Most writers are familiar with the saying, “You only get one chance to impress,” and there is no industry where this holds truer than in publishing. From the agent who reads those first requested pages, to the editor searching for the manuscript that wows, to the reader who has dozens of unread books on their kindle to choose from, there really is no room for anything less than exceptional writing. Putting in the extra time before hitting send can help you impress right out the gate, and keep those eyeballs glued to the page.
Here are FIVE polishing tips I recommend before releasing your manuscript into the wild.
Eradicate Crutch Words
One of the simplest ways to strengthen your writing is to search and destroy weak or overused words in your manuscript. These crutch words can come in a variety of shades – descriptions we tend to reuse, directional cues, passive language, overused body gesturing, etc. If you are writing in deep point of view, also look for filtering words that create unnecessary distance (looked, felt, smelled, touched, knew, wondered, believed, saw, thought, etc.) between readers and the character. Weed these out so you are showing what the reader sees, feels and thinks directly, bringing readers into the character’s inner experience. If you need a guide, here’s my handy Crutch Words List.
Strengthen Your Verbs
In the flow of creating, we often choose verbs that instantly come to mind, but these are not always the strongest choice. Your final pass should also include a quick study of the verbs you use, ensuring each one is as specific and active as possible. It sounds tedious, but practice makes perfect and after a few pages, you’ll instantly spot generic ones that will need to be switched out. Using active verbs also means your manuscript can shed some of that unwanted adverb weight. To spark ideas on better verb choices to replace bland ones, grab a copy of our Active Verb List.
Review Your Descriptions
Tight writing means not just choosing the right things to describe, but ensuring that everything described does double or triple duty. Consider your descriptions, everything from characters, to the setting, to the raw emotional experiences, and challenge yourself to do more with less. Does the setting description also tell the reader something important about the character’s personality, beliefs, habits, positive qualities, flaws or morality? Do you make use of symbolism and common associations to deepen the meaning? Are your emotional moments sensory in nature, helping to trigger the reader’s own emotional memory so they empathize with your characters? Each word you use should earn the right to be part of the story, so think about how description can also characterize, reveal bits of important backstory, create sensory imagery that reminds readers of their own experiences in the real world, and convey a deeper meaning through theme and symbolism.
Amp Up Emotional Showing
Characters are the heart of a story, and their emotions are the lifeblood that pumps beat to beat, keeping readers engaged. Taking the time to run a final pass with emotions in mind can lead to a rich payoff. Go scene to scene, and look at how your characters express themselves through body language and dialogue. Are they offering strong cues which convey exactly what they are feeling, including the intensity of each emotion? Are the movements and gestures you use to show their body language freshly written, or do they feel a bit generic? If so, hone in on this emotional showing and come up with an action beat, vocal cue or dialogue tidbit that is specifically designed to fit with your character’s unique personality.
While you’re beefing up your emotional showing, watch for instances where you name an emotion. These are places where you are telling the emotional response or are unsure whether you have shown the emotion well enough and so have additionally named the feeling to ensure readers “get it.” Whichever the case, a bit more effort to lose the telling and show directly will give readers a richer emotional ride.
Monitor Your Story’s Pace
Finally, reading your book with an eye on pacing will help you spot any places where the momentum is flagging, either through a lack of tension, too much description, extended POV character introspection, or unneeded backstory and information dumps. If you find your attention waning as you read, likely others will as well. When the pace starts to flat line, give it an injection of story adrenaline. Can you raise the stakes, add a ticking clock, insert complications or simply streamline the moment to focus on what’s really important? The pace should ebb and flow as you balance intensity with relief, but never slow so much the reader is tempted to skim.