I am so thrilled to have Author and Editor Frank Allan Rogers back on my porch. I’ve worked with Frank for years and highly respect his advice. Today, over sweet tea and crumpets, we are talking about editing your own. Pay close attention!
Here’s a definition of expert you may have heard before: An ex is a has-been, and a spurt is a drip under pressure. Since I don’t want to be a has-been drip under pressure, I won’t call myself an expert. But I worked as a paid staff writer, editor, and then senior editor in the publishing department of a Michigan company for nearly 18 years. In a company filled with “experts” in all aspects of publishing, even the dumbest of newcomers learn a few things. If I can pass along something I learned that will help fellow writers, it’s the least I can do; I got help many times (and still do) from others.
What is a writer? From the time we are young children, we learn to make symbols and put them in a sequence that represents what we are thinking – hopefully. As we grow and learn and practice, we get better at it – hopefully. Some of us are fascinated by what these symbols can do: inform, inspire, motivate, entertain, even change the world. The pen really is mightier than the sword, but only for those who know how to use that pen to affect others.
When we write to entertain, we often create whole new worlds filled with extraordinary characters and fascinating places. The first test of our creation may be the response we get from family and friends. But we soon learn there is a world of difference between writing that brings kind words from friends and relatives, and a tale so good that thousands of strangers will pay to read it. So, editing becomes a vital part of everything we write.
Editing our own stuff is always tougher. Since we already know what’s there, or what we think is there, it’s easy to skim, and overlook things that are obvious to others. But I can share some tricks I picked up over the years that have helped me. If you use a scientific approach, you can be a lot more objective, and less likely to get caught up in the story as you edit.
Make a list of all your bad habits (bad writing habits, that is). Be honest. Nobody’s gonna see the list but you. Then go through your manuscript looking for only one item on the list. For example, I often use the word that where it’s not needed, as in: Fred thought that Jane would like… MS Word will flag every that in my story to make it easy for me to check each one.
When you’re looking for thats (or whatever) and see something else you need to fix (and you always will) highlight it and keep going so you don’t lose your focus. Go back and fix it later.
Always use spellcheck, but remember it can’t catch everything. It doesn’t know the difference between desert and dessert. Also, check from and form, common typos that spellcheck won’t catch.
I know it sounds nerdy, but diagramming a sentence (remember that from high school?) can help you figure out how to say something when you get stuck. What’s the subject, the verb, the object? When you look at the mechanical construction of a sentence, it gets much easier to manage.
Write in the active voice, NOT passive. It’s BORING. Make a global search for the words was and were in your sentences. Those two often suck the life out of our prose. Instead, use verbs that express action or strong emotions. And be suspicious of adverbs. Those “ly” words are often crutches for weak verbs. Instead, use a verb with more impact.
Show. Don’t tell. We hear that a lot. But top-selling authors often say, “Tell 20% and show 80%.” I like this quote from Anton Chekhov – “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Look for all these things in separate passes through your first draft—or second, or third—and watch your writing improve faster than you thought possible.
When you’re done with self-editing, should you still have an editor go through your manuscript? ALWAYS.
This is awesome advice. I couldn’t agree more. This combined with a few of the other posts on my blog should have your manuscript in tip-top shape.
Find out more about Frank on my Porch Guests Page.
Great advice, Frank. I find it difficult to write in the “present” and prefer the “past” as I prefer to read that way but I understand your thinking. I was glad to see “diagram a sentence.” I was afraid that wasn’t done anymore and I can remember thoroughly enjoying that activity in high school. Thank you for such useful hints! Gail Cauble Gurley