by Hank Phillippi Ryan

It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Copy editing. No, it truly is. And this time, on my fourteenth book, I learned some new tricks.

I had not looked at my book for a month, while the copy editor had it, so reading it again, after four whole weeks, made me see it in a different way.

So let’s talk about something.

I mean, “something.” I had used it 37 times. Not exaggerating. Now, that is way too often for any word, but in this case “something” was not only a pitfall–it turned into a realization.

First, I realized that something is a lazy word. It means the writer is too lazy to decide what’s “something” really is.

“I worried I’d left something in the car.” Really? Is that what you think when you worry? What actually goes through your mind? In real life, you KNOW what you think you left. Oh! I left my baby in the car? The dog. My notebook. The ice cream. The murder weapon. Why not say that? Isn’t it more interesting? Every time you change the word “something” into a specific, it sharpens your story.

In my manuscript, a point of view character woman wondered whether the FBI was hunting her husband as a suspect in a financial fraud.

In one iteration of my book, she makes a statement along the lines of: “I wonder if he really did something.”

Well, like what? When I changed her statement to “I wonder if he is guilty of a crime,” it raised the stakes instantly. Now the reader can imagine—as the character did—that would mean she’s the wife of a criminal, and criminals go to jail (often) and the wives of criminals are definitely not happy, and their lives are changed.

And when you go for specificity, you realize all the dominoes that fall as a result. When you choose specificity over laziness, your story comes to life.

Go through your manuscript and look for “something.” Each time you encounter it, ask yourself what you mean by that. Can you make it more specific? Can you say the actual word you mean? (Imagine that.) And I promise you , when you are straightforward about it. the rest of what happens at that moment will change.

While you are at it, look for “of course,” “certainly,” “just,” — and a word that might surprise you. Little. Little is another lazy word. A little problem, a little look, a little girl, a little bit, a little baby, a little puppy, see what I mean? It’s a puppy. It’s a baby. You don’t need to say it’s little.

A little rain? It’s raining. Isn’t that more cinematic? (Or wait—”It’s raining harder than I’ve ever seen.” Hmm. Why not?)

Now–go through for qualifiers. Somewhat, briefly, pretty much, kind of, sort of, maybe, could be, might be, possibly. Every one of those words is weak. It dilutes whatever you are trying to say, and it makes the person who says it appear uncertain and lacking in confidence. Just say it! Not: “I kind of hate shopping, but I have to go.” How about: “I hate shopping. But I have to go.”

Even in a seemingly unimportant moment like that (or is it?) the stakes and conflict are raised.

The other thing you catch, if you’re lucky, are problems with continuity. Not just that someone has a maroon tie in paragraph one and a navy tie in paragraph 10. Those things are inevitable, and fun to find. Like a treasure hunt. Even that I had spelled my main character’s last name two different ways. Fix fix fix.

But sometimes I find jaw-dropping mistakes. Shocking mistakes.

Here is a cautionary tale.

In the first version of the book, the main character is driving home, and begins to suspect, (and it all makes sense), that someone has put a bug in her car. And that someone is following her, and that the bug is transmitting to that person’s car. So she does some things, which you will have to read about, to find out if that’s true. And it seems to be true.

Then she goes home, and new “friends” come to dinner, and many things are discussed. But. Not the bug in the car! She never mentions the bug in the car. Not to her mysterious dinner guests, not to her lawyer, not to anyone. Not even to herself.

The next day, she and the two friends get into the same car and drive to her summer house. She never thinks about the bug. She never does anything about the bug. The bug is never mentioned again. Until the very last chapter, when somebody admits something about it.

But she’s been driving around with the stupid maybe-bug! Talking! Saying things! I sat and stared at my screen, wondering if I had completely lost my mind. How could I have dropped that thread?

And more important, how do I fix it? There was no time for her to have her car checked for a bug, and she has no idea what a bug looks like, and there’s no one to ask, and there’s no time to do anything, and what would she do if she knew, anyway? I thought and thought and thought. And then the solution appeared! She just…takes her other car! Which could not have a bug in it. Brilliant brilliant brilliant, Hank, I thought, patting myself on the back, you are so smart.

(If that solution seems obvious to you, good for you. It took me a good fifteen frantic minutes.)

But then, the dominoes started to fall. Earlier in the book, she talks about how her garage is half empty, now that her husband’s car is gone. Oops. Now there has to be room in the garage for the “other” car! Okay, now her garage is “emptier,” without her husband’s car.

But, yikes, this “other” car is an SUV. So it doesn’t have a trunk. Okay! I will fix that.

And the “other” car does not have the same stuff in the glove compartment that the first car did. Okay! I will fix that, too.

But here’s the thing. This all made me so happy.

Because as long as it all gets fixed before the book goes to print, that’s all part of the process. And I love the process.

Have you ever found a gasp-worthy continuity problem in a manuscript? What are your tricks for copy editing? (Or is it copy-editing? Hyphens are my topic for another day.) Let us know on the Career Authors Facebook page. And then—get editing!