Oooo, step 3! In case you missed it, the 7 steps I’ve been discussing in “How to Make Your Novel Sellable” are:
- Initial Read Through
- Seek and Destroy Problem Words
- In-depth Word Analysis
- Read it Out
- Get Some Feedback
- Let it Rest
Step #3: In-depth Word Analysis
It’s time for the down and dirty hack and slash. Get ready to see some red because your paragraphs are going to bleed.
This is the most intensive step of all seven. Which also makes it the most time consuming. But! It’s also the most rewarding.
In this step, no words are safe. I look at every paragraph, every sentence, every word. I am hunting for weak words that are not on the list in step 2. I’m looking for anything confusing, ambiguous, or worded poorly. I make sure that the sentence and paragraph absolutely need everything in it.
I reread every word until I love them all. Until there are no sentences that I’m ehh about. This is where the poetry happens. This is a good place to add bits of description, to find slips in pov, and this should be where telling becomes blatantly obvious and can be eradicated.
Here is an example of a paragraph before and after this step. This is from my in-progress novel that I’m calling From the After.
My original paragraph:
Claire noticed three things when she woke. 1. That the sun was high enough in the sky to be pouring light through the small window and filling her room. 2. That the house was full of the high-pitched laughter of Tara and her friends. 3. That the pancakes, likely cooking under her mother’s supervision, were burning. When she’d thrown on sweats, visited the bathroom, and made her way downstairs to the kitchen, everything she had noticed stood before her.
And many cuts and additions later, it became:
The sun hung high enough in the sky to pour light through the small, round window above Claire’s bed. High-pitched laughter, muffled by distance, streamed from the kitchen. The stench of burnt pancakes had roused Claire from sleep. She threw on sweats, visited the bathroom, and trudged down to the kitchen.
So, you can see that while the same things are happening in the paragraph—Claire is waking to these sounds and smells and goes downstairs—the way I’ve described them has changed. I decided I didn’t like the 1, 2, 3 list format. I brought in the description of the sun sooner so that I could cut the first sentence, which I didn’t like. The last sentence also bothered me, the way “everything she had noticed stood before her.” Ugg. Sometimes in this step I think, did I really write that? >< There were also little things. To the “high-pitched laughter,” I added: “muffled by distance, streamed from the kitchen.” Without that, it seemed like it could have been coming from Tara’s room, which is just down the hall from Claire’s. I took out “likely cooking under her mother’s supervision,” because by this point in the story we know that Claire’s mother tends to overcook food and Claire will also see her cooking them when she gets to the kitchen. It was unnecessary. Redundant. And "likely cooking" bugged me. Notice that by eliminating my -ing words in a few places, it made the sentences stronger. “The sun was high enough in the sky to be pouring light through the small window and filling her room,” is much better as, “The sun hung high enough in the sky to pour light through the small, round window above Claire’s bed.” The verbs are more active, I was able to cut the “was” and a “to be,” and the sentence overall became tighter and cleaner. Most times, you can replace an =ing word with something better. It can also be a tell of passive voice, like in this case, “was pouring” is passive, while “poured” is active. I’ve mentioned weak words before, and here’s a prime example. I had, “made her way downstairs to the kitchen,” but I took out the weak “made her way” and replaced it with a much more vivid and accurate verb—“trudged down to the kitchen.” Just make sure that none of the words from step 2 end up back in there.
This image is a screen shot showing “Track Changes” in Word. Where there is red, there are changes. You see that very few places are left unchanged. In fact, if I notice lots of black, I’ll revisit it just to make sure I’m not missing something.
This is a step that cannot happen when I’m tired. If I’m tired, I’ll skip things and let things go. This is not the time to say I’ll fix it later. This is the later. Let nothing go. Don’t move on to the next paragraph until you love every word.
This is my favorite step because this is where I go from “ugg, did I really write that” to “wow, that sounds pretty good.” It’s a good time to make your writing “prettier.”
* I should note that in some cases, it may be best to do step 6 (let it rest) and a redo of step 1 (read through) before moving onto step 3. Here’s my thought on this. If you have major issues like characters that need to be rounded out, plot holes, or places lacking tension, these things are easier to see after it’s rested a bit and been removed from your mind. I’ve heard some authors say that they don’t edit at all until after they locked the book in a drawer for a few weeks. Though I do recommend going through all 7 steps as many times as needed, if you know up front that there are major issues, you might want to fix them first, before diving into the extreme detail of step 3.
If you’ve really dug deep, you’ll walk away from this step feeling like you may actually have something getting close to publishable. And you’ll definitely feel more confident going into step 5, where you open your little heart for the world to see. Step 3 doesn’t have to be fully completed before you start step 4 and 5 (read it out and get feedback). Though it’s usually better to give beta readers a whole book at once, in some cases, it’s not. In the case of my monthly critique group, we have a word limit, so I can only submit a chapter or two each month. I’ll start sending them chapters that have gone through step 3 after a quick step 4, even if the whole novel hasn’t. But. I’ll also have beta readers that will read the piece as a whole once step 3 and 4 are done. More about that when I discuss step 5 in detail.