You’ve finished your first draft, or a friend has given you their first draft to read, and you’re just not sure where to begin editing. Give yourself a few days away from your manuscript before you dive into editing. This will help you gain some vital objectivity. It was my turn recently to share at my monthly writer’s group, so I brought these self-editing tips. Everyone loved them, so I thought I’d share them all with you.
1. Avoid Subtle Redundancies
“She nodded her head in agreement.” “He blinked his eyes.” Do you see how these are redundant? What else do you nod but your head? What else would you blink? These little slips add to your wordcount and slow the pace of your story. Modern readers don’t have patience for these things.
2. Avoid telling what’s not happening
“She didn’t say anything.” Then why bother writing it? If the POV character is uncomfortable by the silence or wonders at someone’s hesitation, have them comment or think about that, but avoid stating what isn’t happening.
Backstory is all the stuff that’s happened before your story begins. Insert backstory in short snippets, one or two sentences, and always answer one question for the reader but leave them with another. Avoid paragraphs of backstory. This is the opening line from Touch the Dark by Karen Chance: “I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the obituary. The fact that it had my name on it was sort of a clue. What I didn’t know was how they’d found me, and who the guy was with the sense of humor.” See how the author answers what the initial conflict and stakes are, and left you with another question – who is she hiding from and why? Pulls you right in.
4. POV violation
If your character can’t see, hear, touch what’s going on, then it’s a POV violation. Very few books change Point of View – go from 3rd person to 1st person or to Omniscient. (Omniscient POV is hardly ever used anymore.) It’s not a literary device to violate POV and jump into someone else’s head for the last paragraph because you want to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ or because they need to know something. If you have to violate POV to tell the story, this should scream for a serious edit. Kristen Lamb recently wrote a fabulous post about insulting readers with stuff like this – be sure and check it out.
5. Adjectives and Adverbs
These make our writing sound so poetic. The problem with adjectives and adverbs is that we overuse them, and they slow the pace of the story down. Personally, I limit myself to one a page – at the most. Instead of “He walked very slowly” try “He trudged” or “He dragged his heels” – use more powerful verbs to describe the action in such a way that the reader gains insight into the character. What does “he walked” tell us? Nothing. But if he skips, he races, he tiptoes, he shuffles – those all give more insight into the character. Instead of “She was very sad” try something more powerful “She was miserable.”
6. Fat language
Words such as just, like, very are often superfluous. If we removed them from the sentence, the meaning wouldn’t change. These kinds of words slow the pace of your story and cause the reader to stumble because they read like every single one and it like makes the story just seem to go very slowly. Sometimes recasting the sentence can remove fat words. “He’d bought a long, feminine silver chain on which the ring was now strung.” What about: “The ring hung on a feminine silver chain.” The first sentence is passive because the subject of the sentence is the ring – which is another issue, but do you see how that subtle recast makes the sentence better?
7. Showing versus telling
Watch for this and know that not all telling is bad. Sometimes Joe opens the door – we don’t need to know his hand reached for the knob, his fingers tightened around the nickel-plated globe, and with a subtle twist of his wrist, the door swung open. The latter is called writing on the nose – which again, is another post.
8. Avoid simultaneous events
In real life things can happen simultaneously, but in fiction readers are very linear. Avoid using words like “as” or “while” to signify events happening at the same time because they can confuse the order of cause and effect. One example I read had a woman screaming as a labor contraction hit her. Technically, the contraction hit causing her to scream so you’d write it as “A contraction seized her body and she screamed.”