In May, I had the honor of presenting my 10-step plan for self-editing at the Lakefly Writers’ Conference in Oshkosh, WI. The feedback was positive, and so I thought I would discuss my self-editing process here in this blog.
As we all know, a poorly edited manuscript is certain death. However, don’t obsess over perfect grammar. In the words of Stephen King, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes. The object isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story… to make them forget, whenever possible, that they are reading a story at all.”
Stay positive during the edit – It can seem overwhelming, so that’s one reason I break it into 10-parts. As you edit and rewrite, know this, you are not fixing mistakes, you are improving your manuscript, you are taking it from a thought to a tight, compelling, and page-turning story. It’s like digging a hole to plant a flower; you will fill the hole again, not because it was a mistake, but to add beauty to that patch of earth.
I believe there are three primary parts to writing – (1) research and idea, (2) writing the drafts, and (3) rewriting and editing.
My 10-step plan focuses on part (3) rewriting and editing. It has worked well for me in writing both nonfiction and fiction. I offer it to you for your consideration and modification to fit your style.
- Review the opening and closing lines for each scene. We know the importance of the opening paragraph – to pull the reader in; and your ending ought to be inevitable and a surprise and must leave the reader satisfied and wanting to read more of your writing. Your openings and closings of each scene and chapter must hold the reader’s attention. Keep pulling them in and wanting to know what happens next. In my first draft (of Weepers), I began a scene with, “As usual before going to bed, Angelo walked into Uncle Johnny’s room and told him about Jimmy …” As usual is lazy. Make something up, you’re in charge of this world. After editing for first and last lines – My edit/rewrite of this scene opening reads: “Johnny, wearing only pajama pants, stood on his hands, his feet barely touching the wall, as he pushed himself up and down. The moonlight cutting through his window chiseled his rope-like muscles and cast a shadow of a huge scorpion moving in for the kill again and again. Angelo, mesmerized by the image, stood in the doorway of his uncle’s room. Johnny sensed his presence and, without stopping, said, ‘Come in, Angelo.’” You might come up with something else. Great. You’re the author, go for it. Keep asking, why does the reader want to go on?
- Eliminate (unless for a good reason) passive voice. King tells us the passive voice is safe. The timid fellow writes, “The meeting will be held at seven o’clock” because that somehow says to him, ‘Put it this way, and people will believe you really know. ‘Purge this fear! Write ‘The meeting’s at seven.’” Also search for “by.” As in the man was bitten by the dog (passive); change this to the dog bit the man (active).
- Get out of the way of the action. Avoid Filter words where you can. It is in some way related to the passive voice in your POV. For example, “Angelo felt his stomach drop he remembered he left his knife at home” (this is filtered) change it to “Angelo’s stomach dropped; his knife was at home.”
- Review for story and plot– does it hold together? Does this scene move the story along? Look for and eliminate:
- Stage Direction – he got up, he walked to the door, he turned the knob…just say, he left.
- Mundane dialogue and pleasantries – here eliminate everything but the greatest hits of the dialogue.
- Information dumps – a character or the narrator tells how it all happened. And, yes, “As you know, Bob, my…” is an information dump.
- Story vs. Plot– The King died and then the Queen died is story; The King died and then the Queen died of grief (or any other reason) is plot. Your plot is the footsteps in the snow of your story.
- (Make Haste Slowly) – Angelo looked around (and that changed everything) as he walked through the projects. Take your time, smell, see, listen… what’s going on around your character?
- Make a list of the promises you have made and the foreshadowing and edit to ensure that you have kept your promises and fulfilled the foreshadowing. However, some foreshadowing might go unanswered if you plan a sequel.
- Edit for repetition. Repeated statements, descriptions, names, and words. Search for your most often used words. Mine seem to be – just, bit, that, but, and some. Also, look for consecutive sentences that start with the same word.
- Eliminate as many adverbs (especially “very”) as possible. King tells us, “The adverb is not your friend. Consider the sentence, ‘He closed the door firmly.’ It’s by no means a terrible sentence but ask yourself if ‘firmly’ really must be there. ‘I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that, Dumbo didn’t need the feather; And don’t get cute with tags, like instead of he said, he snapped or add the infamous adverb, he said ‘firmly’ or ‘timidly’ or anything else. If you need to identify the character, just use ‘said’ and let the dialogue and context carry the weight.”
- Do a surgical edit – write the point of each scene as well as what happened in the scene on separate index cards. Then lay out the cards in order and ask yourself, Do they all move the story forward? Do they all say what you want? Are they all necessary?
- Have someone (or the computer) read your story out loud. Take notes. This does not have to be at one sitting – and if one or two friends join you even better.
- Finally, consider a professional line edit. I can’t do that myself, I tend to read past mistakes, but maybe you can. You are free to accept or reject what your line editor suggests. You are the author. You know the story. For example, take our friend the comma; if I write, “woman without her man is lost,” my meaning seems to indicate that the woman would be lost. However, by adding a couple of commas, I can convey the opposite sense, “woman, without her, man is lost.” Please review carefully what your line editor suggests. It is your story. Your voice. Keep it your own.