Prefacing this post — the lovely and talented Anna from TooManyAnnas (a long time friend) asked me to help out with a guest post about self-editing. She didn’t even cringe when she saw how long it was going to be. That’s grace in the face of fire right there, folks. She’s got it up as a two-parter, but last time I did a multi-part series, someone staged a minor mutiny on the blog so I’m going to learn from my mistakes. *grin*
Editing Your own Writing
Lovely to see you all so bushy-eyed and bright-tailed on such a sparkletastic morning. (Would anyone like some coffee?)
Anna’s asked me to help her out with a guest post on self-editing.
First off, self-editing is difficult. Period. It gets easier, and then it gets harder, and I’m really hoping it gets easier again after that, because right now it seems like I can’t write a sentence that doesn’t want editing.
But! I can help you past that first hurdle by showing you a few simple-and-common mistakes made in writing.
Everyone Needs Editing
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, realize that everyone’s writing could use editing. The better you get at reading critically, the more often you’ll catch errors even in published material.
There’s no such thing as perfect writing.
By that same token, needing editing in no way indicates that you’re a rubbish writer and you might as well go sell shoes or train elephants instead of rubbing verbs together.
You write for yourself.
You edit for your readers. <3
Our Sample Text
Anna and I collaborated (okay, okay, she did most of the work) to get a sample of some in-need-of-fixing writing. Take a second and read through it, then we’ll get down to the business of editing
“This is awesome, Captain Mortenson!” yells the steamship gunners as they fly over another piece of wreckage.The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it. “You’ve got an odd understanding of awesome,” the captain then added. He watched as a Horde mortar went saling over the boat. “Hold on boys!”
Anrietta, a human fighter, watched the various crewmembers as they hustled about, preparing to land on this so-called new continent. The ship was sailing fast. And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement, as they all waited to see what awaited them over the next few days of exploration.
She approaches a random infantryman and then nods at him. “So do you know what’s out there?”
“Nobody knows what’s out there, Lady, other than Horde,” he said.
“Oh, well, I guess we’ll find out,” she replied. She felt very excited, and couldn’t wait to get to where they were going.
All good? Great, now let’s start picking apart our patient. *hands you all surgeon’s masks*
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The past, the present, and the future all walk into a bar. It was tense.
- “yells the [...] as they fly over”
- “… then added. He watched as …”
- “waited to see”
- “…she approaches as random…”
All those tenses smooshed together into a single unhappy time paradox.
Pick a tense.
In general (and this is a VERY STRONG opinion, so naturally people ignore it and do whatever they want) use past tense.
There are a LOT of new books out that use present tense, particularly in the Young Adult category. I personally dislike reading present tense, as I find it jarring and off-putting after having read past tense for so long.
Since I’m the one stitching up this patient, I’m going to say that during editing, everything shall be past tense.
More verbs? Oh yes. More verbs.
“… yells the steamship gunners … “
The steamship isn’t yelling. The gunners are yelling. Or, more precisely, a single gunner is probably yelling, as I’d be surprised to find them all so very well synchronized without a great deal of practice.
Re-writing to clarify a bit (leaving out the word “steamship” as it’s an adjective and just muddies the water when we’re trying to compare verbs and subjects):
- The gunners yell. (correct!)
- The gunner yells. (correct!)
- The gunners yells. (*sad trombone*, incorrect!)
We have a “single” verb and a “plural” subject in the original. One of those has to be changed to match, and in this case it makes the most sense to single-fy the subject.
Make sure your subject matches your verb. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence and simplify it so that you can SEE the subject/verb pairing.
I really don’t need to go through this one, do I? At LEAST do spellcheck. At best? Make sure your homonyms are correct. Hammer the common mistakes into your brain.
- It’s (it is) vs its (the thing that belongs to it)
- Their (belongs to them) vs they’re (they are) vs there (over yonder)
- Raiders (multiple people who raid) vs Raider’s (the thing that belongs to a raider)
These are common mistakes because they’re confusing. Don’t convince yourself that you can get away with not understanding them. Memorize them by rote if you have to.
Even TheOatmeal agrees: (note, links probably not safe for work with regards to language)
Our example has a few misspelled words and an abused “its”. Those should be fixed in editing.
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it”
Please, stop abusing commas.
Yes, they take work to fully understand how and when to use them.
No, they are not magical unicorn punctuation, far beyond the comprehension of all but the most skilled writers.
In our example, we’ve got at least three abused commas.
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it”
- “And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement, as they all waited to see what awaited them over the next few days of exploration”
- “She felt very excited, and couldn’t wait “
Ignoring the utter cringeworthiness of that first sentence, a comma between “sight” and “because” would at least make it sound a little less robotic when read aloud. This one’s arguably an opinion comma.
In the second and third examples, the commas are unnecessary. They’re about as useful as commas in the middle of a word, which is to say that they’re so bad they’re actively confusing.
Not every “and” needs a comma, and not every place you want the reader to pause needs a comma. Learn the rules so that you break them less frequently.
I’m begging you, on behalf of your comma-sensitive readers.
How often do you greet a friend by name?
So why, do you reckon, our gunners would address the captain using his name?
- “”This is awesome, Captain Mortenson!””
No, stilted-speech gunner, this is not awesome. This is the writer trying to tell the reader what the captain’s name is.
How do you find stilted speech?
Easy, read it aloud. If it sounds like you’re reading a terrible script … you probably are. Note that direct reference of a character’s name is only one way in which speech may be stilted. The read-aloud fix finds most of them.
If Ands and Buts Was Candies and Nuts…
Try really (really really) hard to not start sentences with “And” or “But”.
Yes, writers do this and get away with it.
However, most of the time, the sentence is stronger without it. Furthermore, rigid grammar holds that you’re not supposed to do it anyway.
- “The ship was sailing fast. And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement,”
In this case, ‘the ship was sailing fast” is a short enough sentence (and not impactful enough to deserve being such a short sentence) that you could turn that period into a comma and make it all one sentence.
Alternately, just drop the “And” to find the second sentence stronger immediately.
Other Useless Words
There’s actually a whole list of words that are almost always useless.
“Very,” for example. In almost every case, it is latched onto a more useful adjective and isn’t pulling its own weight.
- “Pretty” (as in “kind of,” not as in “beautiful”)
- “And then”
- “was” or “is”
These are danger words. Search for them and make them earn their place if they’re staying.
- “She felt very excited…”
- “She approaches a random infantryman and then nods at him”
In the first example, the “very” isn’t adding anything. In the second, think about the actual order of action. Is she nodding while she’s approaching? Use “and”. Is she nodding when she’s done approaching? Go for “, then”. Either solution tightens the writing up a notch.
Short sentences are choppy and impactful.
Long sentences are slow and fancy.
Use shorter sentences for heart-pumping action and longer sentences for beautiful descriptions.
“The ship was sailing fast” is a waste of a great, short, impactful sentence because it’s not really important.
Use the flow of sentences and paragraphs to manipulate your readers — do you want their heart pumping? Work that flow!
Another example is the first paragraph of the sample, which should be broken into two paragraphs at the point where the captain speaks. 1) because new speakers always get their own paragraphs but 2) because we’re shifting the focus from the gunner to the captain and we want the reader to shift along with us.
Each paragraph should only do or describe one thing. Zoom way out in your document so that you can’t read the text any more. Your paragraphs should mostly be medium-sized, with very few giant blocks of text and equally few teeny-weeny one-line impact paragraphs.
This is more than just sniping bad use of “to be” verbs … it’s also looking for TELLING instead of SHOWING.
In our example, we’ve got:
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight “
- “watched the various crewmembers as they hustled about, “
- “She felt very excited, and”
- “the ship was sailing fast”
Don’t tell me the character felt excited. Don’t tell me she’s watching crew members hustle about. Show me her excitement and let them hustle without the extra burden.
In the top one, find an ACTIVE verb to describe the sight of the wreckage. In the bottom one, don’t tell me the ship WAS sailing, just let it sail.
Repeat words as little as possible. This is another one that reading aloud finds more often than reading silently, especially if you’re the writer.
In our example, we’ve got “wreckage”, “boat”, “waited”, and “excitement” being used in various incarnations, multiple times. “Wreckage” in particular is an excellent word … but using it multiple times dilutes the impact of it.
Let’s try to find some alternative phrasings in the rewrite, shall we?
Trees, Meet Forest
Now that your head is spinning in a delightfully drunken sort of way, inebriated by the fizzy bubbles of commas and verbs, let’s step back a bit and take a look at the bigger picture.
The last thing you want to do is spend a ton of energy revising text that you’re just going to delete anyway.
Skulls Are Not Like Hopscotch
Within a single scene, you should only have a single point of view. Even if you are using third person (he said, she said) instead of first person (I said), you are still technically following a single character around.
If you imagine the story as a movie camera … you only get one shot per scene, and the camera should stay next to the main character for that scene.
(This is one of those breakable rules … but you should break it for IMPACT and ARTISTRY and not LAZINESS, okay? Okay.)
In our example, we start very briefly with our gunners, then swap over to the captain, and finally end up following Anrietta. The brief bit with the gunners is forgivable. Sloppy for a story opener, but we slide quickly into the captain’s point of view.
It’s the swap from the captain to Anrietta that’s a big nononever.
Anrietta has a name. I’m assuming she has a name because she’s important, and I’m assuming she’s important because she’s the main character.
When editing, we will move that camera away from it’s seasick swaying across the ship’s deck and keep it firmly and obviously at Anrietta’s side.
Speaking of the ship … is our example on an airship or a water ship?
Not sure? That’s because the writer wasn’t clear.
It does not matter if the writer has this incredibly detailed mental image of the airship, complete with brass fittings and cannon’s leering from openings in the hull like boys passing an exotic dancer’s club, the only thing that matters is the mental image of the reader.
If the reader didn’t get the details they need, the writer is at fault.
Please don’t fix this problem by over-detailing everything. The reader may not NEED a super-detailed image of the ship. They DO, however, need at least a basic understanding of whether they’re in the sky or on the sea.
When I edit this, I’m going to make sure it’s obviously an airship.
You should start new stories/chapters with a BIG HOOK. Start strong, get your readers excited or interested immediately.
We … um … start off with a random excited npc shouting out something forgettable.
Heh. What say we fix that in editing?
The Biggest Picture
Sometimes, a scene needs serious help. In that case, pull your despair from the brink and make a list.
What is the purpose of this scene?
Note that if you don’t have a good answer, you might consider cutting the whole kaboodle rather than futzing about with verb tenses and commas. Everything you write should propel either the story or character forward (ideally, both).
In this case, we want to do the following:
- Meet Anrietta
- Establish ship under enemy fire (minor)
- Establish purpose – new island found, need to land on it
We didn’t do a great job of that, did we? I mean, we TOLD you the ship was under fire, but the overall tone was one of bright excitement. There’s very little tension about the whole “people are shooting at us” thing, and the reader probably couldn’t tell me much about Anrietta at this point.
Even ignoring all the little fiddly bits, we didn’t do the BIG stuff right.
The Importance of Distance
Self-editing is more difficult than editing someone else’s writing, because it’s yours.
These are word-pictures that you’ve painted from glorious scenes in your mind. In your head, the characters are witty and beloved, the world is rich and lush, and the action is heart-stopping.
Unfortunately, it’s possible your writing has a character who is sarcastic and grating, a world that is cardboard thin, and action that reads more like an awkward puppet show.
Until you can set aside your own mind-picture and see only what actually made it to your canvas, you’re going to have a difficult time editing your own writing.
Distance is the key.
You can achieve distance through time — set a piece aside and edit it after you’ve got weeks or months between you and your original mind-picture.
You can also achieve distance by reading the story aloud.
It is amazing to me how often reading a story aloud will show flaws in sentence structure, stilted verbiage, repeated phrasings, and just-plain-not-what-I-meant-to-say wording.
It’s time consuming. Even your dog is going to stare at you like you’ve gone nutters when you start reading aloud.
Do it. You’ll be amazed at the difference.
Okay, that was one helluva crash course on editing.
Please, do not panic. You’re not going to be manually running through this list for everything that you write.
Why? Because you’re going to get BETTER. You’re going to internalize some of this stuff. You’re going to go through a period where you eyeball every comma like you caught it with its hand in your wallet. Then, one day before you even realize it, you’re just going to look at a sentence and know when there’s something wrong with it.
It won’t be immediate, but you’ll stop consciously thinking about subject/verb matching, and you’ll just know the right one to use. You’ll see the errors and you’ll have the tools to fix them.
There’s always more that can be learned on this subject. We barely touched on sentence structure and flow, and we didn’t even get into voice or style or characterization. We won’t even TOUCH on plotting.
Don’t sweat it. Write. Practice. Get better. You will develop your own style as you practice. Learn one thing at a time and remember … you write for yourself, and you edit for your readers.
If you want readers to enjoy your writing, you’ll learn how to edit.
So, what might our sample text look like if it were edited? Specifically, if it were edited by Tami?
Half-frozen fingers tangled in the steamship’s rigging, Anrietta braced herself against the salty sea wind. This might be her last chance to find out what clouds tasted like, and she wasn’t going to miss it.
Looking down past the deck to the frothing waters far below, the tangled and broken wreckage of yet another ship passed beneath them, bright Alliance banners flying in an ignored warning to turn back while they still could.
“Get down from there!” shouted a voice that Anrietta belatedly realized was aimed at her. She recognized her infantry captain on the deck and stuck her tongue out at his distant, blurry face.
As if he could see her tiny act of insubordination, he lifted his arm in a gesture of command that she couldn’t ignore.
She sighed and began to clamber down the icy rigging just as the entire ship shook from a direct hit by a Horde mortar. Shouting rose from the deck and she lost her grip, fingers burning as she scrabbled for a hold.
She caught her grip just as their ship turned away from the attackers, slicing neatly through a puffy cloud bank. At the last moment, she remembered to open her mouth. Anrietta tasted cloudstuff, freezing droplets coating her face and tangling her long black hair into stinging ropes.
They broke through the darkness of the cloud and back into the light of day, and she saw it.
The new continent.
A broad grin spread across her face and she shouted out, “Land, ho!”
Clouds, Anrietta thought as she stared at that tiny spot of green on the horizon, taste like adventure.