This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Your book is finished. You’ve written a first draft, and maybe you’ve revised it—maybe even several times. You wonder if it’s “finished.”
It might be. You might have a perfect gem on your hands. However, you might want to take another look—a slow, careful look—after you’ve let it rest for a week or two.
I’m a professional editor. I read articles and books all day long, looking for ways to make them sharper and clearer—to bring out the author’s vision in the best way possible. A friend recently asked me why one of my projects was taking so much longer than I’d expected, and I realized that my assessment of when a project is “finished” might be applicable to writers who have a book that’s ready to send out.
The Ten Words rule
Here’s my simple rule: when I’m editing a manuscript, if I change ten words that have meaning, I reread the entire book.
Seems excessive, right? Here’s my thinking: If I change a word that has meaning, it’s because I think that that passage, that paragraph, or that section isn’t hitting the right note. Ten words is a lot of paragraphs or sections to be unsure about. And I need to be sure that every passage is as effective as I can make it.
Words that count
What’s a word that has meaning? I’m not talking about changing words like “answered” to “said” in a dialogue tag. I’m talking about changing words that alter a description or change an emotion or cast new light on something.
Say your heroine is a wealthy young woman, and she drives a red car. In the first draft, you might describe the car as a “swanky red convertible” to showcase that she’s wealthy. But the heroine has a mind of her own, so in the second reading, you change “swanky” to “sassy,” which gives the car an attitude that matches that of the heroine. Then at the end of the passage, she has an argument with her parents, and you further decide that the passage works better if the car is described as a “powerful” or perhaps even “muscular” red convertible.
The car is probably all of those things, but you don’t want to drown that poor convertible in adjectives. You want the one word that best supports the essence of that scene. If I change ten of those kinds of words, I reread the manuscript to make sure that I don’t have to change anything else before or after, and that the scenes all flow together in harmony.
The key to making the Ten Words rule work is that you have to read closely. You have to focus on every single word and listen to how they fit together. If you have any doubts about any word, if you have any questions—you know it’s wrong. You have to change it or delete it.
You can’t coast. If you find yourself thinking about dinner or what the kids are doing, it’s time to stop. You have to pay attention to every word, because your readers sure will. Does every word work? If not—make it so. And then read the whole thing over again.
Read to the end
It’s a lot of reading. But if you find ten things to change, you know the book’s not ready. And if you find ten, I promise you, the next time you read it, you’ll find a few more. Maybe not ten. Maybe only five. Should you read it again? Every word? Listening to how it sounds? Making sure each word fits perfectly?