Welcome to Day Twenty-Nine of Fiction University’s Month-Long Revision Workshop. Over the last month we’ve been working on the larger revision issues and ignoring the specifics of the text (in most cases). Our stories are now solid, our structure and various story arcs are sound, and our scenes flow smoothly from one idea to the next. The novel is “done,” and we feel comfortable that it’s good and well-written. Now it’s time to polish our literary jewels until they shine, so roll up those sleeves and let’s get into the nitty gritty of the individual word choices.
We’re almost to the end of the month, and I know everyone is probably tired and ready to get this revision done. Polishing a novel is probably the least fun for me (anyone else?), because there’s little creativity to it—it’s more mechanical. But it’s an important step in the revision process, and I’m always happy by the time I’m done. After the last few days, we should be pleased by how shiny our novel’s are looking. Hang in there, we’re almost done.
Today, we’re focusing on getting rid of any unnecessary repetition. After three weeks of revisions where we’ve been jumping from scene to scene, there’s a better than average chance we’ve duplicated a few words, phrases, and even critical story information.
Ideally, this is a step that works best when we can read through our novels in one sitting, as that makes it easier to catch a repeated word or phrase. That’s not always possible for writers with large novels or busy schedules, so break this step into several days if need be.
1. Look for and Eliminate Unnecessary Repetition
When you consider the typical novel runs around 80,000 words, it’s no wonder words get repeated. Some words readers don’t even notice (like said) and others stand out if we use them twice (like antidisestablishmentarianism). While it’s impossible to go back and check every instance of every word to see how often and where we used it, a little awareness of what we’re saying can not only tighten our novels, but make them read more smoothly.
Not every familiar phrase has to go, but it’s worth looking at each instance and deciding if there’s a better way to write it. Can it be more like the protagonist’s voice? Can it be more original? Can it be cut entirely? Common places for repetition:
Repeated information: Where we reveal information matters in a novel. Trouble is, we don’t always know where the best spot to reveal that information is, so it’s common to “test” it in a few places as we write the first few drafts. Pay attention to when information is revealed and take out the repetitions (if you made a mystery arc, this should be easier to do).
Repeated common words: Smiled, looked, frowned, shrugged, sighed, scowled, etc. These solid, verbs show emotions, and boy do we use them a lot. We’re also fond of the movement words. Walked, ran, turned, stood, sat, stopped, etc. While these are all useful words, if you tend to use them a lot, check to see if you’ve used several of them close together. This can be time consuming, but you’ll likely find a lot of opportunities for better descriptions that make it worth the extra effort.
Repeated uncommon words: These are the general words that get repeated and jump out at you. Often they’re within a few sentences of each other (which is why they stand out) and work just fine in each instance, but having them so close just hits the reader’s ear funny. The easiest way to find these is to read large chunks of your manuscript in one sitting. You’re not reading it for the story, you’re checking the word flow. When you spot repetitions, edit one of them out.
Repeated structures: When you have too many sentences with the same structure in a row it starts to sound repetitious. For example: dialog tags in the same place every time, a sentence starting with an introductory clause, talk-move-talk dialog. How you format the words is just as important as the words used.
Repeated crutch words and favorite words: We all have words we like to use, and we use them a lot. Write down yours and weed them out. I’m partial to “eyes widened” and “fell into step beside her” and I always have to check how many times I’ve used those in a draft.
By the end of today’s session, we should have eliminated repetitious text and be ready for our final polishing step. Next, we’ll look for and fix any grammatical errors.
Tomorrow: Fix Any Grammatical Errors
New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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