There comes a point, when you’ve read your work several times, and each sentence seems to work—that you feel like you’re done. And maybe you are.
But there’s one other stage of editing that can really only be done on a computer—something I call micro-editing (I’m still not sure on the name).
This is not about characters or plot points; it’s about language. But it’s not about any individual sentences, either—it’s about the language over the entire novel.
Especially in first person, and given a certain casual style, it’s incredibly easy to repeat things over and over and over again. And if there’s just enough space between the repetitions, you may not even realize you’re doing it. At least, not on the scale where it’s a problem.
But with a computer, you can “find” phrases throughout the entire document—and see in an instant just how many times you’ve used a word or phrase, and how frequently.
It’s best to show with some examples of phrases and words that sneak into first person and get overused:
“Found” = such as “I found myself doing this,” when it should just be, “I did this.”
“Saw” = “I saw this happen,” when it could be, “this happened.”
“Heard” = “I heard this happen” -> ”this happened.”
“Seem” = “I seemed to do/be this” -> “I did/was this.” (Also sneaks in with third person.)
“Felt” = “I felt this happening” -> ”this happened.”
It might be helpful to include “I” in searching the phrase, just to get at the more problematic uses.
Now, there are definitely instances where these are perfectly fine. If the feeling/seeing/hearing itself is part of the point, or if it defines a clear starting point for an action or event in relation to another, it can be a useful construction. And, for example, I’ve often used “found myself” or “felt” when I’m describing an unusual (often fantasy) experience where the character would naturally remark upon how different it is, or may not have the correct words for something. “Seem” is also a necessary word in these cases. Also, if they’re feeling a feeling, you probably have to use “felt.” (Changing “I felt angry” to “I was overcome with anger” may not be better—changing it to a ‘showing’ moment like “I clenched my fists” is better, but depending on context, may not be desired or applicable.)
Also, there are certain tics that stick to individual writers but may not be a general problem.
For me, apparently I have a mighty need to describe what everyone is looking at all the damn time. And where they’re stepping—back, beside each other, forward. A little of this is good, necessary even, but it can quickly become a parody of itself.
So I ran a search on words like “look,” “step,” and “mov” (to get “move” and “moving”). The latter I examined to see if I could find a better verb—could “moving back” be “stumbling,” etc. The first is easy to cut out when “I looked at this happening” can become “this happened.” The trick is to ask yourself if you really need to tell readers something is happening; for example, if you cut out the third example of “he said, looking at her” on a single page (to just “he said”), will anything really be lost? Most of the time, no.
Some words I can’t do a search on or I will lose my mind—“was,” for example. A great writer might eliminate “was” and its variants from the text entirely, and it would probably be a better and more active style for the effort. Maybe after a few rejections, I’ll be more willing to tackle this behemoth of an edit.
For now, I’m not demanding I eliminate every usage, or even every repetition. Since I am going for a casual style to suit my teenage main character, I’m not going to “thesaurus” every dull word into confusion and cluttered pretension. And sometimes there’s only so many ways to say things (for example, “look” is in so many phrases—“look up,” “look like,” “Look,…”, etc.).
But it’s a nice place to start when trying to cut out patterns and tics in your writing that don’t make it bad, but could be better.
At least, until you give up hope and throw your manuscript across the room. :)