Revision Checklist – Part 2 of 2

Nat Russo Checklists, Dialogue Attributions, Editing, Filter Words, How-To, Misused Phrases, Misused Words, Passive Voice, Present Continuous, Revision 10 Comments

[Updated 5/09/2014]

Welcome to part two of my two-part series on Revision.

If you haven’t read part one yet, I recommend it, and not in an entirely self-serving way. In this post I’m going to dig into the second half of my Common Revision Checklist, and I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with the first half.

Today we’re going to take a look at the following topics:

  • Commonly misused words/expressions
  • Filter words
  • “Something of Something” constructions
  • Superfluous Movement Verbs
  • Passive voice
  • Dialog attributions
  • Superfluous “That” usage
  • Confusing “ing” constructions

Fix Commonly Misused Words/Phrases

I have to admit to something here. I rely heavily on “The Elements of Style” (Strunk and White) to guide me through some of the subtleties of misused words/expressions. The complete list is actually a long one (you’ll find it under “Part IV”). The following list is a subset of the larger one, and it contains those words which I tend to misuse.

I recommend developing your own “subset” list by going through all of “Part IV” in “The Elements of Style” and narrowing it down to words/phrases that you tend to misuse. This will streamline subsequent revisions for you, since if you’re already aware of the proper use of “Nauseous”, for example, then you’re unlikely to abuse that in the future.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve referred to “The Elements of Style” so here’s my Amazon Affiliate link to the book. It really does deserve a place of prominence in your library. Raymond E. Feist once told me that if my question couldn’t be answered by “The Elements of Style” then it’s probably a trivial question not worth worrying about. I’ve found that to ring true.

Once again I’d like to point out that almost all bets are off in dialogue. I’m speaking primarily about a third-person narrative. When you find a character’s voice, stick to it, regardless of the rules of grammar and style. If a doctor’s prime directive is “First, do no harm”, then a writer’s prime directive should be “First, be honest”.

So let’s take a look at the words/phrases I abuse the most, with a corresponding explanation of why it’s on the list to begin with.

 
  • Among/Between – Use “among” when more than two things/people are involved. “Between” for exactly two.
  • But – Not needed after the word “help”. (He couldn’t help but…)
  • Compare – If you’re trying to point out differences, use “compared with”. Use “compared to” to point out similarities.
  • Due to – Don’t use if what you’re really trying to say is “because of”.
  • Each and every – Just don’t use at all outside of dialogue. It’s adding extra words that add little meaning or clarification.
  • Enormity – If you’re using this word in the context of “size”, you’re misusing it. “The Elements of Style” says it should only be used in the sense of “monstrous wickedness”. You get the idea.
  • However – Probably shouldn’t start a sentence with this. If you do, make darned sure you’re using it correctly. You may be a single comma away from implying something you don’t intend to imply. (e.g. “However, large it is…” does not mean the same thing as “However large it is…” In the former usage, you really mean to imply “Nevertheless”. In the latter, you are implying “to whatever extent”.)
  • Inside of – Drop the “of” if you’re talking about location. “Inside of” means “in less than”. The priest is “inside” the church, not “inside of” the church. He’ll finish saying mass “inside of” one hour, however.
  • Nauseous/Nauseated – I have a magical process in my story world which sometimes causes a person to feel nauseated. Until I read “The Elements of Style”, however, that process made them feel “nauseous” instead. Not the meaning I had intended. “Nauseous” means “Sickening to contemplate”. “Nauseated”, on the other hand, means “sick at the stomach”. Strunk & White saved many of my characters from becoming unwitting villains. This one took some getting used to, and I wouldn’t do this in dialogue unless the character speaking had reason to know more than the average person about grammar and style. While grammar aficionados feel nauseated, ordinary people feel nauseous. The objective third-person narrator had better make sure they feel nauseated, however.
  • Nice – Need to replace this with a more descriptive word. “Nice” doesn’t really say anything, and can just as easily imply something negative as positive.
  • Nor – Sometimes confused with “or” after a negative expression. Just double check your usage. Should, typically, follow after a “neither” has been bandied about.
  • One of the most – Eliminate from narrative.
  • Possess – Should not be used to replace “have” or “own”. You can…it wouldn’t be technically incorrect. But it can sound pretentious. I try to eliminate this usage from the narrative and only include it in dialogue if it is truly the character’s voice (which I will have already discovered using this technique: How do you Find a Character’s Voice?)
  • Shall/Will – In the first person, “shall” implies belief in a future event: “I shall prevail!” On the other hand, “will” implies determination or consent: “I will go to the store, because you asked me to.” As an American writer, however, I can feel free to drop the “shall” entirely and stick with “will”. Membership has its privileges.
  • That/Which – This is a common one. “That” is used to set off a restrictive clause. “Which” sets off a non-restrictive clause. What am I talking about? “Windows lined the far side of the room, which allowed natural light to filter among the dancers.” In this example, “which” sets off a non-restrictive clause (it’s not necessary for meaning or clarification. The dancers add nothing to the passage which conveys required meaning). As opposed to – “Windows lined the far side of the room that held the portrait of King Donal.” Perhaps, in a previous passage, we described the room as having an irregular shape, or we are uncertain as to which side of the room the point-of-view character entered. The “far side of the room” may require some clarification in that case. So the restrictive clause is specifying not just any far side of the room, of which there may be 3 or 4, but that side which contains the portrait.
That is a very small subset of the list in “The Elements of Style”. I strongly encourage you to go through all of “Part IV” and develop your own list.
 

Remove Filter Words

What the heck is a filter word? Think, for a moment, about what a filter does in general. A filter takes something in one end, removes something from it, and passes the result out through the other end.
 
A filter word does something similar. It takes a character’s experience, removes something from it, and passes the result on to the reader. Sounds odd, right? How can you “remove something” from the character’s experience? Words are words, right? Let’s look at an example.
 
First, a passage filled with filter words:

John saw the girl walk into the room from his vantage point on the catwalk. He knew she was looking for him because he heard her call his name in a loud whisper. The whole business was starting to get to him. He felt tired…worn out. He wanted to help her. He wanted to make her problems disappear, like he had helped so many others before her. But he knew he couldn’t. He knew he just couldn’t do this anymore. He smelled the dust in the air and stifled a sneeze as he crept back along the catwalk. He knew that if he made it through that door he would be free. Problem was, he also knew that poor girl would die as a result. (125 words)

And now, the same passage without filter words:

John swore. The girl walked into the room, just below his position on the catwalk. She was looking for him. There was no other explanation. She had called his name in a loud whisper several moments ago. He closed his eyes and sighed. He couldn’t do this anymore. He had problems of his own. Couldn’t they see that? Didn’t they realize? He inhaled, hoping the dust-filled air would bring back some of the willpower he had misplaced. All it did was make him want to sneeze. He crept backward along the catwalk, to the door that led to his freedom…and that poor girl’s death. (104 words)

Both passages are little more than first-draft quality, but I think you get the idea. When you compare the two, doesn’t it read as if something is missing from the filtered passage? All of the factual information is there, intact, just as in the non-filtered passage. Yet something is missing from the experience. The filtered version is weaker, somehow. There’s no sense of connection with John.

In the filtered version, John is nothing more than a bundle of sensory processors. He sees, knows, hears, feels, wants, smells, etc. In a way, he’s like a robot…a mechanical probe that I, as the author, sent into that room to collect information. The only way we get to know what he’s experiencing is by him telling us what he’s experiencing.

In the non-filtered version, John is a living person. He’s in the moment, and we’re right there on that catwalk with him. There’s nothing standing between John as the character and us as readers. For the length of the paragraph we’re in his body, experiencing events just as he experiences them, with nothing telling us how we should interpret his sensory information. Instead, we are shown what he is experiencing, and this allows our imaginations, as readers, to fill in the gaps and create a fictive dream state within which we become the character. And here’s the kicker: I accomplished this with fewer words! The filtered version is 125 words, whereas the non-filtered version is 104!

As with most broad generalizations, there are always exceptions. So what’s the exception here? When is it ok to filter? Here’s the rule-of-thumb that I use: If the point of the passage is to describe the process of sensing, then I filter. If, however, what is being sensed is more important than the process of sensing it, then I eliminate the filters.

Ok. Enough windbaggery. On with the list. Here are common filter words and their associated verb forms (for ease in searching through your manuscript). Whenever you see one of these verb forms, you’re filtering. It’s up to you to decide, at that point, whether filtering is appropriate. This list is not in alphabetical order. Rather, it’s in the order of frequency with which I find these filters creeping into my prose.

  • To See (See, Sees, Saw, Seeing, Seen)
  • To Hear (Hear, Hears, Heard, Hearing)
  • To Feel (Feel, Feels, Felt, Feeling)
  • To Look (Look, Looks, Looked, Looking)
  • To Know (Know, Knows, Knew, Knowing)
  • To Think (Think, Thinks, Thought, Thinking)
  • To Wonder (Wonder, Wonders, Wondered, Wondering)
  • To Realize (Realize, Realizes, Realized, Realizing)
  • To Watch (Watch, Watches, Watched, Watching)
  • To Notice (Notice, Notices, Noticed, Noticing)
  • To Seem (Seem, Seems, Seemed, Seeming)
  • To Decide (Decide, Decides, Decided, Deciding)
  • To Sound (Sound, Sounds, Sounded, Sounding)
This list is by no means exhaustive. Search around online and you’ll find longer lists. I think this is a good starting point, however, and will cover most cases.

“Something of Something”

This is a prime candidate for simplification. Look for statements such as the following:
  • door of the car
  • neck of the beast
  • ears of the dog
  • handle of the sword
  • …etc.
See the pattern? Each of these can be simplified. Nothing big, but if you have a particular habit of doing this, then you may be able to reduce your word count quite a bit. Using the above examples, I’d recommend the following simplifications, in order as they appeared above:
  • car door
  • beast’s neck
  • dog’s ears
  • sword’s handle
  • …etc.

 

Superfluous Movement Verbs

Certain movement verbs can increase word count unnecessarily and have the effect of taking the reader out of the story. Look for movement verbs like the following [this list is not exhaustive]:
  • turned
  • reached
  • looked
  • “turned to face”
    • Can be simplified to “faced”. Ever try “facing” something without…um…”turning” your face toward it first?
Caution here: These aren’t always bad (with the possible exception of “turned to face”…simplify that sucker). I merely point them out because new writers are often prone to “stage directions”. They’re not used to finding subtle ways to imply motion so they hit it with a hammer instead.
 
 

Eliminate Passive Voice

We all love this one, don’t we? Or, rather, this one is loved by all of us, isn’t it? What the heck is Passive Voice, anyway?
 
When the grammatical subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action of the verb, rather than the source of the action, you’re using the passive voice.
 
Sounds confusing. A couple of examples should clear things up:
 
Passive:

The expansive dock was lined with merchant ships of various sizes.

Active:

Merchant ships of various sizes lined the expansive dock.

This one is pretty innocent, and, in my opinion, is completely up to you. If I were choosing between the above two sentences, my choice would be based on the flow of words and the rhythm of the sentence in the context of the rest of the passage, not whether one is passive or active. Passive voice places the emphasis on the recipient of the action. If that’s where you want the emphasis to be, then go for it.

The problem isn’t so much the use of passive voice. The problem is that novice writers tend to lean on passive voice out of a sheer lack of confidence. A new writer sometimes feels as if they don’t have the authority to write the words they are writing, and this sense comes through in what they write, often subconsciously. Passive voice is a great way to say something and sound tentative about it, rather than authoritative. Almost like testing the water before wading in.

If you’re a new writer, be aware of it. Your first draft will probably be loaded with passive voice. Handle it on revision.

Tune Dialogue Attributions

This will be short and to the point, as I’ve mentioned it before. To clarify, dialogue attributions are what we use to designate who the speaker is in a given line of dialogue.
 
“Hello,” John said.
 
“John said” is the dialogue attribution in that sentence. It lets the reader know who the speaker is when that fact may be ambiguous in the current context (multiple characters on stage, first speaker in a two-person interchange, etc.).
 
Now for the important part:
 
Dialogue attributions are not words.
 
Re-read that sentence. Ok. Got it? A dialogue attribution is nothing more than a punctuation mark. It’s a frame of reference for the reader. When a reader is going through the conversation you’ve written, they often do not even internally vocalize the dialogue attributions. In fact, too many attributions get in the way and slow things down.
 
Keep dialogue attributions to an absolute minimum, and stick with “said” and “asked”. If you’re getting ready to use something other than “said”, ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary. The occasional “yelled” or “shouted” is fine. But even then I would argue that the change in volume should be obvious from the context, not from your dialogue attribution. If you need the dialogue attribution to tell me the character is yelling, then something else is wrong with what you’ve written, and perhaps you’re being too subtle.
 

Fix Superfluous “That” Usage

“That” is often an unnecessary filler word. Take a look at this example:

Neither of the men that John had questioned knew anything about the murder.

Is that sentence substantively different than:

Neither of the men John had questioned knew anything about the murder.

This isn’t usually a big deal, but consider how many filler words you may have used in a manuscript that weighs in at 150k words. Need to remove a few hundred words? This could be a prime candidate.

Remove Confusing “ing” Constructions

This is a huge problem for many new writers, and it goes back to the “lack of confidence” issue. Using Present Continuous tense (those pesky “ing” words) allows a new writer to feel tentative in their writing, which is often squarely in their comfort zone. Where this is often the most egregious is at the beginning of sentences. Take this, for example:

Running through the doorway, John started the car.

Seems innocent enough. But take a closer look. Unless John is using some sort of remote ignition device, then what is written may not be physically possible. The Present Continuous tends to imply simultaneity. The meaning conveyed by the sentence above is “as John was running through the doorway, he was simultaneously starting the car.” This was, most likely, unintended.

Again, John may have a remote ignition device, which makes this ok. Just be aware of it.

A Final Word

That’s it for the Common Revision Checklist. These are the items I look for after every first draft. The operative word here is after the first draft. The first draft is the place to let the words flow in whatever form they burst from your fingers onto your laptop. Don’t stop to revise yourself during that first draft. Just let the words come. Get your story down on the laptop like a sculptor gets his/her modeling clay on the table. That’s what a first draft is, anyway. Modeling clay.

I hope you enjoyed the insight into my revision process, and I truly hope it helps. It was invaluable while revising Necromancer Awakening.

Is there anything you focus on during your revision process that I’ve left off this list? I’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below and let’s keep the conversation going.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 10

  1. Great stuff. I’ve been working all week to apply these tips to my MS. Even though “all bets are off” in dialogue, I’m finding that my characters are using some of the unnecessary words pretty evenly across the board. Editing out these words from some characters’ dialogue, while leaving them in for other characters, has been a helpful way for me to distinguish the voices between characters. Thanks!

  2. Most excellent advice, Nat. Love your posts. I was surprised to find a grammatical error, however. In this sentence, “It let’s the reader know who the speaker is when that fact may be ambiguous in the current context” the word “lets” should not have an apostrophe.

    Keep up the good work.

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  3. A great list! It’s so easy to end up with a pile of these while you’re writing and the words are flowing (and for a first draft, so what?). I’d be wary of fixing these after a first draft. Usually, at that point, there are bigger targets: pacing, themes, logical errors. This is a great list for a third draft!

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      The way I approach my novel-length work, this two-part list actually spans multiple drafts. Like you say, I’ll start this somewhere around the 3rd draft. It usually carries me through another 10 or so drafts. My published versions are usually somewhere between 15th and 20th draft.

  4. Great stuff, Nat! Much of it very new to me. Especially the part about dialogues. Being from Poland I find it hard to just let it slide. Slavs are storytellers and in Polish prose you can often find “false” dialogue attributions that are really part of the story. For instance:

    – Go on – inspector Cobratti lit a cigarette – I shop in a different mall.

    What do you think about it?

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  5. Great post! Every one of these crops up in the manuscripts I edit. Empowering writers to edit their own work gets them one step closer to a polished book AND a stronger writing craft.

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