From Idea to Finished, Step 8: Tweaking and Polishing

Finally, after months of research, brainstorming, outlining, and drafting, followed by multiple rounds of revision, getting feedback from my beta readers and editor, followed by yet more revision…

The Book. Is. Done.

Well, sort of.

The major elements of the book are done. The plot is stable, I’m happy with my characters and their arcs, I feel like there’s good pacing and suspense and I’m happy with the climax and resolution, etc.

But the last steps before I can consider a manuscript “finished” and ready to send off to my publisher are my tweaking and polishing rounds.

Usually I’ll do three rounds of tweaking and polishing, but I’m looking for different things in each round, and they tend to go pretty fast. Depending on the length of the novel, a polishing round will take me anywhere from a couple days to a week.

Round One: Crutch Phrases

The first thing I do to polish the manuscript is hunt down as many crutch phrases as I can. “Crutch phrases” are the default words and descriptions that we writers fall back on when we’re not sure what else to say.

The annoying thing about crutch phrases is that they change. You figure out what your default phrases are, and then for the next book you’re aware of them so you don’t use those phrases as much. Unfortunately, your writer brain will just replace them with something else. So it goes.

When I wrote Cinder, my biggest offenders were “smiled” and “nodded.” My character were very cheerful bobble heads in those first drafts!

The crutch phrase I discovered recently in Fairest was “gaze.” My characters wouldn’t stop gazing at each other! Argh!

Crutch phrases can also be the way you describe a particular action. Do your protagonist’s eyes “fill up with tears” every time she starts to cry?  Is heat forever “rushing into her cheeks”?

With Scarlet I developed a weird obsession with “lungs.” “She filled up her lungs.” “Her lungs contracted.” Thanks to my Dad for pointing that one out before it was too late!

You don’t have to delete every single instance, but if you notice yourself using the same description over and over, try to vary it. How else can you describe a blush? Or, better yet, how else can you show the reader that she’s embarrassed without mentioning her blush at all?

My method for hunting down crutch phrases.


First, I make a list of my worst offenders. Usually I’ll have started looking out for these in my final revision rounds and sometimes my betas point them out, so I’ll already have a list started. I add those “smiles” and “nods” and “gazes” too—words that I know have plagued me in the past.

I group like words together. Smile, grin, smirk. Gaze, stare, look, glare, glower, eyes (because eyes are constantly darting, slipping, squinting, etc.). Inhale, exhale, breathe, breath, lungs. Grimace, flinch, recoil.

Then, working through one group at a time, I’ll do a search in the manuscript and highlight each offending word in a different color. You can do this in Scrivener, but I usually compile the book back into a Word doc at this stage, so I’m going to break down the steps in that program.



A Quick Tutorial on How to Search & Highlight Crutch Phrases in Microsoft Word

In the Home tab, check that your highlight button is set to a color. (Any color you like!) The highlight button is found next to the Bold, Italic, and Underline buttons.


Hit Ctrl+F. This will bring up the Find and Replace box.


Click the Replace tab at the top.


Type the crutch word into the “Find what” box. (Note—if I’m looking for “glare,” I will actually type “_glar” ßwith a space in place of the underscore. This will pull up all instances of glare, glared, and glaring. Otherwise, you’ll have to do each related verb separately and it can be easy to miss some.)


Click the “More >>” button. This will give you more search options.


Put the mouse cursor into the “Replace with” box.


Click the Format button at the bottom. Click “Highlight.”


Hit “Replace All.”




(When you’re done reviewing and replacing that crutch word, you can hit Ctrl+A to highlight all of the text in the manuscript. Then, on the toolbar in the Home tab, click the little arrow next to the highlight button and select “no color.” It will remove all of the highlights in the document and give you a new blank canvas to hunt down your next crutch word!)


/End Tutorial

Now I have a handy visual of how often each word is used, and I start scrolling through the manuscript hunting down those highlighted words. Depending on what the word is, I might want, say, no more than one occurrence every two pages, or every fifty pages. If I see that Cinder glared three times on this page, I might delete one instance and change the other instance to a glower—and as I also highlighted each use of “glower,” I can be sure that I’m not repeating THAT word too many times, either.

My default when I’m doing this is delete, delete, delete. You would be surprised what readers can pick up from context. If Cinder is angry, then yeah, she’s probably glaring—you don’t need to spell out every instance. Ask yourself if this phrase really adds to the  reader’s understanding of this scene. If not, get rid it.

When I really do want to keep this action, my second consideration is whether I can think of an interesting way to convey it that takes out the crutch word and enhances the prose.

Rather than “he glared,” maybe “fury sparked in his eyes.” Or whatever. Be creative. Really consider what it feels like and looks like when you’re angry.

On the other hand, be careful that you don’t overdo this. Sparking fury is going to be more noteworthy than a glare, and this technique will start to feel overdone and melodramatic if used constantly. Often times, simple is better.

A quick plug: A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus a while back and it’s a great resource for this!



Round Two: Tightening the Language

I’ve already started to tighten the language by deleting as many crutch phrases as I could, but I also like to do one read-through of the story where I’m focused on deleting as many extraneous words as possible.

Yes, there might be a whole sentence or paragraphs I can get rid of here or there—when I realize that I’m going overboard on description or I’m beating the reader over the head with a particular explanation, but for the most part this round is all about getting rid of the little words and phrases that are unnecessary.

Or even better: this round is all about cutting out unnecessary words and phrases.

A few small tweaks saved me five words there. See?

Things to look out for:

He gripped the steering wheel in his hands. (What else is he going to grip with?)

She thought he looked angry. (She’s our POV character, of course this is her thinking.)

She ran swiftly. (Well, you don’t say?)

Adverbs, like swiftly, tend to be the worst offenders, although I’ve gotten better at not including them in the fist place. Nevertheless, they still creep up. Unlike some writers, I don’t think all adverbs are bad, I just think they’re guilty until proven innocent. Every one of them comes under the magnifying glass. If the sentence works just as well without the adverb (i.e., she screamed loudly), delete it.

And if you can think of one verb to replace the phrase—even better.  Why have your characters walk sleepily when they can trudge or stumble?

Or to go back to my previous example, why have her run swiftly when you can have her sprint?

Another common offender: “that.”

I delete a lot of thats in this round. For example, the sentence in the paragraph above originally read “…I don’t think that all adverbs are bad, I just think that they’re guilty until proven innocent.” It still works, but those thats aren’t necessary. Leave that alone if it offers a melodic cadence to the sentence. Otherwise, delete!

You might be surprised how much a word here and there will add up. I routinely cut between 5,000 – 10,000 words from my drafts at this stage, without altering the story at all, and it will make for a cleaner, faster reading experience.


Round Three: The Final Read-Through

Chill the champagne! We’re almost done!

I always make time for one last read-through of the book, to make sure nothing weird slipped through the cracks. I’m checking for consistency, so any last-minute changes don’t conflict with each other, and looking for places where I may have introduced awkward phrasing in my attempts to get rid of my crutch phrases or tighten the language.

I aim to do two things with this read-through:

1. I try to read it as fast as possible, so I can get a “big picture” look at the story as a whole and, in the case of a series, how it works in the overall scheme of things. Unfortunately, I’m not a fast reader, so even a “short” book will usually take me a couple days.

2. I try to enjoy it. I don’t do this read-through at my desk. Instead, I make myself a cup of coffee, grab a blanket, and snuggle up in my comfiest reading chair.

While I’ll still be tweaking the text, I’m really trying to see the book as a reader might see it. Is it fun? Is it suspenseful? Is it romantic? This is often the first time where I think—you know what? This book isn’t half bad. Go me!

It’s a good feeling… and a huge relief!!

Then (FINALLY YAY OMG) I send it off to my editor, usually with a hysterical email because I’m always feeling a little loopy by this point in the process.

Then I pop the champagne.

I also clean my house because it’s inevitably a mess.

Later this week we’ll talk all about what happens to the book once it’s in the publisher’s hands!