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Targeted Editing – Editing for Awesomeness – Part 4

Targeted Editing – Editing for Awesomeness – Part 4

In review, again, here’s the list of each area you want to focus on during your targeted editing.

Ares of Focus for Your Targeted Editing

Passive voice
Summary narration
Unnamed characters
Rehash of the same old-same old

Poor/wrong choice of tense and person
Time control errors
Point of view (POV) errors and poor point of view selection

Substance errors
Motive errors
Presentation errors
Ego-driven errors


The first three groupings I covered in the other articles in this series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Now, let’s focus on the final section:


Targeted Editing for Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most difficult things to write well. It’s important to get right, though. It’s critical to moving a story forward and for fleshing out characters. A targeted editing pass for dialogue alone is a good idea if you’ve been struggling. Dispense with everything else during this pass and just “listen” to how your characters speak with each other.

Writing good dialogue takes practice and a good ear. How can you get better? Make a habit of listening to how people speak.

Listen to the ebb and flow (the beat or cadence) and to the shortened way people convey ideas. People rarely speak in complete sentences. Listen for clues to how their backgrounds influence their word choice and phrasing. All these things become important when you’re breathing more life into your characters through their speech.

During your targeted editing, what’s the fastest way to tell if your dialogue is off? Read it outloud to hear how it sounds in your ear.

I’ve given this advice a thousand times and the reaction is usually the same – complete horror at the thought of speaking the words outloud. I’ve heard “people don’t talk that way”. When dialogue is written in formal language, yeah, it seems fake when read outloud. So don’t do that. The first part of my career was spent writing script and commercial copy for live radio and production as well as being a voice talent. Being on both ends of scripted dialogue, it didn’t take me long to learn how to make dialogue flow while still conveying details about products, concepts or fictional situations. It may seem hard, but if you use the “read it outloud” method, you can pick it up very quickly. I still use this sanity check in my targeted editing for my fiction now.

Your characters are (or should be) real people to you in your fictional universe. That means, they should read like real people talking. Hearing your characters’ words in your ear allows you to pick out the “clinkers” in the dialogue.

The goal here is to make the reader become lost in the stellar conversation, not become lost trying to follow the dialogue. The human and realistic way the characters speak will also convey character traits you won’t have to spell out. This makes your story tighter without a lot of digression that distracts. It gives your story movement.

Watch for giving out too much information at once, too. The reader should never know you’re feeding them facts about your story. Be sure to break it up through the entire story. Trust that your reader is going to remember facts from earlier to make the correct connections. Allow the story to unfold naturally. In this, use dialogue to your advantage to give out clues as part of the clever, slow reveal to your exciting climax.

While not the same as real speech, dialogue should read like it. Real speech has a lot of boring stuff in it. Take out all the unneeded parts and make every word count. This will keep your story tight and moving forward. Dispense with slang and a lot of profanity unless you’re writing satire. And unless you’re an expert on a particular area of the world, don’t write in dialect. As mentioned in one of the other articles, write knowing there’s always someone who knows more than you do about any topic, including dialects.

Clean up overdone dialogue tags and be sure you haven’t used them in favour of writing a better sentence. While dialogue needs tags to guide the reader, use a light touch. If overdone, they’re distracting and pull the reader out of the story. Allow the reader to focus on the dialogue, not your ability to use a thesaurus to find more adverbs (excitedly, gasped, crossly, screeched, joyfully, argued, angrily, etc). Instead, let the conversation convey the emotion in each characters’ speech in an efficient way. There’s nothing wrong with a solid, simple “said” tag!

Check for correct punctuation in your dialogue. Nothing can pull a reader out of a story faster than bad punctuation. And it will kill dialogue. Done well, it should be beyond notice and make your dialogue flow. During your targeted editing, ensure your dialogue punctuation stays in the background, working to help convey your story without anyone taking note it’s there.

Targeted Editing for Punctuation

(See that segue? Almost like I meant to do that) Contrary to recent popular belief, punctuation counts! It really does and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. No matter if you’re sending that story to a publisher or writing blog posts or entering competitions, you need to learn the correct way to punctuate your dialogue and your story in general.

If your ability to punctuate is lacking, you’re missing an essential writing skill. Learn the rules of punctuation and use them. It’s critical in making a better presentation for your labour of love. Again, why settle for that donkey cart with the broken wheel?

Remember, changes in punctuation can alter the context of your writing. To have your reader absorb your words and thoughts exactly as you meant them, be sure your punctuation helps convey those thoughts exactly.

An illustration

A few examples – there’s a million memes for these:

use targeted editing to check for punctuation spongebob-full-stop-fail Not sure what "boy syrup" is, but pretty sure I don't want any

Silliness aside, take note of the dialogue punctuation during your focussed editing. Ensure it works to convey what you mean. Otherwise? You might find it turned into a meme about punctuation fails.

Remember, in dialogue, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks!

Targeted Editing for Readability

After doing all the other targeted editing, you may think you’re done. Not quite. If you’re serious about your writing and want to be as polished as the pros, you want to get all the technical details right. Readability is in this area.

What is it? Readability is a measure of how easy it is to read your writing. In this pass of your targeted editing, you’re looking for anything that makes the writing more difficult to read. This includes wordiness and redundancy, run-on sentences, ambiguity, pronouns without a clear antecedent and dangling modifiers. (Was that last bit Greek to you? Go back and study some basics and then come back and see me)

I will stress here that in fiction writing, sometimes those technical rules are broken for effect. That’s okay. Not all fiction is technically perfect nor should it be. Instead, it should be easy to read despite broken rules. Commercial writing will need to be more technically accurate, so your approach will depend on your project.

Readability is key. It’s everything. If the words are too difficult to read, your writing won’t matter to anyone.

Readability is a calculable thing thanks to formulas like the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests – Flesch for reading ease, and the Flesch–Kincaid for grade level. Programs like Word have built-in editing tools to calculate this for you. We used to calculate these by hand. Damn, I love technology.


For those who don’t know about these, you may want to check out the Flesch–Kincaid readability tests Wikipedia article for some background.

What you’re aiming for is an average. The average population reading level is between sixth and eighth grade. This means, no more than an eighth grade reading level is your target. This doesn’t mean you should dumb down your writing. It means being conscious of making it easy to digest.

It’s the difference between something that requires wading through and a quick read.

Things to look for?

  • long words (the kind with multiple syllables)
  • extra long sentences (if they take more than a full line, you may want to break them up)
  • conjunction words like and/or that connect phrases and sentences together (consider removing these to break up the sentences)
  • unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (sometimes less is more!)

Some numbers to keep in mind: The Flesch reading ease score is based on a range of 0-100. Lower values indicate harder text and higher values for easier text.

A Flesch–Kincaid readability score between 60.0–70.0 or above is your sweet spot.

The highest ranked blog posts in search engine results have a Flesch–Kincaid readability score between 60.0–70.0. This means, readability is taken in to account even in ranking.

Readability is not only about the Flesch-Kincaid score, though. It’s about the experience of the reader with your content, either commercial or fiction. Check for efficiency in this targeted editing. Replace sets of words (with modifiers to make them stronger) with single, strong words and keep paragraphs shorter. Ever tried to concentrate on a giant block of text on an E-reader while on a swaying subway car? Help people out and break those babies up, man.

Blog posts and social media posts should have white space and highlighted or bolded headings to draw the eye along. This also makes for easy scanning of your content. Go over the targeted editing section again for converting passive voice to active and take another pass. Active voice helps move people along through the words.

A targeted editing approach to your writing may be your shortest route to achieving your end goal. Make use of the individual target points and make them work for you!

See the related articles in this series:

Targeted Editing – Editing For Awesomeness – Part 1

Targeted Editing – Editing For Awesomeness – Part 2

Targeted Editing – Editing For Awesomeness – Part 3




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