by Brenda Copeland

“A word after a word after a word is power,” said Margaret Atwood. While I don’t like to quibble with a fellow Canadian, I would like to add to her famous statement: It can’t be just any word—it has to be the right one. And only the right one.

Writers toil over word choice. The good ones do, anyway. You can see it in the clarity of their prose and the strength of their sentences. No matter the genre or subject, these good writers convey their stories and direct their arguments in a manner that allows readers to immerse themselves in the narrative without stumbling over language or fretting over meaning. Easier said than done.

The best always make it look easy. What we have to remember—as readers and writers—is that what we are seeing on the finished page likely did not start out that way.

Writing is thinking, and storytelling is an act of discovery.

That’s why some writers go through as many as a dozen drafts before getting close to their story. Once a writer hits her stride, however, she’ll plow through her pages, crossing out passages, and adding material with the zeal of a gardener in springtime. The difference being that once the garden is in bloom, nobody thinks about the seeds. Not so with your manuscript.

When you come close to the final draft of your work, it’s time to consider your root system. Are there elements in your writing that, while necessary to get your story down on the page, no longer serve your final draft? Are there remnants of earlier versions that simply don’t need to be there? Consider, for example, that when you’re sketching and developing your characters, you may find yourself trying too hard to distinguish one from the other. We all understand that this can show up as too much back story or extraneous description. But consider, too, that it can show up in overly complex dialogue tags, with characters exclaiming, decrying, demurring, and otherwise objecting. If you’ve done your job setting up the emotional stakes of a conversation, these additional words are simply not necessary. A modest “he said,” will suffice.

Similarly, when you are plotting your novel or developing the framework of your memoir, you need to take care to locate the narrative in time and place. Continuity is important, as is a clear timeline, which is why you may find it helpful to use phrases like the next morning, when I moved to Saskatchewan, or after her lobotomy. I use the term Locator Phrases ™ for those pesky little expressions. Often found at the beginning of paragraphs and/or sections, these locator phrases are attached to you are here sentences that may be useful when in you are in the process of writing your book but are ultimately of little interest to your reader.

Read on for other ways to polish your final draft to a gleaming shine.

Avoid Starting Sentences with “There was”

Starting a sentence with these two common words may not seem like a big deal but this familiar construction—often a default—is a little tired and can drag down your sentences. Try using one strong and deliberate verb instead.

            Consider the difference in energy between:
            There was a smattering of applause as Dr. Shepherd took to the podium.
            A smattering of applause followed Dr. Shepherd to the podium.

I know which sentence I’d rather read. 

Eliminate Stage Directions

Is your writing full of stage directions and overly diligent activity that attempts to explain every gesture or movement? You don’t need to articulate each action or series of actions. It’s okay to have your character leave a room without getting up from the chair and bumping into the coffee table.

Refrain from Exclaiming

Exclamation points do not bring weak prose to life. If you feel that you need this punctuation mark, consider reworking your sentence so that the emphasis comes naturally from within, not from something so obvious and external. Sure, there may be instances where an exclamation point is warranted. Fire! Sale at Nordstroms! Jeff Goldblum!

Aim for no more than two exclamation points per manuscript. You can extend that to three if you’re writing a book about the inner life of cheerleaders, but no more than that please.

Don’t Begin Too Many Sentences with “And” or “But”

Most of us have had a least one teacher who told us not to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” While this directive may have gone the way of pull-down maps and AV carts, I’ve found that a many writers use “and” and “but” to excess, simply because it’s an easy way to add emphasis or indicate a contrasting idea. Are you one of them?

Cut the Clichés

Ignorance is not bliss. You do not have to play your cards right or judge a book by its cover. Forget the diamonds in the rough, the drops in the bucket, and the flies in the ointment. As George Orwell said, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Had he known about Facebook, Instagram, and TicTok, he would likely have added them too.

This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. I’d say that it’s just the tip of the iceberg, but since the only good cliché is the one you don’t use, that’s out. When you come close to your final draft, take some time to explore your work with a discerning eye. Are your sentences strong? Your meaning clear? Is the voice intentional? As much as you may be tempted to write THE END, asking these and other evaluative questions will bring your work to a higher level. Try it. Your reader will thank you.

brenda copelandBrenda Copeland is an editor with more than twenty-five years’ experience at the big five publishers. She served for eleven years as an adjunct professor in the graduate publishing program at NYU, and now teaches at Drexel University’s low residency MFA in Creative Writing. Throughout her career, Brenda has published a robust list of fiction and non-fiction, quality books with strong commercial appeal. As an independent editor, she works closely with authors through all stages of the writing and publication process, helping them reach their creative potential.