Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ten Tips for Tweaking

Tweak, according to the dictionary, can mean to adjust or fine-tune. It’s part of the editing process, but relates more to the small improvements you can make rather than to the overall plot and characterisation editing. Most of these are things I have to look out for in my own writing.

1. Try to spot clichés and change them – unless, of course, you have an annoying character who has a habit of using clichés! This can also include overused idioms e.g. pale as a ghost/as death/ as alabaster, etc. Think of something that sounds different, but without ending up sounding too contrived.

2. Check your speech tags Are they all necessary? Sometimes they are, when you need to make it clear who’s speaking, but often you can replace the tag with an action: “I’m not sure how to say this,” he said uncomfortably can be replaced with He shifted in his chair and hesitated. “I’m not sure how to say this.”

3. Following on from this: don’t use lots of different synonyms for ‘said.’ Evidently, a reader can ignore ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, but the use of other words – mumbled, growled, stuttered, begged, shouted, sobbed etc etc  can distract the reader from what’s actually being said. As above, use actions or body language instead of the synonyms. Oh, and avoid using adverbs following ‘said’ too!

4. Look for small slips in POV. Her beautiful eyes flashed dangerously is fine if you’re in the hero’s POV, since he can see this happening. However, if you’re in the heroine’s POV, would she refer to her own eyes as beautiful, would she know they flashed, let alone that it was a dangerous flash? Think about what YOU can feel your eyes doing – you know when your eyes widen or narrow, you also know whether you’re looking at someone lovingly, accusingly, doubtfully, or with hostility. So, in this case, show the heroine’s feelings, and not what someone else can see in her eyes.

5. This leads on to: beware of inserting something a character doesn’t know or see. I’ve seen so many examples of this in my recent reading (and hopefully I’ve now learnt to avoid it in my writing!) e.g. She turned to the door and didn’t see the look of fury on his face. It sounds obvious but, if she didn’t see it, you can’t include it if you’re writing in her POV. She doesn’t have eyes in the back of her head.

6. Look at the beginnings of your sentences. Do you have a page or a paragraph where every sentence starts with ‘He’ or with ‘She’? It’s so easily done, especially when we’re showing what someone is doing, thinking or feeling. Try to change the beginnings of your sentences to avoid this.

7. Over-used words? ‘That’ is the bane of my life! Having had a classical and grammar-orientated education, I have make a conscious effort to avoid using ‘that’ – He thought that she was beautiful is grammatically correct but can, in today’s more informal usage, lose the word ‘that’. One good tip I read was to use the editing tool Find to highlight words you know you overuse, and if your chapter lights up like a Christmas tree, start deleting or changing the word(s). If you don’t know the words you over-use, there are several websites where you can paste a chapter of your work and find out. Click over to our Helpful Writing Hints page to find one of these websites!

8. Break up long sentences which have coordinate or subordinate clauses. Having returned home at midnight, she sat staring at the fire, which had long since gone out, and wished she could go back to the start of the evening to avoid making the mistakes which had annoyed Sam who had then left with Melanie even though she knew he couldn’t stand the giggling blonde who fawned over him like a teenager over a rock star.
Okay, I know that’s an extreme example, and I’m sure you can see the ways to break it up into at least two, if not more, sentences. However, it’s worth checking your own sentence length and seeing if you can break them up too. Thirty words is probably the ideal ‘maximum’ length to aim for (although, of course, there are always exceptions to that!)

9. Double-check your names and ages – and other facts. Hopefully you’ll not change your hero’s or heroine’s names part way through the story, but what about other things? I’ve heard of examples where the hero’s blue eyes have changed to brown half-way through a story, and where the heroine’s hair has changed from auburn to blonde. Check back to the name you gave a restaurant/pub in Chapter 1 if you want to use it again; don’t say the nearest town is ten miles away, and then have your heroine driving to it in five minutes (or five hours!); double-check the names, appearances and ages of your minor characters.

10. Last but not least, check your spelling! Word-processing programmes will not highlight words which are spelled correctly despite being in the wrong context. Common examples are ‘there’ and ‘their’, ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ – but other things I’ve seen wrongly spelled are ‘heal’ instead of ‘heel’, ‘sight’ instead of ‘site’ and other such homonyms.

Tweaking means going through your work with a fine tooth-comb, looking for the small errors rather than the overall story-arc. I’m sure you can add more to this list. What kind of ‘tweaks’ do you have to do?


  1. Excellent reminders, Paula. My most recent editor (for the tween book) made me get rid of so many instances of 'she', it was embarrassing to see how many I'd used! And 'was'. But it all made me a less lazy writer hopefully.

  2. Terrific (I even used a 'T')! When I first wrote my first manuscript and submitted it, it obviously got rejected. But one of the editors sent me a huge email with a ton of pointers, including a list similar to yours. I've used it ever since when fine-tuning my manuscripts. Very helpful.

  3. Paula, I really appreciate you sharing these helpful tweaking hints! I can't tell you how many times I have to delete the word "that." 95% of the time, it doesn't need to be there. Thanks!

  4. Rosemary - When I used the auto-crit wizard, I also discovered I was using 'he' or 'she' to start far too many sentences. Now I try to correct that as I go along, but I'm sure I'll still have to check and then change when I get to the end of my current novel!

    Jen - these are all 'errors' I've discovered either in my own writing or in others' stories.

    Thanks, Ana! You can now tell me which of these pointers I'm guilty of!

    Beachlover - Agree with you about 'that' - it's one of my worst errors!

  5. all lessonsn I woould have used wiith my own students! :))

  6. all good reminders of what we should look out for.

  7. Thanks so much, Sandra and Marilyn - glad you found them useful!

  8. I liked this blog Paula. I only rediscovered it because I'd been at G+ for so long, and had quit FB. Now that I'm back, I'm reminded to check in once in a while.
    1) Check. But I'm sure you get this back-in-forth thing "Is it really a cliché?" and "What if the cliché is the pointente of a joke?"
    2) Check. I always recommend this great book from Writer's Digest: Write Great Fiction: Dialogue by Gloria Kempton, which goes into great detail about creating dialogue.
    3) Check. This is hinged on N° 2: if you have to use the word "said" consider deleting the tag altogether.
    4) Check. It's hard to do, but it helps to think like a movie director in this case.
    5) I would only add: Step 5a)Check first and see if you have narrative (telling as opposed to showing). Then experiment if you can possibly re-write this as showing. 5b) If you can't "show" it (because it would make the passage too long), then make sure nothing is there the character cannot know for certain.
    6) The only thing I've discovered is this sort of thing is permitable and desired if you write face-paced action in short sentences, such as writing about a duel, a fight, a skirmish or a battle - anything where fists or weapons are commanding the dialogue. The mistake to avoid here is something like "WHILE thrusting his sword AS he kept Katherine in sight...". According to two expert books this drags out action.
    7) I recommend Word's search for "THAT", and that's sister "AS". If 'that' is being used as a relative pronoun - out with it; if 'as' used as a clausal word (not in comparison) - out with it.
    8) Chop at the word 'and' and make two sentences. Word's search will help if you "find & replace 'and'".
    9) LOL! People really do this? I'm surprised. I thought everyone had a clear-cut image of their characters in their mind's eye.
    10) "Find & replace" again with each form of

  9. Thank you for the great tips!!


  10. Great tips, Paula. I'm with you on 'that'. Use it WAY too much!

  11. Celeste - thanks for your GREAT response, and extra tips - really appreciate this!

  12. Joanne - at least I'm not alone with the overuse of 'that'!

  13. Kathy - you're welcome, glad you found them useful!

  14. Great condensed list, Paula. The things we think we've got past doing as we write but find splattered all over the story when we edit. Thank heavens for the "Find" button.

  15. Very true, Anne. The auto-crit wizard is great for highlighting some of these errors - but makes me wince too when I realise I am STILL making the errors!

  16. Oh the variations of said such as humphed, sighed, exasperated, yawned, etc. bother me so bad. I read a really good book recently and it had NONE of that. Just "says". And that is enough!

  17. A very useful post, Paula. Thank you

  18. I can disagree with nothing. I recently had a piece of work edited and (among other things - for e.g practise instead of practice!) it was pointed out I'd used break instead of brake!!!! 'That'is a big bugbear of mine. I wildly overuse and then go through cutting it out. Also, 'got' is very often unnecessary. All good reminders.

  19. Another 'that' culprit, and yes, I forgot about 'got' too! Thanks, Gilli!

  20. Hi Paula,
    What an informative blog. Afraid I am guilty of overusing "that," especially in the first draft or two.



  21. I'm quite relieved 'that' I'm in the company of so many 'that' over-users! Maybe we ought to start a club called 'That Word That'!

  22. Excellent reminders! Thanks for posting. 'That' is a problem for me, too. :)

  23. Such excellent tips!! I really like 2, 3, and 4 and need to work on them!!

    Cheers, Jenn

  24. Karen - 'that' seems to be a problem for a lot of us!

    Jenn - glad you found them useful!