If just the thought of editing makes you want to start pulling your hair out, I understand. I don’t think I know a single writer who likes editing. It’s excruciating. And it doesn’t really get better. Actually, the more you do it, the worse it gets. But everybody needs it.
Recently a book marketing guy I follow sent out an email saying he was close to releasing his first novel, and would any of us like to take a look at it and review it in the first week of its publication? He sent along a link to a free PDF, so I checked it out. There were comma splices on the first page. If you are a writer and you don’t know what a comma splice is, time to bone up on grammar. I’ve mostly learned it by osmosis from reading at least one book every week, but if you’re looking for books and websites that can help, visit the resources page and check out the end of this post.
(Editing consists of both the larger task of revising for structural problems and of polishing on a word-by-word level; for the purposes of this post I’m focusing mostly on the word-by-word level. That’s why the title says “nitty-gritty.”)
1. Take time away.
This is the best thing you can do at the beginning. Editing your own work requires objectivity, and the only way you can get some is by stepping away from it for a while. You’ll be glad you did. It’s so much easier to see the problems and how to fix them when you take a break first. If it’s a large work like a book, try to take a month. It’s hard, I know. Distract yourself by working on something else.
2. Have someone else read your work and give you feedback.
The power of this is not so much in the feedback they’ll give you; if it’s someone you know they’ll likely be nicer to your work than you are. Strangers, other writers, and people I’ve explicitly asked to be as mean as possible are always nicer to my work than I am. The benefit, however, comes from getting a chance to see your work from their perspective. Imagining them reading it can help you see problems you missed before. Their questions can help you see where your writing is unclear.
3. Clarify sentences that only you would understand.
Sometimes I get lost in my own head and use jargon or phrasing when I write that, when I return to edit, I know is potentially (likely) confusing to the reader. Yet I resist changing it because “it’s the exact right phrasing!” “it’s me, it’s my voice” etc., etc. But none of that matters if my readers can’t figure it out. Eventually I realize I have to change it. So do you. If you have trouble spotting these, ask someone to help by pointing them out to you.
4. Use strong verbs & fierce adjectives.
Look for places where you wussed out on your verb or adjective choices, and replace the weak ones with fightin words. Action’s more fun when it hits hard. Don’t hate on passive voice too much; sometimes it is the right choice, but make sure you’re not using it too much. You’ll get better at this naturally as you write more.
5. Cut useless words.
Some words and phrases are duds no matter where you put them. Think “pretty,” “really,” “very,” “sort of,” and “in order to.” Also, more surprisingly, “up.” Dump them in the trash.
6. Be specific.
The Write Practice blog has a great post about this by Joe Bunting here. One of the points Bunting covers is how to get more detail into your writing. As I work with my editor on The Flight of the White Crow, this is one of the things she’s been consistently pointing out — places I can include more detail. For example, my main character signs a contract that’s a key part of the plot and has a big impact on her fate, and my editor asked whether I wanted to include the full text of the contract … which never occurred to me. She suggested that it might be something readers would like. Of course it would be! Readers love details like that.
7. Dig past your first idea. Push yourself.
Sometimes when writing, because it happens so fast and we’re trying to keep the momentum going, we put down whatever occurs to us in the moment and keep going. Sometimes we miss that stuff in the first pass of editing because we were worried about larger aspects of the book like flat characters and plot sequences that didn’t make sense. Now’s the time to address that stuff. Get rid of cliches. Look for metaphors and similes that aren’t quite what they should be. Look for physical descriptions that you could push beyond the usual. Dig deeper into the significance of small actions and don’t let yourself get away with cop-outs.
8. Carefully vet any 50-cent words to make sure they’re necessary.
I have a good friend who has a 13-year-old son who is incredibly creative and talented. He sent me one of his short stories and I was blown away; the kid is good. However, he needs to learn to edit himself. One of the things that struck me immediately was the number of big, complicated words everywhere … like every third word or so. You don’t wanna do that. It ends up reading like an advertisement for your vocabulary. “Look, Ma, I know big words!” For a 13-year-old, that’s fine and probably even good as he learns. For you, it’s taking away from your story. Tone it down.
9. Hunt down redundancy and kill it.
I once found the phrase “quick flash” in one of my novels. OMG, I said. Ain’t nobody got time for dat. Okay, maybe I just winced and deleted the word “quick,” but it stuck with me as a “not-to-do” in the future.
10. Cut or change words you use too much.
I’m editing my novel The Flight of the White Crow at the moment with an editor and oh my lordy the number of times I’ve used “beady-sharp,” “eyeballed,” and “quietlike” in that book is ridiculous. You’d think I didn’t know any other words. I searched for each word and changed as many of them as I could until I got it down to only a handful of uses for each.
11. Read your work out loud.
There’s nothing like reading your writing out loud for hearing the trouble spots. If you’ve been editing for a while and are starting to lose objectivity, this can be a good way to see your work in a new light. If you’re also trying to build an audience for your work, consider recording yourself or reading on video to have something you can share later with your followers.
If you’re using Scrivener to write on a Mac computer, you can have Scrivener read your work for you in a robot voice. It will say “red” instead of “read” because it apparently doesn’t understand nuances of verbs, but … robot voice. Seriously. So fun.
12. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by stress over this.
Here’s the thing: Readers don’t care about fancy words and sentences as much as they care about good story. As long as you have good basic grammar (and even sometimes when you don’t), if you are telling an engrossing tale, your readers won’t care that much about your use of commas. Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight, is not a great writer in terms of beautiful sentences. But she is a hell of a storyteller. I couldn’t even read E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, even though I wanted to, because her grammar was so bad, but obviously lots of other people didn’t care. Get it as right as you can and move on.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss