Really. I’m totally serious here. If you do these five simple things right now, the flow and readability of your manuscript will improve immediately and exponentially. Guaranteed.
1. Excise all that “just,” “so,” “really,” “very,” “well” fluff.
Well, for one thing, it’s really just so very annoying to see those same words all the time and in every sentence. Here’s a quick test that will likely shock you: search your manuscript for the word “just.” (On a PC: option + f, or for a Mac: command + f) How many times does it show up? In one manuscript I edited, the total came to 332 out of 50,000 words.
While you’ve got that search up, look at each specific instance in which the offending word appears. If you can delete the word and the meaning of the sentence isn’t affected, DELETE IT! And then do that a couple hundred more times.
Or hey, use some stronger verbs. Instead of something being “very big,” maybe it’s “gargantuan” or “colossal.” It is possible to be more descriptive with fewer words and less repetition.
2. While you’re at it, cut out all those unnecessary exclamation points. By which I mean all of them. Okay, fine, I’ll let you keep a few—spread throughout the entire manuscript. Most of the time, context or the dialogue itself is enough to indicate excitement! Astonishment!! Surprise!!! Happiness!!!! So why limit your characters’ emotions to how many !! you can smash in before your editor stabs you with her red pen.
What’s that you say? You’re fond of ! but would never overuse them. Okay, then. Let’s see how many times it shows up in your manuscript. Once while editing a manuscript, I kept noticing exclamation points being used, so I did a quick search and discovered that there weren’t just a few exclamation points, but a truckload of them: 616 in a 60,000-word manuscript. !!! indeed.
3. Stick with “said.”
“But that’s boring,” you say. “Readers won’t know what characters are thinking or feeling if we don’t tell them.”
“Actually, readers are more discerning than we realize,” I reply. “They pick up on subtle clues sprinkled throughout the dialogue and narrative, so there’s no need to spell it out for them in dialogue tags. If it makes you feel better, I’ll let you have one or two ‘saidisms’, such as asked or replied, but not more than that.”
“But why?” you ask.
“Because, my friends, your writing will be stronger if you don’t default to using linguistic crutches to tell what your characters are feeling instead of showing those emotions. Besides, ‘said’ is one of those words that our eyes have learned to glance over without stopping to think about what it means. Dialogue flows naturally when something is ‘said’ versus ‘postulated’ or ‘screamed’.” As I speak, I browse the electronic bookshelves of my e-reader, searching for something—anything—to help the panicking writers. “Ah, here it is. Take a look at the chapter on Dialogue Mechanics in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Let it guide you.”
“Oh, fine.” You sigh and roll your eyes, but open a new browser window to search for the book. “You’re sure this will help?”
“Yes, dear writer,” I say. “But make sure to read the section on ‘beats’. It will help immensely as you battle your addiction to saidisms.”
“Whatever.” You close your laptop and grab the remote. “Game of Thrones is on.”
4. Speaking of but(s) . . .
Don’t start all your sentences with coordinating conjunctions. While it’s not wrong to use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, some writers have taken that to mean, use them whenever you want, which is roughly equivalent to ALL THE TIME. When used sparingly, they can be an effective tool, but if most of your sentences start with but, and, so, or or, it’s a problem.*
Do a quick search to see how often you use the two biggest offenders—generally and or but—at the start of a sentence. When you’re searching the document, make sure to capitalize the term (But) and click the little box that says, “Match case.” That way you’re only searching for those words when they’re capitalized, which is usually—say it with me—at the beginning of a sentence. If more than a dozen or so instances pop up . . . that’s a problem.
5. So that, uh, reminds me . . . hold off on overusing pauses and filler words.
Sure, it can be useful to show when a character’s speech is halting or stuttered, but writers tend to overuse it, like, way too much. I mean, it’s good to let dialogue be all casual and stuff, but it’s soooo annoying when people say “um” or “like” like all the time when they’re talking. So . . . it’s kinda like that when you’re reading what those, uh, those people in books . . . the ones who do the things. You know the ones. Oh, yeah, characters. It’s, like, really annoying to read what characters are saying if it looks just like people in the real world actually say stuff. Seriously, I’d stab my eye with a pencil if I had to read an entire book with the characters talking like this and stuff. So don’t overdo it, ’kay?
By the same token, if your use of ellipses (a.k.a. three periods in a row)** goes well into the double digits, it’s time to find a different way to indicate paused speech. Or find new characters who aren’t so quavery all the time.
*So is having two ors in a row. Unless you’re in a row boat and need both ors to paddle. [rimshot]
**We’re not talking hockey here. Unless you’ve been hit in the head by a hockey puck and it takes extra time for you to formulate your thoughts.