Monday, March 2, 2009

Self-editing tips, part 1

During the first draft of any story, I turn off the editor’s voice in my head. The main objective in this phase is to get the story on paper. Revisions come later.
But when they do, don’t skimp. Do yourself a favor and follow a few simple rules before submitting your piece to help make it stand out. The more you polish your story, the more it will shine in an editor’s eyes.
I’ve compiled several self-editing tip sheets from publishers. The first several parts will deal with issues concerning simple language and sentence construction.
The next will focus on higher-level issues such as POV and the oldie but goodie, show versus tell. The final part will consist of a list of reference books I found useful while revision and self-editing.
So when the publisher returns your story with an attachment on self-editing, you’ll be one step ahead.

1. Crutch words. Search your story for all instances of ‘that’. Evaluate each—you can delete 95% of the occurrences without losing any meaning. If it’s not needed, your sentence will be more powerful without it.
Other crutch words include ‘just’ and ‘really.’ As in: ‘I really have no idea why I overuse that, I just do.’ Yes, such words sound conversational – you may get away with adding them in dialogue. For the most part, avoid them.
‘Suddenly’ should be used as infrequently as possible. Yes, some well-known authors who shall remain nameless get away with it. But it becomes tedious for readers to encounter sudden events with such frequency. It makes your character appear to be afflicted with ADD.
Learn these crutch words and you’ll eventually recognize them as you write your first draft. The less you have to edit, the better.

2. Watch for pet words. Sometimes we use phrasing or words without realizing it. If you find you overuse words such as ‘then,’ ‘as’ and ‘when,’ change up your sentence structure. Vary your word use as much as possible.

3. Stall phrases. Likewise avoid stall phrases such as: ‘tried to,’ ‘began to’ and ‘started to’ whenever possible. They’re effective only if you want to emphasize the slowness of the scene, or draw out its drama. Stall phrases do nothing to change the meaning of the sentence, and actually weaken it. Go with the simple past tense of the verb instead. You shouldn’t use them to pad your word count.

4. Avoid using 'it' as the subject. In most cases, the sentence is strengthened by deleting the vague pronoun and identifying with a solid noun.

5. Strengthen weak verbs. You can usually eliminate ‘was’ and ‘were’ by replacing them with stronger, more descriptive verbs. Editors don’t flag them all, but will return your manuscript if you overuse these two. Usually, ‘was’ and ‘were’ precede an ‘ing’ word, and you can simply convert the ‘ing’ word to make it stronger. For instance, instead of: ‘He was watching the evening news,’ change to: ‘He watched the evening news.’ Voila.

6. Avoid ending sentences with prepositional phrases (to her, at him, for her, etc). These are usually implied and leave the sentence with a weak ending. If you’re in a character’s POV, such phrases are unnecessary.

7. Punctuation belongs within quotation marks: “The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things.”

James Michener said: "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." Enough said.

Look for Part 2 later this week.

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