If you’re a parent with a young child, you’ve probably discovered the joys of head lice. Pesky little beasties, they’re ridiculously hard to get rid of. Even when you’ve blasted them with a cocktail of chemicals and raked out their eggs with a fine-tooth comb, they’ll turn up again out of nowhere.
What, you might say, have head lice to do with line editing?
In my experience, ridding your work of cliches, repetition, banal words, limp similes, and typos is as painstaking as zapping head lice … only a whole lot harder.
If you’re scratching your head over the line editing process, give my never-fail, fine-tooth comb method a whirl.
Step 1: Save your manuscript as a new file.
Better still, back up all your files onto another device. Do it NOW. Computers have a habit of crashing or being stolen or otherwise coming to grief. If you don’t have a copy of your fabulous work, you will be doubly sorry.
Step 2: Make a list of the words you routinely overuse or know to be lame.
The words on my personal lame-list are ‘very’, ‘always’, ‘like’, ‘really’, ‘just’, ‘quite’ … and so on. You get the idea. Everyone will have a different list of feeble or threadbare words.
On my lame-list I always include the word ‘like’ because I tend to write in similes. While a smattering of strong relevant similes can be short-hand to communicate meaning, weak similes smack of lazy writing. The best way of tracking them down is to examine every phrase commencing with ‘like’. Be prepared to make substitutions or to delete if your simile is trite or adds nothing new to the characters, setting or story.
Step 3: On your computer, turn on the ‘find’ function and zap those suckers.
The ‘find’ function will open a navigation pane with a search bar at the side of your screen. Methodically comb through your manuscript, examining one lame word at a time. Make adjustments as necessary. This may take some time, but believe me it’s worth it.
To keep you motivated, take note of the number of times each lame word appears – before and after intervention. This is easy: the navigation pane automatically counts them. The target words are highlighted in yellow throughout the document. Use the ‘up’ and ‘down’ arrows to move sequentially through your manuscript.
After my comb-through of The Scarlet Key, the number of times ‘like’ appeared in my 76,000 word manuscript reduced from 326 to 171. That’s about half! Not all were similes: ‘like’ was also used as a verb or formed part of another word such as ‘businesslike’ or ‘likely’.
To show how this strengthens the writing, here is a sentence from an early draft of The Scarlet Key. ‘The shopkeeper looked like a hippie and spoke like a yobbo.’
After my nit-pick of the manuscript, the sentence was rewritten like this.
The fellow behind the counter was a refugee from the sixties with long white hair tied in a ponytail, faded jeans, and a string of love-beads around his wrist.
‘What’ll it be, mate?’ His Aussie accent was as broad as the Nullarbor Plain.
Okay, grab that fine-tooth comb. Search and destroy those lame words. Your manuscript will thank you for your trouble.