Beat the Blank Page Blues: Writing the First Draft (Part 4: Clean It Up)

Writing Tips and Tricks

Clean it Up

Now it’s time to polish your work, an extremely important part of the process. Small but highly distracting mistakes such as repetition of words, too many passive phrases, typos—all can put off readers in a minute. So take a breath, sit back down, and clean up anything that might detract from the unique perspective you’ve worked so hard to convey.

I’m not saying an editor, agent, or publisher won’t suggest additional revisions, but by following these ten guidelines you’ll be halfway to presenting a strong, clean piece of work.Small but highly-distracting mistakes—repetition of words, too many passive phrases, typos—can put off an agent, publisher, or web audience in a minute.

1. Look for synonyms
Remember, the Thesaurus is your friend. In technical writing, repeating the same word is a good thing, but in other types, when you enter the same word twice in one sentence or three times in one paragraph, you just seem lazy.

2. Limit your adjectives
Adjectives can add interest and clarity, but too many can slow down the flow of your ideas, make for flabby writing, or indicate you can’t find the right descriptor. So use them judiciously.

For example:

  • Try “ship” instead of “large boat,” where you don’t really need an adjective because one strong word works better than two weaker ones.
  • Instead of “wild-eyed, hyped-up, cuticle-gnawing dog walker,” choose just one of the adjectives or come up with one that encapsulates all three descriptions, maybe, jittery, hyper, or fretful. Or you can show an action: “That pug is freaking me out.” The dog walker gnawed her cuticle. “Look at how he watches me.”

For more examples, read Stephen King’s memoir/fiction guide, On Writing, to learn about his struggle with adjective abuse.

2. Vary sentence style
If you write every sentence in subject/verb format, your work will sound like a grade school chapter book or a technical manual, which is good, if that’s what you’re writing. If you’re not, mix it up.

Instead of: Sara was a math whiz. She loved making up word problems. She conceived five, maybe ten per hour, too many to keep in her head. Sara was desperate to record her puzzles. She scribbled them on scratch paper, her hand, whatever was close. She was consumed by car mileage, gas costs, and destination points.

Try: Sara was a math whiz who loved making up word problems, conceiving five, maybe ten per hour, more than she could store in her brain. Desperate to record her puzzles, she scribbled them on scratch paper, her hand, whatever was close. Car mileage, gas costs, destination points—she was consumed.

The second example is in my style, but I hope you get an idea of how to move the words around to vary the sentence structure.

3. Make sure your tenses jibe
These don’t:love to watch movies late at night, but I I often fell asleep while watching.

These do: love to watch movies late at night, but I often fall asleep while watching.

4. Stick with active voice, most of the time

Don’t let your sentences play the victim. Using “to be” and its conjugations (is, was, were, are, am), often indicates a passive sentence, where the subject (he, she, the chair) is acted upon instead of acting. Grammar Girl, one of my favorite sites for all things, well, grammar, explains when to go passive or active in the blog post "Active vs. Passive Voice."

5. Watch nominalizations

A nominalization is a part of speech—usually a verb, adverb, or adjective—that’s transformed into a noun (hold a discussion vs. discuss, take into consideration vs. consider). Some are useful, but often nominalizations needlessly complicate your writing. For a few tips, check out “How to Improve Your Writing: Avoid Nominalizations.”

6. Begin a sentence with the word "this" only if you follow "this" with "what"

Using “this” as a subject of a sentence is grammatically correct but can be extremely confusing, because the reader can’t always determine the subject.

Avoid: This is ridiculous.

Much better: This excuse is ridiculous.

7. Run spell checker—always—but review your spelling manually too
Spellcheck is far from perfect. Read each suggested change within the context of the sentence before accepting. And then read through on your own because mistakes will sneak through spellcheck, such as words that sound the same but are spelled differently: “threw” for “through” or “whose” or “who’s.”

8. Run a grammar checker
But keep a good style guide on hand to check any suggestions that seem off. Grammar checkers can catch a lot, but they can also be soooo wrong. And if you’re going for style, grammar checkers can kill it. For example, maybe you want to write “I. Don’t. Care.” A grammar checker will nail you to the wall, so stand firm and reject.

9. Read your piece out loud
You can catch a lot of errors or just awkward phrasing by reading your work out loud. If you stumble while reading aloud, chances are you’ll want to rework that sentence.

10. Call in a favor
Finally, it’s a good idea to have someone else read through what you’ve written. You’ve seen it so many times that it’s easy to miss a typo or missing word or an error resulting from cutting and pasting. If you don’t have someone you can ask to review your work, just give yourself another day or two, longer if you have the time, and read your piece aloud again.

When you review, you might be happy with what you’ve got and just need to tweak or reorganize just a bit. Or you might need to dive in, rip apart, and put it back together differently to make it stronger. Some writers create four drafts or even thirty, but don’t let those numbers scare you. Depending on whom you’re talking to, the line between revision and draft blurs, and the amount of revision and number of drafts change drastically. Bottom line: trust yourself. You’ll know when you’re finished. And if you get feedback from other writers you exchange work with or from editors, agents, or publishing houses you’re soliciting, listen, and then sit with it. If some of the suggestions feel right, put your work before your ego, and give it another go. You’ll be amazed at the difference a few small changes (or large ones) can make.


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