In recent months I’ve been lucky enough to get in touch with two writers who have given me the opportunity to join a small critique group with them. I plan to make regular posts about our meetings, and so will include links to their information once I’ve actually gathered it. Promise. For now I’d like to share some of the advice I got from our first meeting.
What I find particularly satisfying about their input is that a lot of it is channeled straight from their editors and agents. There’s something exhilarating about it; like I can imagine the information is coming from my very own agent. It’s good fantasy fuel. Of course, the advice I’m sharing was aimed at my writing style in particular, so it may not be helpful for everyone, but take what you need and keep the rest on file.
1. WATCH OUT FOR -LY WORDS.
Things like “particularly,” “quickly,” “awkwardly,” and a whole slue of other -ly words really pepper my writing. I was told that a lot of editors want no more than one -ly word every 300 words. I was really surprised, but when I went through and removed some of them I was amazed by how much tighter my work sounded. The flow was easier and the characters seemed more dedicated to their actions.
One of my critique partners did something that we can all do to our own work. If you want a good idea of how many -ly words you’re using, print out some of your pages, then go through and circle every -ly word in red. Seeing it on paper is pretty amazing. I didn’t realize how many I had been using until they were all staring at me like bloody little eyeballs.
2. USE ACTIVE VOICE INSTEAD OF PASSIVE WHENEVER POSSIBLE.
Phrases like “She could feel–” can be changed to “She felt–” and it helps bring the reader in. Instead of reading about how other people feel, its more akin to the reader feeling it themselves. Instead of “He was wearing–” just put “He wore–“
3. WATCH OUT FOR REPEATING WORDS!
Most writers know that using the same word too often is a big no-no, but we all slip up sometimes, and they can be hard to spot when you’ve been staring at you work hours or days. Sometimes they sneak up on you, too. A good example is when the same word is part of another. Things like “way,” “away,” and “walkway,” can feel like totally different words, but when you look closely, they’re very repetitious.
Also, I’m sure we’re all guilty of having a favorite word-of-the-day. We rediscover some fantastic descriptor and wonder “Why haven’t I been using this?” Then, a few days later, you realize its now peppering you work! The more obscure the word, the more obvious repetition of it will be. No matter how much you love it, moderation is always the golden rule!
As kind of a sub-entry for this rule, make sure to change up how your sentences start, and keep an eye on the beginnings of your paragraphs too. If they’re all starting the same way, its going to get very boring.
4. THE READER DOESN’T NEED EVERY DETAIL.
“Sally got up. Sally got dressed in x-y-z clothes. Sally made breakfast…” Not only is this information tedious, its a bit boring. Unless these actions are really important to the plot, they can probably be left out. Eventually, we’re not going to care about anything Sally does, even the cool stuff.
5. WATCH YOUR ‘SAID’S.
Dialogue can be tricky, and we can easily get caught up in the “he said,” “she said,” monotony. Not only is it repetitious, it’s dull. Instead, end the phrase with an action. In stead of “‘blah blah blah,’ he said, as his hand brushed through his hair nervously,” just put “‘blah blah blah.’ His hand nervously brushed through his hair.” It makes the same point, but it feels more active.
6. WHEN IN DOUBT, CUT “THAT” OUT! (My own personal advice)
I actually learned this one from one of my professors at college. Any time you use the word “that,” try reading the sentence without it. If it makes sense, cut it! You’d be amazed at how many sentences don’t need the word. It’ll tighten up your work and make things nice and smooth.
The great thing about having a list of advice is that it becomes a checklist for revision. So, naturally, the best course of action is to make this list as long as possible. I’d love it if you’d help me add to it. Leave a tid-bit in the comments. Lets work together to make a master-list of revisions!