Just a quick note by way of introduction. The inspirational and talented Tami Moore is going to take the reins of the blog today and tomorrow, presenting a clinic on editing your own writing. Though I’ve had a few questions about editing, this is as much for me as it is for you guys. Editing is a huge and important step in writing any story that you intend to have someone else read. Today Tami’s tackling the nitty-gritty basics. Enjoy and happy editing!
Hey there, readers-of-Anna’s-blog! Lovely to see you all so bushy-eyed and bright-tailed on such a sparkletastic morning. (Would anyone like some coffee?)
Anna’s asked me to help her out with a guest post on self-editing.
First off, self-editing is difficult. Period. It gets easier, and then it gets harder, and I’m really hoping it gets easier again after that, because right now it seems like I can’t write a sentence that doesn’t want editing.
But! I can help you past that first hurdle by showing you a few simple-and-common mistakes made in writing.
Everyone Needs Editing
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, realize that everyone’s writing could use editing. The better you get at reading critically, the more often you’ll catch errors even in published material.
There’s no such thing as perfect writing.
By that same token, needing editing in no way indicates that you’re a rubbish writer and you might as well go sell shoes or train elephants instead of rubbing verbs together.
You write for yourself.
You edit for your readers. <3
Our Sample Text
Anna and I collaborated (okay, okay, she did most of the work) to get a sample of some in-need-of-fixing writing. Take a second and read through it, then we’ll get down to the business of editing
“This is awesome, Captain Mortenson!” yells the steamship gunners as they fly over another piece of wreckage.The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it. “You’ve got an odd understanding of awesome,” the captain then added. He watched as a Horde mortar went saling over the boat. “Hold on boys!”
Anrietta, a human fighter, watched the various crewmembers as they hustled about, preparing to land on this so-called new continent. The ship was sailing fast. And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement, as they all waited to see what awaited them over the next few days of exploration.
She approaches a random infantryman and then nods at him. “So do you know what’s out there?”
“Nobody knows what’s out there, Lady, other than Horde,” he said.
“Oh, well, I guess we’ll find out,” she replied. She felt very excited, and couldn’t wait to get to where they were going.
All good? Great, now let’s start picking apart our patient. *hands you all surgeon’s masks*
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The past, the present, and the future all walk into a bar. It was tense.
- “yells the [...] as they fly over”
- “… then added. He watched as …”
- “waited to see”
- “…she approaches as random…”
All those tenses smooshed together into a single unhappy time paradox.
Pick a tense.
In general (and this is a VERY STRONG opinion, so naturally people ignore it and do whatever they want) use past tense.
There are a LOT of new books out that use present tense, particularly in the Young Adult category. I personally dislike reading present tense, as I find it jarring and off-putting after having read past tense for so long.
Since I’m the one stitching up this patient, I’m going to say that during editing, everything shall be past tense.
More verbs? Oh yes. More verbs.
“… yells the steamship gunners … “
The steamship isn’t yelling. The gunners are yelling. Or, more precisely, a single gunner is probably yelling, as I’d be surprised to find them all so very well synchronized without a great deal of practice.
Re-writing to clarify a bit (leaving out the word “steamship” as it’s an adjective and just muddies the water when we’re trying to compare verbs and subjects):
- The gunners yell. (correct!)
- The gunner yells. (correct!)
- The gunners yells. (*sad trombone*, incorrect!)
We have a “single” verb and a “plural” subject in the original. One of those has to be changed to match, and in this case it makes the most sense to single-fy the subject.
Make sure your subject matches your verb. Don’t be afraid to reword the sentence and simplify it so that you can SEE the subject/verb pairing.
I really don’t need to go through this one, do I? At LEAST do spellcheck. At best? Make sure your homonyms are correct. Hammer the common mistakes into your brain.
- It’s (it is) vs its (the thing that belongs to it)
- Their (belongs to them) vs they’re (they are) vs there (over yonder)
- Raiders (multiple people who raid) vs Raider’s (the thing that belongs to a raider)
These are common mistakes because they’re confusing. Don’t convince yourself that you can get away with not understanding them. Memorize them by rote if you have to.
Even TheOatmeal agrees: (note, links probably not safe for work with regards to language)
Our example has a few misspelled words and an abused “its”. Those should be fixed in editing.
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it”
Please, stop abusing commas.
Yes, they take work to fully understand how and when to use them.
No, they are not magical unicorn punctuation, far beyond the comprehension of all but the most skilled writers.
In our example, we’ve got at least three abused commas.
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight because its another boat who hadn’t made it”
- “And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement, as they all waited to see what awaited them over the next few days of exploration”
- “She felt very excited, and couldn’t wait “
Ignoring the utter cringeworthiness of that first sentence, a comma between “sight” and “because” would at least make it sound a little less robotic when read aloud. This one’s arguably an opinion comma.
In the second and third examples, the commas are unnecessary. They’re about as useful as commas in the middle of a word, which is to say that they’re so bad they’re actively confusing.
Not every “and” needs a comma, and not every place you want the reader to pause needs a comma. Learn the rules so that you break them less frequently.
I’m begging you, on behalf of your comma-sensitive readers.
How often do you greet a friend by name?
So why, do you reckon, our gunners would address the captain using his name?
- “”This is awesome, Captain Mortenson!””
No, stilted-speech gunner, this is not awesome. This is the writer trying to tell the reader what the captain’s name is.
How do you find stilted speech?
Easy, read it aloud. If it sounds like you’re reading a terrible script … you probably are. Note that direct reference of a character’s name is only one way in which speech may be stilted. The read-aloud fix finds most of them.
If Ands and Buts Was Candies and Nuts…
Try really (really really) hard to not start sentences with “And” or “But”.
Yes, writers do this and get away with it.
However, most of the time, the sentence is stronger without it. Furthermore, rigid grammar holds that you’re not supposed to do it anyway.
- “The ship was sailing fast. And everyone seemed to be picking up the excitement,”
In this case, ‘the ship was sailing fast” is a short enough sentence (and not impactful enough to deserve being such a short sentence) that you could turn that period into a comma and make it all one sentence.
Alternately, just drop the “And” to find the second sentence stronger immediately.
Other Useless Words
There’s actually a whole list of words that are almost always useless.
“Very,” for example. In almost every case, it is latched onto a more useful adjective and isn’t pulling its own weight.
- “Pretty” (as in “kind of,” not as in “beautiful”)
- “And then”
- “was” or “is”
These are danger words. Search for them and make them earn their place if they’re staying.
- “She felt very excited…”
- “She approaches a random infantryman and then nods at him”
In the first example, the “very” isn’t adding anything. In the second, think about the actual order of action. Is she nodding while she’s approaching? Use “and”. Is she nodding when she’s done approaching? Go for “, then”. Either solution tightens the writing up a notch.
Short sentences are choppy and impactful.
Long sentences are slow and fancy.
Use shorter sentences for heart-pumping action and longer sentences for beautiful descriptions.
“The ship was sailing fast” is a waste of a great, short, impactful sentence because it’s not really important.
Use the flow of sentences and paragraphs to manipulate your readers — do you want their heart pumping? Work that flow!
Another example is the first paragraph of the sample, which should be broken into two paragraphs at the point where the captain speaks. 1) because new speakers always get their own paragraphs but 2) because we’re shifting the focus from the gunner to the captain and we want the reader to shift along with us.
Each paragraph should only do or describe one thing. Zoom way out in your document so that you can’t read the text any more. Your paragraphs should mostly be medium-sized, with very few giant blocks of text and equally few teeny-weeny one-line impact paragraphs.
This is more than just sniping bad use of “to be” verbs … it’s also looking for TELLING instead of SHOWING.
In our example, we’ve got:
- “The wreakage was a terrible sight “
- “watched the various crewmembers as they hustled about, “
- “She felt very excited, and”
- “the ship was sailing fast”
Don’t tell me the character felt excited. Don’t tell me she’s watching crew members hustle about. Show me her excitement and let them hustle without the extra burden.
In the top one, find an ACTIVE verb to describe the sight of the wreckage. In the bottom one, don’t tell me the ship WAS sailing, just let it sail.
Repeat words as little as possible. This is another one that reading aloud finds more often than reading silently, especially if you’re the writer.
In our example, we’ve got “wreckage”, “boat”, “waited”, and “excitement” being used in various incarnations, multiple times. “Wreckage” in particular is an excellent word … but using it multiple times dilutes the impact of it.
Let’s try to find some alternative phrasings in the rewrite, shall we?
Trees, Meet Forest
Okay, I want to hold up the editing train here just a bit, as I imagine all of you are just itching to edit. Fixing spelling is easy, right?
Wait just a tick.
You see, there’s no point fixing the spelling or commas or even verb tense on a sentence that’s not going to make the cut.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at some of the bigger picture things you’ll want to consider before you ever fix a single verb.
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