Self-Editing for Dummies:
Hey now, don’t be offended! I’m a dummy, too. But I’m continuously striving to improve.
Some lucky people are born storytellers. They have a good sense for story structure and the ability to create seemingly flawless sentences. They make it look as if they came out of the womb with a pencil and notebook in their tiny little fists weaving tales together like nobody’s business!
But what about the rest of us?
What I’ve found most beneficial is to write, write, write. Write every day if you can. Write and then edit. Take those precious words you slaved over and look ’em right in the eye.
This can be very difficult. No, it can be downright painful. But there are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way that actually help take the edge off.
That being said, not all of my work is edited.
Wait, what? True story. But there’s a reason for that. I mean, I always try to make certain there are no spelling or grammar errors…and no matter how many times I go over a piece I still tend to miss a few. But the reason I do not dive right into a hardcore edit is because after I write something I need to step back for a moment. I need to take a break from that story, those characters, that plot so I can go back and look at it with fresh eyes. It’s amazing the mistakes and weaknesses that pop out after you take a mini vaca from the manuscript you spent X-amount of time working on.
First of all, let me be the first to congratulate you! Do you know how many people dream of completing a manuscript? I read somewhere it is more than eighty percent of the population. Eighty percent! Wrap your brain around that for a moment. And you did it. YOU. DID. IT. Go on; get that extra scoop of ice cream—you deserve it!
Okay, now it’s time to edit. Here is my disclaimer: I am in no way perfect or anywhere close to. I’m just as flawed as the next guy…if not more so. But I have discovered a handful of gems on my quest to improve and I would like to share them with you.
1.) Like I said before, take a break. After you’ve completed a project, put some distance between yourself and the words you wrote. When you come back from your vacation, be it a day, week, month (you get the picture) you’ll be more likely to spot the mistakes.
2.) Read your story out loud. Go ahead; no one is listening (unless you’re reading it at Starbucks). It will be much easier to catch the awkward words and phrases when you hear them out loud with your own ears. You can do this yourself, enlist the help of a friend, or use an app that will read your manuscript back to you. Yes, apparently there is such a thing!
3.) Pay attention to dialogue. Does it sound natural? Would you speak the way your characters are speaking? If it sounds choppy, repetitive or just plain weird chances are it’s not right.
4.) Watch out for adverbs and adjectives. It can mean the difference between telling the reader a story and showing them. And you want to show them. It’s not as easy as it sounds; I struggle with it myself. But it’s getting easier to pick up on the more I write.
Here’s an example of telling: Jake’s fingers moved slowly down Addy’s back.
Here’s an example of showing: Addy’s heart raced as Jake’s fingers slid down her back.
See the difference? Which sentence do you prefer?
5.) Almost always use the word “said” as a tag after dialogue. Stay away from words like laughed, spit, giggled, etc.
Example: “I don’t know what you mean,” she laughed.
Your character can’t really laugh something. Nor can they spit or giggle, etc.
Try this instead: “I don’t know what you mean,” she said, batting her eyes at him.
The “said” becomes silent, that is, the reader doesn’t even notice it. Occasionally it is acceptable to throw in something else like “asked” or “answered”, but use those sparingly.
6.) Did you know there are lists upon lists of words to avoid when writing? Seriously, it’s true! And I’ll be first to admit I am guilty of most of them (I’m sure I’ve even used some in this post). I’m only going to touch on a handful of them, the ones I find to be the most overused.
My biggest pet peeve is the word that. Sure, sometimes it’s necessary, but most of the time it’s not. If you pay close attention you’ll find you can exclude it without any loss of meaning.
Other filler words include just, really and very. If you eliminate these words often times the sentence becomes stronger.
Try to avoid using words ending in “ly”. These are adverbs which are typically a big no-no (this is the telling not showing I mentioned in #4). It’s the lazy way to write.
Stop using the word got—it’s ugly. Just don’t do it. Please.
And was…don’t even get me started on was. Was is a passive voice, which you want to stay away from. Rewrite the sentence to make it active. Brittanie Charmintine, an insanely talented author friend of mine, once said, “Good writing is all about the verbs. If you feel the urge to use the word was try to come up with another way to write the sentence to get the same thought across.” Please note there are times when it’s okay to use a passive voice. I’ll save that for a different post.
There are many more words which could easily be cut with various reasons as to why, but I’ll let you do the research.
7.) For goodness sake, do not be afraid to hit Spell Check. It’s there for a reason and I promise—it is your friend. Make sure you use it.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? Yes, it is. But it’s all part of the craft. After the blood, sweat and tears you’ve already put it, you owe this to yourself and your manuscript. Happy writing!