Revising by broad sweep

Last week, I wrote about how I making a plan for revision so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the enormity of edits that need to be made across a whole manuscript. And, in a stroke of cosmic awesomesauce, John Green also shared a few thoughts on revision that are worth a listen.

So much of revision is manuscript-specific that it’s hard to put together a revision checklist for creative writing that covers the fine-tuning. But there are definitely some broad sweeps that you can do to fix easy problems. Find & Replace can be your friend, especially when you’re feeling fried and just need something easier to tackle than the ephemeral “voice” or “pacing” or “character.”

I decided to seek out what other writers have to say about these broad sweeps and to put together a laundry list of checks that I can reuse each time I’m editing. Then I realized (with the help of one of my critique partners) that this information might be useful to others as well.

Here’s my list of Find & Replace checks I ran on my manuscript to get it ready for submission to agents. This doesn’t replace incorporating critique partner feedback on things like character, pacing, and plot. Nor does it replace a good copy-edit. But it does cut word count and tighten prose almost by magic. This checklist helped me cut 2,400 words from a 63,400 word manuscript and took about a week of almost full-time work to complete.

  • Filter Words – I Write for Apples has a great post on filter words, so I won’t repeat what she says. But I will share an example from my manuscript.
    Consider this sentence: The rainwater cuts a path downhill and I watch as it funnels through a leftover piece of pipe and out the other side. vs. this: The rainwater cuts a path downhill, funneling through a leftover piece of pipe and out the other side. The first sentence isn’t terrible, but the second one is more vivid, reflects a closer POV, and uses fewer words. I cut 1200 words from my manuscript just by rewriting sentences like this. Making this type of change improves your pacing without cutting a single scene or description.
  • Adverbs & Passive voice – There are lots of great articles on why to avoid these in your writing, and now there’s even a tool to help you catch them: The Hemingway App. I felt confident that I wouldn’t catch many adverbs on this edit because I’d already run the manuscript through Hemingway last spring, before my last major revision. Wrong! I still found 100 of these pernicious little suckers. They creep back in as you’re revising whether you like it or not.
  • Cliches – OK, you can’t find and replace on this list of 680 cliches, but still it’s worth a broad sweep to remove them from your ms.
  • Junk words: Words like very, just, even, that, but, and so often creep unnecessarily into sentences, taking up space without adding anything. Here’s an article about removing these junk words. I cut 500 junk words from my manuscript this week, and I’m still going!
  • Dialog tags – I had already expunged tags like “she screamed” or “he exclaimed” from the manuscript. But even he said/she said can be overused. If you can tell who is speaking without the tag, delete it. I cut 117 dialog tags from a story where 1/3 of the book describes a solo journey with almost no dialog. Oops.
  • Words that could be contractions – While there may be some cases where contractions wouldn’t be appropriate, for the most part, cannot can become can’t, do not can become don’t, etc. especially in dialog. I trimmed 50 words of dialog this way. Not huge, but I’m still glad I checked.
  • Lay vs. Lie – This won’t cut your word count at all, but I do tend to get this wrong more often than any English major ought to. I keep this handy guide to the infuriating verb printed by my desk.

This is the perfect activity to do while you’re drafting a new manuscript because you can quickly dip in, rewrite a sentence, and move on without having to get into the flow like you do when you’re drafting or doing more in-depth revisions.

Keep in mind that there are no absolutes in writing. Every instance of a “to be” verb does not have to go, nor does every single case of the word “but.” The nice thing about a global find & replace exercise, though, is that you can see just how many of these have crept into your writing. If you search on -ly and find only three in your manuscript, then you’re in good shape. But if you find 503, you’ve got some revision to do.

What broad sweeps do you do when you’re revising? I’m sure I’ve missed some!

2 thoughts on “Revising by broad sweep

  1. Julie,

    Thanks for this list! I’m in the middle of a manuscript revision and I’m sure some of these suggestions will help. I’m also excited to check out the hyperlinks.

    Thanks for the suggestions!

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