A lesson in Awareness
How much do you know about the technical aspects of your writing? As a writer with serious intentions, you need to make time to learn the fundamental rules. We learn as we go, but we evolve so much more if we make a point of actively honing our writing skills through personal study. If you have the ability to create clean copy and a story with the minimum of structural issues, your trip to the editor will be a much cheaper one.
Build a strong reference library that you can dip into at a moment’s notice. Actively read novels, noting elements that you struggle with, whether that be dialogue, description, punctuation, point of view, or conflict. The more you actively read, the more you learn.
How long is ‘long enough’? To gain necessary perspective we need to create distance between ourselves and the work we’ve been so tied to over the past year or two. Once you write The End, put it out of mind for as long as you can and start work on something else. If you can leave it for a month (or more), great – you’ll be able to view it with a level of objectivity that will allow you see and tackle issues that you were previously too close to.
Self-editing needs to be so much more than a simple sweep through your manuscript (ms) to correct grammar and punctuation errors. Also, if you try to tackle everything in one go, you’ll succumb to the dreaded word-blindness affliction, missing some of the most important elements while focused elsewhere. The process should be slow and steady, taking one aspect of the whole at a time.
Read the manuscript without changing anything. Have a notebook to hand and jot down whatever impressions hit you as you read. Don’t allow distractions – this is simply to reacquaint yourself with the ms.
Focus on structural editing first. If the story’s not right, no amount of polishing will fix it. Is the plot solid? Are scenes complete? Are transitions lacking? Are characters fully developed and consistent? Are their actions/reactions justified? Are they meeting their objectives?
Time to iron out the wrinkles with a serious line-edit. This is where you wade in deep – one word at a time - anything confusing, convoluted, or wordy needs fixing. Every word, phrase, sentence must pass the hard-edit test. If it doesn’t hit the mark then it needs reviewing. You can’t be soft here, even if it’s one of your favourite pieces. If it doesn’t read right, chop, chop, chop. This phase is also ideal for searching out ‘weasel’ words – repetitive personal phrases/words of habit that stand out because they are yours, not the character’s.
Pull sentences back to their bones without changing original meaning. Hit unnecessary repetition, redundant words and phrases, and negative patterns such as sequential sentences/paragraphs beginning with the likes of He/She/I. If you have three in a line, change the second to break the pattern. Patterns can be a result of lazy writing, but here we’ll just blame it on first-draft fever. Considered rewriting will rectify and improve any such issues.
Activate Your Writing
Target telling adverbs and replace with strong verbs and considered descriptive narrative that pulls the reader tighter to the character’s experience. Same goes for adjectives - test as you go to see if a particular noun can stand on its own without the so-called supportive adjective. Have confidence in your writing and allow the power of context carry your story to the reader.
Another way to activate your writing is by cutting filters. The likes of ‘she felt the rain on her face’ distances the reader from the action by placing the character in the way. Using filters does no justice to your writing when something as simple as – ‘cold rain spattered her face’ pulls the reader into the moment, activates their imagination, and creates a stronger reader/character connection. Other filter examples are: thought – wondered – knew – realised – saw - touched -watched - heard.
Get your dialogue structure and punctuation right. You can google the fundamental rules anytime, but the important thing is to absorb them so you’ll not have to think about them when writing. I’m a dialogue man and my clients feel it when they send me dialogue that falls below my quality bar. Important, too, to cut excessive tags and said-bookisms – if the tag isn’t a manner of speaking, cut it down and replace with a simple but effective ‘said’. Vary up dialogue/action tags, too, to break patterns and enhance variety. Dialogue tags can easily be replaced with the likes of action or observation tags before, during, or after the spoken word, ensuring there is as little structural repetition as possible. Such variety enhances the reading experience, which is always a good thing where the reader is concerned.
Point-of-view and tense slippages stand out better when read aloud. Don’t jump heads from one character to another within the one scene. It simply doesn’t work, confusing and irritating your reader, often to the extent that they’ll abandon all hope and spread the word for others to approach with caution. One character’s perspective per scene, even if it’s a short one – slip a divider/asterisk in and carry on with pov integrity. It’ll be appreciated by your reader. If your pov character can’t see or hear what’s going on, then it can’t be included in the scene. Have another character speak or act so we know what’s going on with them, or have your pov character act/react verbally/physically to create necessary context.
Be careful to catch any tense blips, slipping into present from past, or visa-versa.
As a writer, it’s your responsibility to at least thoroughly proofread your ms before subbing it to your editor or publisher. It takes work, but you should be up for the challenge, especially if you’re serious about your craft. As mentioned above, the cleaner the copy, the cheaper the edit. I base my fee on impressions from sample edits – if it’s lagging behind where it should be, I know I’ve my work cut out and charge to suit. Take it slow and read each word aloud without jumping ahead because you 'know' the phrase or have read it a zillion times. This phase is about one letter and space at a time.
Keep a style guide handy. I use The Elements of Style, but there are others out there. It’s good to have to hand for the more obscure rules. A style sheet, consisting of character/setting details, will prove invaluable when rewriting. It’s a simple list to add to as you write your first draft. Character details, place names, and setting are examples where you need consistency throughout. Readers are expert at finding consistency/continuity errors and your style sheet will save you post-release blushes.
Last thing to do is the idiot-check run-through. Just read through the ms to ensure nothing gets left behind. Believe me, it’ll be worth it. Once you’ve that accomplished, it’s time to send it off to your editor. My email address is: email@example.com