drank it”.

2. Don’t be afraid to call things what they are.

Beginner writers often panic when they see the same word twice in a single block of text, so they start looking for other ways to say the same thing. This is why people are so determined to say “ejaculated”, “cried”, “shouted”, “announced”, “uttered”, “complained”, “spat”, and “sneered”, instead of “said”.

Don’t write:
Tim looked at the Colonel. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ he mumbled.
The grizzled soldier smacked him on the back of the head and then looked at the newspaper. ‘I don’t care if it was your fault. Pour me some lemonade,’ he snapped.
The new recruit tipped the fizzy liquid into a glass and handed it to his superior, who was now engrossed in the printed media.

Write this:
Tim looked at the Colonel. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ he said.
The Colonel smacked him on the head and then looked at the newspaper. ‘I don’t care if it was your fault. Pour me some lemonade.’
Tim poured lemonade into a glass, and handed it to the Colonel, who was now engrossed in his newspaper.

3. Rhyme time.

One of my favourite things is when there is a bit of unintentional rhyming in a story. It is incredibly jarring, and can often completely undermine a situation:

“I have told you time after time, I am not responsible for this terrible crime.”

4. Similes and metaphors.

Use them, but only if it makes sense to use them. Don’t discuss how a knife is like the smile of a Cheshire cat while someone is getting stabbed in the throat. Nobody would be thinking about Cheshire cats while someone is getting murdered.

5. Describe through action.

Not: “He wore a cape”.
Instead: “His cape swirled behind him as he strode to the parapet”.

6. Blocking out dialogue.

Never have two different characters speaking in the same paragraph, as this is incredibly confusing.

7. Don’t describe characters in your dialogue tags.

Always describe a character before they start talking, unless the first line of his or her dialogue is supposed to take the other characters in your story by surprise. For example:

Don’t write:
‘I don’t think so,’ sneered a man with an ugly smile as he stepped out of the shadows.

Write:
A man stepped from the shadows. His mouth was curled in an ugly sneer. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said.

8. Don’t over-punctuate.

It sounds silly, but it is possible to put too much punctuation in your book. Remember, the more you break up the flow of your writing, the more confusing it becomes to your reader. Use only the punctuation you need, and try to minimise the use of parentheses and hyphens, which will chop your sentences up and make your intentions unclear. Only use exclamation marks in dialogue.

And for goodness sake, let your characters speak. Don’t keep finishing their sentences with ellipsis or hyphens to indicate they have been interrupted. This is okay every now and again, but the more you employ this technique, the more frustrating it gets.

AND THAT’S ALL, FOLKS:

This isn’t everything you need to know to be your own editor. If I was going to cover every trick in the book, this article would be the book. Besides, I wouldn’t want to give away all my secrets, would I?

However, if you go through your book with these techniques in mind, you should be able to eradicate many of the mistakes that often taint otherwise great work.

Best of luck to you all.

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Comment

  1. Rhaego on 15 October 2008, 12:53 said:

    Dang, now I have to completely rewrite the descritptions in my story. They are all the dialogue-description-dialogue type. Great article CC.

  2. Virgil on 15 October 2008, 15:18 said:

    Thanks Carbon, good article.

  3. SlyShy on 15 October 2008, 17:26 said:

    Cool article, lots of good pointers here.

    Describing through action is funny one. In A Feast For Crows there is a scene where the entirety of Theon’s dress in a long paragraph, except that you don’t notice it, because his process of dressing is described, and not the dress itself. And then it turns out the way he dresses himself is revealing—it shows how soft and unlike the Ironmen he has gotten. So it’s a powerful technique, although I would be cautious, it can definitely be over done. I don’t like seeing “she flicked her black hair” too many times, it gets old fast.

  4. Rhaego on 17 October 2008, 13:36 said:

    I see the rhyme thing all the time, and it always pulls me right out of what they are talking about, and I think of Fox in Sox.
    @ Sly
    Is A Feast For Crows as good as the first and second books? I like Theon in A Game of Thrones, and I haven’t read A Clash of Kings yet.

  5. SlyShy on 17 October 2008, 14:10 said:

    AFFC is the weakest book in the series, in my opinion.

    Possibly just because Tyrion is nowhere.

  6. Rhaego on 17 October 2008, 15:10 said:

    I hated Tyrion. He and Shae = the worst pair ever.
    I liked Jon despite his sometimes sue-ism, and I really liked Loras Tyrell even though he was really minor. My favorite was Littlefinger.
    SPOILER He pretty much owned Eddard in AGOT.

  7. Virgil on 17 October 2008, 15:22 said:

    I’m reading Game of Thrones, and it’s been good. I’m not too far in, but Tyrion is a cool guy so far.

  8. SubStandardDeviation on 17 October 2008, 15:28 said:

    Tyrion and Shae ARE the worst pair ever. But I still like Ty ;)

    Theon is an asshole in ACOK.

    Succintly put, AFFC is the Brisingr of the ASOIAF series. About 50% of the book is devoted to Cersei’s whoring and Brienne’s pointless wandering, with the rest being subplots that barely interact with what’s left of the main plot. Jon, Daenerys, and Stannis are nowhere in sight (well, Jon does get a cameo at the beginning of Sam, but that’s it). Loras…figures in a bit in Jaime’s chapters. Littlefinger gets about 10% of the book to plot, but it’s from Sansa’s POV, so your mileage may vary. Personally, Martin split up the geographical areas WRONG, but that’s just me.

  9. SlyShy on 17 October 2008, 15:33 said:

    I liked seeing Littlefinger up close. He’s a bastard, but he is one of my favorite characters ever.

    And yeah, Shae was annoying, but this is major aspect of Tyrion’s character, so I don’t feel like I should complain.

  10. Rhaego on 17 October 2008, 17:22 said:

    I would like Tyrion if my mind didn’t burn from the image of him and Shae…uhh, it hurts.
    I hope Jon is cool in ACoK and it has more of the others and the giants and such.

  11. Lord Snow on 18 October 2008, 01:52 said:

    AFFC was probable the worst, but that is because of its lack of the coolest characters.

    @ Rhaego: You hated Tyrion? He is awesome! :P

    Oh, and don’t worry about Snow, he is always cool. Is done being lame.

  12. Carbon Copy on 20 October 2008, 06:08 said:

    I have an addendum to my article. This is something that I have seen frequently, and it even causes a problem for people on this site.

    The difference between AFFECT and EFFECT.

    It can be difficult to know if you are using the right word, but there is a little trick you can employ that will generally work. When you are proof-reading your manuscript, always read the word “affect” as “have an influence on” and always read the word “effect” as “result”. If, after doing this, the sentence no longer makes sense, then you are probably using the wrong word.

    Example:

    “How does that effect me?”

    We can tell the above is incorrect, because if you swap the word “effect” for “result” the sentence no longer makes sense.