No, this is not about war- only about the war with words that a manuscript sometimes becomes.
I spent all morning looking for a photo of a World War I dogfight, or a World War II fighter. I prefer buying images to be sure I'm not violating anyone's copyright. But the only suitable images I found would cost me $30! There are some things I'm not willing to do for a blog, and that's one of them.
So instead I'm giving you this one of the cavalry approaching Vittoria in 1813. They're both symbolic of the editing process I'm going to describe.
Ever get into one of those situations with your story where you wonder if you'll ever get the manuscript clean enough to submit? Are the little things getting you down? You've got the thing in a good sequential order, and you're happy with the goals, motivation, conflict, dialogue, and all that major stuff, but you still keep running across those nit-picky things that make you pound the flat of your hand against your forehead.
You need Search and Destroy. It's a systematic approach to error elimination that can be tailored to your own particular writing quirks.
Search and Destroy, hereinafter called S&D, is really a more sophisticated Find and Replace. On my PC, it's called up with the F2 key. Word Perfect uses (Ctl+f), in the Edit Menu, and Word divides it into Find (Ctl+f) and Replace, which also gets you there. (F2 is easier.)
You knew all that. But did you know how many ways you can use this when editing?
Well, first, you have to have some kind of idea what you're trying to replace. Are you a passive writer, over-using passive voice instead of active in your stories? An easy way to find this is to keep a list of the passive words you most often use. Start out with all forms of the verb 'to be', and then do a search for each one. In fiction, 'was' is probably the most common, so start with it, then analyze each sentence that comes up. Is this a legitimate use of 'was', or should the sentence be re-worded?
Often with passive phrasing, the subject and object of the sentence need to be reversed. Although you won't find all examples by searching for 'to be' words, you'll catch a lot of them. Then learn through observing your own writing what other words you commonly use in passive construction. Add those to your S&D list.
If you have a tendency toward certain crutch words, S&D can save you. This is where your S&D list comes in most handy.
My Crutch Word list includes:
and (starting a sentence)
but (also starting sentences)
silver (why are all my clouds silver???)
bunches of words relating to passion which I over-use,
and recently, for some reason, furtively
Speaking of 'furtively', it's an adverb. I now search for all '-ly' words. Not that they're bad words- they aren't. But it's very easy to use an adverb with a weak verb, and thus weaken my whole sentence. For example: "He moved furtively along the canal. . ."
That brings me to weak verbs. Moved, turned, etc are weak because they are so vague, they don't evoke an image in the reader's mind. 'Walked' might be better because at least we know it's done on two feet at a moderate pace. But verbs like 'sneaked' or 'crept' are specific enough for the reader to envision the movement. Sure, adding 'furtively' to 'moved' gives a mental picture, but combining the two into one strong word improves pacing in scenes that need to be tight. Fewer syllables have a sharper impact. If he is 'sneaking' or 'creeping', you don't make the mistake of thinking he's 'strolling', 'striding' or 'ambling'.
On my Weak Verb list are:
moved to (I HATE this! It says almost nothing!)
Any of these might be perfectly all right, but my very long list keeps me looking at them to be sure.
And then there are the Cliches:
massive oak desk (table) (aren't they all?)
voluminous skirts (aren't they all???)
elegantly curved lips (maybe it's just me, but I sure over-use this one)
fuzzy bunny slippers, usually pink (not me. I don't do fuzy slippers of any kind)
Make your own list, and keep adding to it. Every time you come across a really great way of saying something, better make a note of it because before you know it, you'll use it again and again and again. You'll create your own cliche! And it could be one of those 'once a book is enough' words.
I've even used the S&D approach to check my punctuation. I hate it when I come across a contest entry that has variously one and two spaces between sentences, then here and there five spaces, likely created by using Tab. But after having laboriously re-trained myself years ago to change from one space between sentences to two, recently I decided to go back to one. (It no longer connotes 'unprofessional', as it did years ago.) Funny how it's harder to go back. So now every time I finish a chapter I run it through S&D, searching for PERIOD SPACE SPACE and replacing with PERIOD SPACE. I repeat the process for question and exclamation marks. But also I have to check for quotes ending sentences, such as END QUOTE, PERIOD SPACE SPACE. It doesn't really take long and it gives me just a little more peace of mind.
And then there's the ellipsis. Those three dots... Well, actually they should be. . .
And how about scene breaks? Searching for them quickly finds one that lost its center justification for some reason.
I also check to be sure each chapter starts off in the same format- same number of spaces down from the top of the page, etc.
Oh, one more thing. Years ago I put a manuscript in the mail, certain it had been polished to perfection. I went home, where I picked up a copy I'd left on my desk, and on the very last line of the first page, I spotted: "She looked through the sex-paned window to the courtyard below. . ."
So now I search for 'sex' too.
So tell me, what words, phrases or cliches would you add to your Search and Destroy list?