Editing Tips 1: Repetition, Repetition

This is the first of several posts in which I will share insights that may help you craft a better book.

Repetition is not your friend!
Are you repeating the same word several times in a paragraph? There are occasions when this can’t easily be avoided, of course. While editing a book on interviewing recently, I came to realize that few words can take the place of “interview.” This word means more than a “conversation” or a “meeting,” and “interrogation” indicates an altogether different process. Almost all the words listed in my trusty thesaurus failed to match the exact meaning.

In such cases, I feel sure readers understand that reusing a word specific to the topic of the book is necessary. However, more often than not, a synonym or phrase could take the place of an often repeated word. Just be certain the synonym you choose actually expresses what you want to say. In my novel I wrote about the main character’s dream that happens while she is asleep. I couldn’t use the synonyms fantasy, trance or reverie, which all generally refer to something that happens in a state other than sleep.

Are you using the same sentence structure repeatedly? If your book offers little variety in sentence structure, your readers may become bored. Even a page of sentences filled with action verbs can lose its appeal if there is no variation in structure. However, the much more common problem is extensive use of passive voice (when the object of an action is used as the subject of the sentence). These sentences contain some form of the verb “to be.” Here’s an example:

Passive voice: The rock star was cornered by the relentless paparazzo.
Active voice: The relentless paparazzo cornered the rock star.

I recommend that you take a look at the first five pages in your book and examine them closely with this in mind. (It’s optimal to do so early in the writing process.) Here are a few questions you will want to ask yourself as you read:

  • Does virtually every sentence on the page contain a passive verb?
  • Are you starting almost all of your sentences with a prepositional phrase?
  • Do you have a good mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences, or are you primarily using only one of these sentence structures?

Be aware that a simple sentence in the midst of several complex sentences can draw a reader’s attention. Writers can use this structure as a way of bringing emphasis to a character’s feelings, for example, in fiction or to a concept in nonfiction.

Finally, are you using filler? Readers will catch on quickly if you are padding your book with repetitious material. How many times have you said the same thing over the span of the book? Of course, you want to make your point and be certain that the reader understands the information you seek to impart, but this is most adeptly done by clearly sharing the insights from the outset. By all means, give useful examples and reiterate the concept when needed. What may turn off readers, however, is the obvious repetition of material in order to pad the length of the book.

Time is one of the most precious commodities in our modern world, and there are countless books on the market. Give the readers content rather than repetition.

A Writer’s Perspective

A great substantive or developmental editor can be a writer’s best friend. However, I understand that it isn’t always easy for the writer to believe that during the process of editing.

I first wrote Grandfather Poplar as a short story in 1989. At the time, I was fortunate to receive developmental criticism of the original piece from a Hugo and Nebula Award winner. He gave me brilliant suggestions and encouraged me to turn the lengthy short story into a novel. His advice led to more robust characterization and a more compelling story, and I am grateful to this day for the insights he shared.

Fast forward to years later when I finally prepared the novel for publication. I worked with a copy editor who also did content/substantive editing. Even though I am adept at copy editing, I know well that it is impossible for a writer to find all of her or his own mistakes. Omitted words are in your head, you see. Those properly spelled words that are wrong by only one letter (hot/hit, few/fee, in/on, of/off, etc.) are invisible because you know what is supposed to be there; therefore, that is what you view on the page. I was shocked at the many little things my copy editor found, and I was thankful that the book received this fine-toothed comb to remove the errors I as the writer had missed.

For the most part, I felt equally grateful for the substantive editing work. However, I got a piece of criticism that was hard to accept. My editor told me that my first chapter wasn’t strong enough and needed to have more tension in order to entice my readers. This struck me to the core. I was attached to that chapter. I had rewritten it multiple times and edited it again and again over the course of years. My heart said, “It is perfect. My editor is crazy.”

After feeling hurt and disappointed that my elegantly-written book opening elicited anything less than glowing remarks, I spent a few days away from the project and returned with the intention of reading the beginning of the novel as someone other than the writer. When I did, I recognized the truth in this criticism. While there were many important things introduced in that former first chapter, there was not enough substance to compel the reader to continue into the story. It lacked urgency, action, suspense—oomph.

The new first chapter that was prompted by my content editor brought more life to the beginning of the book, and I feel it is far superior to the previous opening. The old first chapter didn’t go away, of course. It simply became chapter two.

There were other changes as well. This was just one example. To my authors I say, “I have been where you are.” I know how much a writer can benefit from substantive editing (as well as copy editing), but I also understand how it feels when someone tells you that you need to alter material you hold dear to your heart and mind. As a content and developmental editor, I approach my writers with that compassion and knowing that comes from being one who deeply grasps both the perspective of writer and editor.

If I suggest cuts or massive rewrites, I do so with one intention: making your work the best it can be. I realize that this manuscript is your “baby,” and I’m here to be the best midwife possible in the birth of that beloved book, to usher you through those labor pains to the desired result. I want you to receive the glowing reviews that every writer covets. It would be my utmost joy to see your work ranked among the bestsellers. That’s why I do what I do.