We've talked about awkward wording, misused words, bland adjectives, misplaced commas, and boring verbs. What else could possibly be wrong? Before you decide your book is perfect, let's try one final round of tweaking.
1. Eliminate all instances of passive voice. A sentence will usually be much stronger if the subject is the one doing the action, not the object of someone else’s action. “I was spanked by my father” is whiny. “My father spanked me” is angry and accusatory.
How do you find passives? The various forms of the verb “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, being, been) do not necessarily make a sentence passive, but it is hard to imagine a passive sentence without one. Every time you find one of these words, ask yourself if the subject is acting or being acted upon. If the subject is not the actor, re-write the sentence.
Examples: “The child was being beaten by a bully.” (Passive — the subject is having something done to him.)
“The child was beating the drum.” (Active — the subject did the action.)
2. Check your dialogue. Does it sound like real people talking? Try eavesdropping on real conversations while riding a bus or waiting in a checkout line. You’ll see that people don’t often use complete sentences, and speakers don’t politely wait their turn. They jump in whenever they feel like it.
Have you used too much description in identifying the speakers? Is it really necessary to identify the speaker? If your characters are strong, they will have distinctive speech patterns that will automatically identify them. You can usually get rid of “Tom said,” before every pronouncement.
The only exception to that rule may be when you are handling a conversation in which more than three people are involved. And even in that circumstance, you probably don’t want to use any tags beyond “said” or “asked” or “answered.” Consider this example: “I don’t want to leave,” she sniffled. Now, she may have said that, and she may have been sniffling at the same time, but she can’t sniffle (which involves breathing in) and speak (which involves breathing out) at the same time. If you are determined to keep every word, then punctuate it as two sentences: “I don’t want to leave.” She sniffled.
Don’t be too descriptive. Let the speaker’s words tell the reader how the words were said. Consider this horrible example: “Help!” she shouted helplessly. It conveys the same information four times in four words: the word itself; the exclamation point; the descriptive tag, ‘she shouted”;and that ridiculous adverb at the end. “Help!” tells the reader everything necessary.
3. Vary your sentence structure and length. Don’t start every sentence by giving subject — verb — object. But don’t start every sentence with a conjunction, either. Personally, I really have to watch my habit of starting with an adverb or prepositional phrase. All grammatical sentences are acceptable. You just need variety to keep your reader awake.
4. Keep each page visually attractive. Try staring at the page from across the room. Do you have enough white space to make the page look interesting? Make sure you don’t have lengthy segments of narrative. Dialog helps to keep up the pacing. Perhaps you give more description than is needed. Does the page look like a solid block of print? Perhaps you need to break it into several shorter paragraphs, or add some dialogue in the middle.
At the other extreme, you don’t want a whole page full of dialog in which each person speaks only one or two words. If the page has a narrow band of print at the left margin, and gaping areas of white space on the right, you’ll need to break up the conversation with paragraphs of description.
5. Be sure your facts are consistent from one section of the book to another. If a character has blue eyes in chapter one, they probably won’t turn brown in chapter four. If you speak of summer heat, don’t send your characters out sledding in the next few days. Check dates extra carefully. Don’t let a character die and then come back to life, unless you are into zombies and vampires.
6. Check your transitions. Chapters should wrap up some loose ends but leave enough questions unanswered to make your reader want to keep reading. A new chapter may switch point of view, or location, or jump from one period of time to another. But if such changes take place, be sure to make them clear at the start. The first words of a new chapter may need to be some variety of these:
• “Meanwhile, back at the police station . . . .”
• “The next day, Tom traveled to . . . .”
• “After school, the children . . . .”
• “When the plane landed in Paris, . . . .”
Editing your work using these questions will produce a more readable book. Will it then be perfect? Of course not. You still must be on the alert for omitted articles and prepositions. Look for spots where you may have done some cutting and pasting, leaving a few extraneous words behind. Other proof-reading tricks may help. Some people swear by reading the book backwards, which may draw your attention to misspelled words. Enlist the help of willing friends, who may spot details your own eyes keep overlooking.
And then, once you’ve exhausted your own editing ability, pay for a professional editor.