Cross Out As Many Adjectives and Adverbs As You Can

This quote from E.L. Doctorow seemed appropriate. I’m into my final week of revising my next book, which now has an early release date of early 2010.

Oddly enough my editor never mentioned a word about adjectives and adverbs. I kinda like adjectives and adverbs, and I’ve never had an editor, reviewer or reader complain about my use of them.

Revising has me thinking about–revising. How do we go about it, whether it be at our editor’s request or our own polishing of a finished manuscript?

Here’s how I do it.

First, I fix the easy things. These are often:

Repeated Words – I used “flamed” an awful lot and this story is not about fire.
Spelling and Grammar mistakes – although I often find these as I read through the manuscript
Factual Errors – mixing up names, mixing up dates, historical errors (my English editors are good at catching historical errors)

Then I really just plod through the manuscript, starting at page one.

Here are things that often need fixing in my manuscript:

Character – one or more characters need tweaking, for example, in this book, my hero needed to show his strength sooner; my heroine needed to be not so jaded; my villain needed to be more villanous.
Story threads – some work but some don’t. I sometimes have to delete whole scenes that involve a story thread that isn’t working and add scenes from elements of the story that I didn’t focus on enough.
Telling vs Showing – we all have a tendency to explain our stories rather than to use words that show what the POV character is experiencing. I always find places in the ms where I’ve done this.
Awkward phrases – Some of those word gems I thought were so clever just don’t work when reading with a critical mind-set.
Dialogue tags – how many “he saids” and “she saids” can I eliminate by inserting some action or thought instead?

I have done a little skipping around during this revision process. I’ve needed to add or change some scenes, so I’m constantly going back and forth to be sure I’m not adding more inconsistencies. (Do you ever find that you can’t remember what you wrote before or what comes next?)

My friend MJ Frederick (whose Samhain book Hot Shot is available in paperback this month) told me about a book, Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. Naturally I had to buy it.

The Bell book looks very good! Take a look at the Table of Contents including that great 34 page checklist!
Trouble is, I don’t have time to make the best use of it.

How do you go about revising? Are you systematic? Or do you just plod through, starting with page one? Any good tips out there? (Before it is too late?)

Diane’s website has been updated. Take a look! Diane’s contest ends Feb 10. Hurry and enter to win one of her backlist books.

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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Maggie Robinson
13 years ago

I once had to cut 1/3 of a book when I won a contest and the judging editor requested the full. (The publisher had word limits and sex limits, so I ripped out all the sex. Now, who would ever want to read it, LOL?. That was pretty ghastly, and they still thought it was too racy! Oh, well.) I often do an ‘ly’ search, and boy, am I adverb-prone. I love them, though. Sorry.:)

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

I’m with you on the adverbs, Maggie! Although I do try to eliminate them and find a more descriptive verb.

That must have been a very steamy read!!

I cut out about one third of The Myterious Miss M, which I originally wrote for a single title publisher. The Mills & Boon editor showed me scenes to cut-scenes that really were just filler anyway. It made it a better book. Now Harlequin Historical,Mills & Boon is not much shorter than single title.

Nixy Valentine
13 years ago

I tend to repeat words a lot… one of the things I always look for to cut is “Blah blah blah, she hoped, blah blah blah”. I have a habit of interjecting little phrases like that where they aren’t needed!

I do try to write tight, but it’s never as tight as it could be in the first draft.

13 years ago

I blogged recently about the dreaded Overused Word. Personally, I find it much easier to spot in other people’s work than my own; any tips on how to root the little pests out?

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

My biggest problem seems to be repetitive scenes–scenes that have characters having a conversation they already had (because hey, it happened 40 pages ago and I forgot!) or just doing something similiar to what has happened before. Those are easy to root out once I go back over the manuscript, but those repeating words are trickier…

13 years ago

For overused words, I try not to use the same word twice on the same page. (Even common words can be overworked) I have a very dear friend who enjoys the same stories I do, and she reads my work. She’ll catch errors my mind glances over. I’ll find more as I work with her corrections. She has scrutinized my work long enough that I’m able to see many flaws on my own. That isn’t to say that I take every suggestion she gives me. However, her suggestions usually clued me in that my meaning was unclear. I’d see it so clearly in my head and had failed to create it on the page. I’ve also printed pages out. For some reason, I’m able to see things on the printed sheet that I did not see on the computer. There’s also reading aloud. What an eye opener that is.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Repeated words… there always seems to be one that invades my manuscripts. It’s different every time, though. This time in reading over the ms, I thought, “Gee I’ve used “flared” a lot.

Amanda, I’m delighted to know you forget what you wrote, too!

M, I can always spot repeated words in somebody else’s work better than mine.

Judy, I do the same as you. I don’t necessarily take suggestions but I do often change something MY way when a critiquer comments on it.

I did hear of a trick of reading the manuscript backwards to catch these things. I’m much too sequential to try that!!!!

13 years ago

As I’m writing my first draft I keep a legal pad full of details and thoughts and threads and questions and criticisms that I don’t want to apply yet because they’ll slow me down and make me question my genius. 🙂 At the end of the Word manuscript is also a little garbage pile of similar stuff.

When I have the thing written I start at the beginning and go through all those notes and apply. Editing and revising is such a different mental state for me that this works best. I discovered that when I edited as I went I was slower and I tightened up places where I might have more easily inserted new threads later if I hadn’t edited too soon.

Cara King
13 years ago

My first drafts tend not to be overlong in general, but they do tend to be wordy (as do I!), so I’m always pruning a lot when I revise.

M wrote: I blogged recently about the dreaded Overused Word. Personally, I find it much easier to spot in other people’s work than my own; any tips on how to root the little pests out?

Do you mean pet words? (Like an author who uses “ghastly” seven times in a novel?) Or just repeating a word within the same page or two or too often in a paragraph (e.g. “Lady Portly strode past the houses briskly. Each house stood tall against the sky, and the roof of one house reminded her of the roof of her own dear house in Neverland.”) ?

I agree that the former is easiest for someone else to spot… For the latter, I think careful revising can pretty much do the trick (and a good copyediter should catch the few you miss!)


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

janegeorge, after experimenting with other ways of doing it, I have found that fixing as I go works the best for me. It is amazing how different it is for different people.

Cara, I do both, repeating words in the same sentence, paragraph, page, and in the manuscript. My characters brows tend to furrow dozens of times and hearts beat faster all over the place.

13 years ago

I’m glad you found it helpful, Diane! I don’t learn well from books, sadly. I’ve learned a LOT since being published! I repeat words a LOT. I’m actually listening to an audiobook now and cringing at all the repeated words, because I’m so aware.

Megan Frampton
13 years ago

I’ve just started revising, which for me in this book’s case, is a whole scale revamp.

Le sigh.

Writing and editing books always look so good but I never find time to sit down and read them, much less absorb them.

Amy Nichols
13 years ago

I also go through and check to make sure I’m showing and not telling. I’m still a “beginning” writer.

I also have someone else read behind me on the rough draft as I do not always see the grammar and word usage. I do need to get better at this!

Thanks for a great post.


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Amy, I’m not a beginning writer and I’m a stickler for Show Don’t Tell (as Louise could tell you), but I still find myself doing way too much telling.

You will get better at all elements of writing with practice, don’t worry!

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Great list O Divine One. I keep a post it with a list of the “usual suspects” when it comes to the words I overuse. When I finish a chapter I do a search to make sure those suspect words don’t pop up. I also try to read each chapter out loud to detect those places that just don’t flow. I tend to listen to words like music and if the sense of melody is not there something is tripping it up.

My CP says my writing is getting tighter with each book, which means after another 20 or 40 books I might get this right!

Janet Mullany
13 years ago

I write pretty clean first drafts but I do have continuity problems, linking scenes together–for instance, how much time has passed/where are we/who the heck is this person anyway. And I have to take out the phrase “of course” which crops up all over.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Louisa, I suspect it won’t take 20 or 30 books to get it right. You were close with the GH final last year!

Janet, I am so heartened that your “of course”s crop up!

Michelle Styles
13 years ago

Diane —
I assume you have read Self Editing for Fiction writers by Browne and King.
The problem is not with adverbs per se but when they are used as a crutch.
The point of revising is to make the story as strong as possible. The laternative is actually worse — the book is published and you suddenly see where you could have easily made the book stronger.
I enjoy revisions for the most part.

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Hi, Michelle.
I have the Self-Editing book, too.

I too like revision. It is so much easier to fix than create!

13 years ago

It cannot be too often repeated that repeatedly using the same word is a stylistic flaw. One often has a particular “favorite” word that one repeats and repeats without even realizing that one is repeating it, because each repetition seems like a natural use of the word–one doesn’t even realize that one is repeating a word that one has already used repeatedly. I’ll just repeat: watch out for excessive repetition!


Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Very funny, Todd!