Cut It Out: Self-Editing Basics
Hey there, bombshell.
Brace yourself. The topic is self-editing, which I normally despise. But this kind of editing you do AFTER your brand-spankin’ new manuscript is finished and you’ve celebrated with too many cocktails, tequila shots . . . and perhaps bottles of Veuve Clicquot.
Once the hangover is gone and you’ve taken some time to absorb and enjoy COMPLETING A TASK 98 PERCENT OF THE POPULATION NEVER WILL, then you must . . . edit.
Super important note here, so pay attention: No one is perfect. You’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. Fuck perfect. Your mistakes keep me employed.
If you’ve spent more than five minutes on this website, you know my mantra: Create first. Critique second. Because we use two different parts of our brain for each task.
I spend the majority of my time teaching people how to lose the internal editor in order to create. When you begin an edit, the creating part is over. The manuscript is on your desk, shimmering under a halo of light that comes directly from the gods. It’s your baby. I get it.
Yet somehow, you now have to dissect that baby like the frog in eighth-grade science. The first slice is a bitch. But this process will help keep your editor from stealing into your house late at night to smother you in your sleep. (I kid. Sort of.)
First, let’s be perfectly clear: self-editing is a shit-ton of work.
Grammar, punctuation and spelling can be fixed by most word processing software. No biggie. But here, we also need to address dialogue, character depth, plot, narrative, setting, the list is endless. So we approach it one baby step at a time.
Pick one thing, one focus, and go through your book line by tedious line looking to remedy that. Do it over and over and over. Sometimes, this makes many people wish they never wrote at all. Often, you’re looking at more than a dozen passes through your manuscript. But take heart. We editors do this all day long.
So let’s say you’re going to tackle your book with an eye for plot first. Can you look at page one for plot, then review that same page for narrative and character depth? Um, no.
You can’t figure out any of those things from reading one page. And you sure as heck won’t be able to keep track of all three elements at the same time across multiple pages. (Oh, you go ahead and try. Just remember I told you so.) The secret to awesome editing – of any kind – is focus. One thing at a time.
Editing means critiquing, analyzing and making shit better. Sorry, we have no shortcuts.
Without further ado, I give you the top eight problems in 99.99 percent of manuscripts that come across my desk every day.
The Top 8
1. Verb tenses
First, plain past tense is not your enemy. Neither is present tense. Past participle and past perfect, not so much. Why say “had been” when “was” works just as well? It’s easier on the reader.
Second, watch for tense shifts. Example: Winston plays outside with Anita and dropped his jacket in the front yard. He knows his mother picked it up. Winston was going to be surprised when he saw Anita takes it home instead.
Is that not the biggest cluster fuck you’ve ever seen? Don’t do it.
Check your facts. Double-check and triple-check too. If Sally is shy and quiet, she is not going to make the first move with Brian. If they vacation in Tahiti, they won’t be wearing down jackets. John and Steve are muscle-heads. It’s highly unlikely they’re going to stop for burgers at McDonald’s. If the dog is highly aggressive, he won’t be easily distracted from growling at intruders with a tennis ball.
3. Show. Don’t tell.
“But I don’t like you,” Ashley said coldly.
First, given what Ashley said, we can tell it was cold. Second, saying “coldly” is telling. Show your reader what you mean so she can see it too: “But I don’t like you,” she said over her shoulder, flipping her hair as she walked off.
“Your daughter’s pink bunny slippers are the most adorable things I’ve ever seen,” she said, smiling.
Right. Ask yourself, would anyone say that with a frown? No. So chop “smiling” off and decide what you want to the reader to see about this character. Is she a sucker for all things pink? Missing her own children? What emotion does the sight of those slippers bring about?
“Your daughter’s pink bunny slippers are the most adorable things I’ve ever seen,” she said. Her voice cracked as she struggled to hide . . .
More about ‘show versus tell’ is here.
4. Exclamation points
Exterminate them like the vermin they are. They suck the life out of perfectly useful sentences. Instead, use colorful words or italics for emphasis.
5. “There” phrases
There is, there are, there was, there were, there had been, there will be – kill them all. They too drain the life out of sentences. Make ’em active. More here.
It’s a four-letter word, and one even I won’t use. It’s overused and, therefore, almost never conveys the sense of urgency a writer is after. More here.
7. Dialogue tags
“We write a quote like this,” she said. Because he or she “said.” Not sighed, laughed, smiled. We don’t growl, bark, groan or snivel. We say things.
The fact remains: far more vivid verbs exist, but they distract the reader from what’s important, which is the fucking dialogue. Don’t mess with that. The exception is a change in volume. Yell or whisper is acceptable.
More about that is available here and here. Every time you use something other than said, you’re telling the world you are an inexperienced writer.
The trite, overused and just plain tired phrases we rely on to convey meaning quickly. They lost their impact ages ago and are beyond stale. Why is this a problem? Because they annoy people. And they create the impression the writer is too lazy to come up with something original. Some people just tune out when they read a cliché, so they may miss the point you’re trying to make.
Finally, you can find, ohhh, about a gajillion books and articles out there on all of the above and more. Questions? Hit me up. Email beckster7219 (at) gmail (dot) com OR tweet @rebeccatdickson OR shout out on my Facebook community.
If you like FREE writing and editing tips, subscribe to our site using the box in the upper right hand corner of this page. Instant access to 48,788-ish flavors of awesome not found anywhere else – and a copy of my book, A Writer’s Voice, to help you write like YOU.