Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Micro Editing Cheat Sheet

Deb McLeod's writing maxims
by Deb McLeod

A lot of the writer’s craft time is spent on the macro side of things – does the story follow an arc? Does the character change from beginning to end? Do my scenes have conflict? Move the story forward? Are all of them necessary? But the macro edit is only step one in the editing process.

Next comes the Micro Edit.

There are many ways you can go about your micro edit. In taking a class with Pam Houston one time, she told us how she micro edits. She reads the first sentence, makes changes, rereads and tweaks until she’s happy with it. Then she reads the first sentence and the second sentence together and any changes she makes are based on the relationship between the two. Then, she moves on to the first, second and third sentences together – and so on. For the whole piece! If you’ve ever read her work, you know her writing is smooth, vivid, and so, so tight.

I wonder if one of the things she’s reading for is rhythm. Not only do the words need to make sense, and make sense in context, but they also have a rhythm the reader hears. You might read for rhythm by reading out loud. If you can hear the music of the words, you can hear where it jars.

Micro Edit Cheat Sheet

One of my favorite clients developed what she calls her cheat sheet to track recurring issues I would point out in her work. Because she used this cheat sheet before she sent me anything, her writing improved dramatically and soon she didn’t need the cheat sheet. She had changed her habits and her writing was smoother, cleaner, and far more powerful.

If the sheer pleasure of micro editing doesn’t get you excited to create a cheat sheet of your own habits, then think about this:

If you are pursuing traditional publishing, there are lots of ways to get rejected by editors and agents. Not mastering the micro edit should not be one of them. Then new trend at conferences is for an agent or editor to read an anonymous submission and stop where they would if they received it in their office. Then they tell the audience what made them stop and why they would reject it.
  • Dialogue tags can get you rejected. 
  • Too many adjectives or adverbs can get you rejected. 
  • A prologue can get you rejected. 
  • Telling rather than showing can get you rejected. 
  • Just plain weak writing will get you rejected. 

There are many more issues that can land you in the No pile, but so many of the above reasons are avoidable. So let’s look at some of the micro issues you can include on your cheat sheet.

WARNING – Some of what you’re about to read will rankle the grammarians. But remember, I’m talking about fiction. In fiction, in my world, grammar serves the story. Not the other way around. But also know that I’m the writer who had an agent pursue me, express that she really wanted to represent me, but she couldn’t until I rewrote my entire manuscript. She said I couldn’t write the way I do. “It’s fine,” she said, “to write this way when you’re established.” (Sentence fragments! Paragraphing with impunity! Established writers write this way. Is that a compliment? Or did she just call me lazy?) “But until you are established, you have to prove you can write, so if I represent you, you’ll have to rewrite the whole book using the accepted tenets of grammar.”

Yeah. No. Compliment or not… Who’s next?

Micro editing cheat sheet or pick your grammar fight
Paragraphing – I have a friend who has her PhD in Linguistics. She told me once that you never bury an image or a powerful sentence in the middle of the paragraph. Lead with it or better yet, break the paragraph just after the powerhouse sentence or image. In the nanosecond the reader’s eyes take to move from the end of the paragraph to the beginning of the next paragraph, your image or powerful sentence is resonating in the brain before any new information is brought in. So toss out all those old grammar lessons from elementary school and break your paragraphs where they have the most effect. Even if it’s in the middle of things. The grammarians will hate that, but the readers will respond. And this is fiction right? Grammar serves the fiction not the other way around. Are you with me?
Dialogue Tags – I’ve written about this before and in a Facebook discussion just today I learned that dialogue tags other than ‘said’ or ‘asked’ can get you rejected by some editors or agents. For them it is a signal that the writer isn’t seasoned and it’s likely that the rest of the manuscript will show that. So why risk it? Use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ and save the creative tagging for a just few times during the novel when you can really use the punch. But too many times writers rely on the tag to tell the reader how to read the line. Notice the phrase ‘tell the reader.’ Telling, rather than showing. Rewrite without the creative tag, add an action to clarify and paint the picture for the reader. Your dialogue will be better for it.

Tenses – check your tenses. I don’t have anything creative to say about these. Just make sure they agree throughout. Are you writing in past tense, present tense or in some pluperfect time warp? Whatever. Write the thing the same way all the way through.

Point of view - avoid head hopping, unless it’s intentional. And if it is intentional, it must have a solid reason to be there. Every time you break point of view you risk losing the reader. So be sure you really have to do it, before you do. But do break point of view if it serves the story and ignore all the POV police in your critique group. Just do what I do… I say, yes I know it’s head hopping. Then I tell them why I’m doing it, what effect I’m going for. I quote a few of the greats who use it for effect, like Hemingway and Jennifer Egan and say my favorite critique group phrase: “Yes, it breaks the rules, and writer that you are, you caught it, thank you. But would it make you close the book?”

The trick to point of view changes is to be absolutely sure you have anchored the reader in the point of view. The best way to do that is through a sense. If you switch from Dick to Jane and you want that to be clear, simply give Jane a sense right in the opening of the point of view change. Ex: Jane heard the key rattle in the lock. That can’t be in anyone’s point of view besides Jane’s, right? She heard it. So the reader is anchored.

The second trick to changing point of view is not to do it too often. Head hopping implies that it changes too much. Unless you have a great reason to head hop, keep the point of view in one person for a while, then switch, or create a pattern. Your readers will thank you, though they won’t know why. Unless they’re writers and then they’ll tell you that you can’t do that.

Ing the wishy washy – one of my favorites. I could write a book on –ing the wishy washy. How many times have you read or written a sentence just like this: “I don’t have to go,” she said, picking up her book, plopping into the chair, and putting up her feet. I’m exaggerating with the clauses. But that rhythm of dialogue + tag + -ing verb (“I don’t have to go,” she said, picking up her book.) is so overused there needs to be another word to describe it – like trite, tired, worn, banal, weak!
There are rules about gerunds and past progressives which make my eyes cross. Suffice it to say two things about –ing verbs. Many times they force the sentence to use the ‘to be’ verbs (is, was, etc.) which are the weakest verbs in the vast collection. And secondly, listen to the rhythm of a paragraph with too many –ings. Read it out loud. Soon all you can hear is the sing-song -ing.

Power verbs – So let’s talk about verbs. Power verbs. Pull a paragraph and highlight all the verbs you used. All of them. Then rewrite the paragraph using more powerful “showy” verbs. Read aloud. Did you go over the top with too many from your thesaurus, or is your writing more vivid now? Power verbs add punch to the sentence. Make sure the verb fits the emotion you’re trying to evoke in the reader.

Adjectives and adverbs – I agree that, in general, adjectives and adverbs should be avoided. They, too, weaken the writing if used too often and too many will get you rejected. Use a few, now and then. Use the right one, in the right place and your sentence will pop. John Gardner said: “Wilson rocks slowly and conscientiously – a startling word that makes the scene spring to life (adverbs are either the dullest tools or the sharpest in the novelist’s toolbox).” I think that’s the correct quote from Gardner to Raymond Carver.
So, until you’ve gone through the micro edit, your work isn’t done. Even if you’re going to send it off to an editor, like me, do the nitpicky, it gives your editor more time to focus on other issues they may find. And, if you’re sending to an agent, you’ll be less likely to be rejected for something besides the story. If they’re going to reject you, shouldn’t it be because the story isn’t right for them? Not because they jumped to a conclusion that you were an unseasoned or undisciplined writer?


  1. Such a useful article! Dialogue tags are always tricky for me - I need to assume my readers have a brain. Thanks for this checklist.

  2. I second the comment above- very useful article. Thanks Deb!

  3. Deb, last night at Open Critique, I mentioned to attendees that they must read this article. There is such a wide gap between storytelling and overwriting. Thank you for sharing your expertise with us month after month!


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