First drafts are for getting down the ideas. Anna Jacobs calls the first draft the 'dirty draft'. Jenny
Crusie calls it the 'don't-look-down draft'. The most important thing is to get it written.
Then comes editing and polishing. Some writers love this stage: they can roll up their sleeves and start
whipping that book into shape. Others are not so keen. They'd rather have a tooth extracted than sit down and
write another word. Unfortunately, a 'dirty draft' is the equivalent of a tooth with a cavity - it needs fixing
or it will cause a lot of pain!
There are any number of things you should be looking for when you're editing. If we tried to cover them all
here, this would be a book and not a tipsheet. So we'll limit ourselves to four, all of which come under the
heading of "Variety".
Vary Your Sentence Beginnings
This is particularly important when you are using the first person. More than one writer has written a
desperate note on work sent in for me to critique, saying something like "I seem to be saying I, I, I all the
time... but how can I avoid it when I'm writing in the first person?"
Yes, it can be a challenge. But once you learn the strategies for getting around this problem, you'll find
yourself automatically making the necessary changes as you write.
I staggered into the bathroom, cursing the person who invented daylight saving. I needed sleep. Lots
more sleep. I was aware, of course, that an hour wouldn't make much difference; not when I'd been up half
the night. But what was the use of having an hour chopped off the morning? I wondered whether anybody
actually did anything with that hour when it turned up again in the afternoon.
We have four sentences starting with "I" in the above example, and one "I'd". This might not look like a lot
in this short sample - but if the frequency of the personal pronoun 'I' continued at this level, the reader
would probably find it a bit tiresome.
It's easy to change. Look for (a) opportunities to simply drop the word "I" and (b) ways to restructure the
sentence so it's not necessary. We'll rewrite the above:
I staggered into the bathroom, cursing the person who invented daylight saving. Oh, for more sleep. Lots
more sleep. Okay, one hour wouldn't make much difference: not when I'd been up half the night. But what was
the use of having an hour chopped off the morning? Did anybody actually do anything with that hour when it
turned up again in the afternoon?
Easy. With a few simple changes, we've cut out three instances of the word "I". Much more acceptable! And by
tapping directly into the viewpoint character's thoughts instead of saying "I wondered" and "I was aware",
we're moving deeper into viewpoint, and therefore achieving more reader involvement.
Check carefully for your use of the personal pronoun in all your work. It's all too easy to start sentence
after sentence with "She", "He", "I" or "They".
Vary Sentence Structure
Check your sentences to make sure they're not all following the same structure. You saw in the above example
how easy it is to change things around so sentences don't all begin with the same word. It's just as simple to
make sure they don't all have the same rhythm.
"I don't want you to think I'm not sympathetic," he said, leaning on the kitchen counter.
"Of course not," she replied, crashing the pan down in the sink.
"I do understand what you're saying," he went on, adopting that conciliatory tone she hated so much.
"But I have needs too."
"Yes, I know that, Tim," she said through gritted teeth, blasting hot water into the dirty
This is all getting a bit dull. There's a lot going on, but we're almost in a state of torpor because of the
predictable rhythm. Throughout this passage, we have:
[direct speech] + [speech tag] + action or clarification.
Let's try a variation:
"I don't want you to think I'm not sympathetic." Tim leaned on the kitchen counter, idly clicking a
Alana crashed the pan down into the sink. "Of course not."
"I do understand what you're saying. But I have needs too."
His voice had that conciliatory tone that made her want to slap him. "Yes, I know that, Tim." She
wrenched on the tap and sent hot water blasting into the dirty pan.
We have (a) changed the placement of the dialogue; (b) eliminated several unnecessary speech tags and (c)
relocated her reaction to his tone of voice to the paragraph containing her words, not his words. Small changes
- but a big effect.
Vary Sentence Length
This sounds easy - but judging by the thousands of scenes I've critiqued, it's not as simple as it looks.
The worst offenders are writers who like to construct long, flowing sentences with lots of commas, dashes,
semi-colons and colons. These might have been de rigeur in Jane Austen's day, but most modern readers would
doze off. Worse, they'd get lost. You risk the meaning being obscured by long, unnecessarily complex sentences.
It's quite likely those long sentences would also be grammatically incorrect.
Allow me to reconstruct the previous paragraph into one sentence to show you what I mean:
This sounds easy - but judging by the thousands of scenes I've critiqued, it's not as simple as it
looks: the worst offenders being writers who like to construct long, flowing sentences with lots of commas,
dashes, semi-colons, and colons... these might have been de rigeur in Jane Austen's day, but most modern
readers would doze off - worse, they'd get lost: you risk the meaning being obscured by long, unnecessarily
complex sentences (which are also likely to be grammatically incorrect).
Phew. I feel the need to take a long gulp of air after just typing that one.
Just as annoying are writers who like to write a succession of sentence fragments. Like this. One after the
other. Like machine-gun fire. It drives readers nuts.
Sentence fragments, used sparingly, can be very effective. They do a good job of reflecting the fragmented
nature of most people's thoughts. Overused, they arouse homicidal instincts in the reader. Be warned!
Bottom line: vary your sentence length. Avoid long, wordy sentences and use sentence fragments wisely. Most
of the time, write grammatically correct sentences that are appropriate for the style and tone of your chosen
Vary The "Voice" Of Your Characters
Here's a good writing exercise for you.
- Jot down the names of four people you know with very different personalities.
- Imagine each has had a bad experience with a sales assistant or a tradesman.
- Now write a page in which each recounts their experience. Try to get the dialogue to reflect that
person's personality without torturing words to reflect dropped aitches or dialect etc.
- Read your work aloud. Does each person (character) sound like an individual?
In summary: when you edit your work, make sure that your characters don't use the same sentence patterns,
the same slang or the same pet phrases.
(c) copyright Marg McAlister