I am a writer and a reader. On occasion, I am a reviewer, but one thing I can never be is an editor of my own work. Given that, I’d like to speak about self-editing, the important process I do before I hand off my manuscript to a professional editor.
Even if you are an indie writer who does not use a professional editor for whatever reason, I hope the following information will be helpful for you.
Many writers hire two types of editors, and the same person can be both in some cases.
Content Editor – looks at the big picture: plot, characterization, voice, and setting.
Copy Editor – specializes in grammar, punctuation, fact-checking, spelling, and formatting.
The reason I self-edit is to provide my editor with the best possible draft of my work, free of: typos; grammatical errors; plot holes; etc., but I know that even with the best of intentions, even after I’ve made changes based on beta readers’ suggestions, there will still be errors.
I’m too close to my work, and after re-reading my book for the umpteenth time, my mind simply fills in the gaps and I can no longer see my mistakes.
I’ve listed five things I do to polish my manuscript when I self-edit. It’s grunt work but is not difficult to do and will make your final product much cleaner.
1) Eliminate clichés
Clichés are words or phrases that have become popular from overuse. They weaken writing and make sentences boring because they lack originality. Examples of clichés are:
– fit as a fiddle
– lived happily ever after
– sent a shiver down my spine
I try to replace them with a different phrase or rewrite the sentence without the cliché. It takes more effort, but the reader will be rewarded with fresh storytelling, not the same old, tired phrases.
2) Eliminate repetitive words/phrases/facts
I often repeat the same word(s) within a few paragraphs, but it’s not easy to find these repetitions. Reading my text aloud helps. I also have “crutch” words I tend to overuse. A “search and highlight” for a specific word or phrase will reveal how many times I’ve used them in my manuscript. After that, I can replace them with a synonym or rephrase a sentence altogether.
Repetition of a fact/effect is a different problem. This can be two sentences that say the same thing or two paragraphs that convey the same information. It’s akin to hitting the reader over the head numerous times to make sure they understood you the first time.
Chapter 2: Mary’s hair is a flaming red color, always sitting as a messy pile above her shoulders.
Chapter 4: Mary’s fiery hair falls in a disarray around her neck.
Chapter 7: With her curly and out-of-control crimson tresses, Mary was easy to spot in the crowd of blonds.
I am essentially saying the same thing, drawing attention to the color and state of Mary’s hair. There may be instances where this can work, but in most cases, once is usually enough.
3a) Reduce the use of adverbs
Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. As a rule of thumb, they usually end in -ly.
Courtesy of the New Yorker
I know writers who are staunch “adverb-haters,” intent on removing all adverbs from their manuscript. I’m not one of those writers. I go by the rule that it’s always better to replace a weak adjective or verb with a stronger one than to use an adverb, but sometimes I choose not to do this. Stylistically, I may prefer the adverb in that sentence.
Adverbs such as ‘really’ and ‘very’ can usually be strengthened with a better word or phrase, and adverbs like ‘rather’ and ‘quite’ can be eliminated altogether.
Really big … replace with HUGE
Very tired … replace with EXHAUSTED
Extremely small … replace with TINY
She ate quickly … She GOBBLED her food
He walked slowly … He SAUNTERED
He moved rather slowly … eliminate RATHER – or change to: He appeared lethargic
She talked quite loudly … eliminate QUITE – or change to: She bellowed
3b) Eliminate adverbs in dialogue tags
In most cases, an adverb in a dialogue tag adds nothing useful to the dialogue.
Tom’s mouth curled into a grin. “I’m so thrilled you threw me this surprise party!” he said happily.
Tom’s facial expression and his words already express his happiness. There is no need to insert the word “happily” after “he said.”
Below is an example of where the word “angrily” isn’t needed.
“I’m never coming back here!” she said angrily. Jane stomped out of the room and slammed the door.
4) Be consistent
If you are writing in American English, be sure you use the correct spelling of words and keep them consistent throughout your text. American and British spellings differ for many words. As a Canadian, I’m aware of both spellings but sometimes use them inconsistently in my manuscript. This rule also applies to words that are capitalized or hyphenated, as well as formatting of punctuation.
Color vs Colour
e-mail vs email
Internet vs internet
Here is a comprehensive and helpful list of UK vs. US spellings: http://www.tysto.com/uk-us-spelling-list.html
5) Vary the construction of sentences
A reader alerted me to a specific stylistic technique of mine when he read my last book. The sentences looked something like this:
– With steely determination, she pressed on against the tide …
– Holding his bible against his chest, he preached to the choir …
– Like a wildcat circling her prey, she examined the body …
There is nothing wrong with this construction, but he was correct in pointing out that the sentences had a similar rhythm. Overuse of it can distract a reader.
Varying the structure of sentences helps make the writing more sophisticated. By avoiding constructions that have been overused, your writing will sound fresher and go a lot further to developing your own unique voice.
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I hope you have found this information helpful. If you have any tips on what you do to clean up your manuscript, please feel free to comment and share.
Happy writing and self-editing! :)
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