Editing your work is vital if you want to be a professional writer.
It’s your responsibility to get your story to the highest level possible before you pass it on to a publisher or to your readers. Never settle. “That’s good enough,” is just not an acceptable attitude to have if you want to be more than a hobbyist. You also owe it to yourself to do your best because nothing will be more disheartening than a publisher giving your work, that took many hours to complete, around five minutes consideration before pronouncing it as unpublishable garbage.
Seems unfair, huh?
Well, publishers do have their reasons. Time is money. If your story takes too much editing to make it publishable then that means they are sinking an excessive amount of labor costs into you that may never come back. You have to be a professional and that means learning your craft to avoid common pitfalls of the amateur. To help with that, I’ve come up with a handy dandy list that may help you out. Without further adieu, here are 18 tips for self-editing.
1. A thick skin is mandatory.
I’ve spoken on taking criticism in my articles Critical Hit and Ugly Truth or Beautiful Lie. You should be your own worst critic. You’re the frontline in the war of words and you need to be a general. If you read some of your work and it makes you cringe then chuck it.
2. Cut to the chase.
Don’t spend the first two pages of your story setting the scene or writing an expositional essay on the world you’re introducing. Get to the action. Grab the reader by the throat and don’t let go until the last page.
3. Stop being a pretentious ass with your word usage.
There was a really good rule of thumb I was taught as a young lad. “Don’t use a twenty-five cent word when a five cent word will do.” It’s awesome that you have a large and varied vocabulary. I’m super glad you paid attention in school. However, it destroys the reader’s immersion in your world if they have to get out a dictionary to figure out what the hell you’re saying.
4. Be concise.
Omit any and all needless words. Practice economical word usage.
5. Avoid your crutch words.
Everyone has crutch words. These are your go-to words that you use to fill space. First, get a thesaurus. Second, use a word processing program like Scrivener which has a built in text statistics tool that will help you curb this.
6. Don’t treat the reader like an idiot.
Let them fill in some blanks spaces for themselves. The imagination is a powerful thing and hand-holding the reader can be obnoxious and insulting. They don’t need a play by play of each individual movement your characters make.
7. If it’s not moving the story forward, cut it.
Have a really awesome scene you’ve always wanted to put in a story but it doesn’t exactly fit in your current work? Cut it and save it for another story where it makes sense.
8. Use adjectives sparingly.
Less is more…and nowhere near as annoying. Too many adjectives will strip your writing of its power. Use powerful action verbs instead.
9. Use spell check.
For the sweet love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, USE SPELL CHECK! I can’t think of a single program where you put words in that doesn’t have a spell check function. Use it!
1o. Don’t change POV in the middle of a scene.
This is a phenomenally jarring experience for a reader. It’s confusing and hard to follow. It also doesn’t make any sense.
11. Avoid cliches.
Don’t just avoid cliched phrases. Try to avoid cliched situations as well. How many stories have you read that start with the main character waking up? Boooooooooring.
12. He/She said.
Keep it simple stupid. I understand how enticing it is to describe how someone said something in the attribution portion of your writing. Don’t do it. Figure out a way to convey the emotion you want to convey some other way.
13. Show, don’t tell.
It’s a pretty basic rule that I’ve covered before. There’s nothing wrong with doing it in the first draft but if you want to be published it needs to go.
14. Avoid similar or really hard to pronounce names.
Have you ever read a science fiction or fantasy book where the names are unpronounceable by the human tongue? Yeah, me too. You know what I did with those books? I didn’t finish them. It’s also really annoying to try to keep track of Adrian, Adam, and Amy when they’re all in the same story. Stay away from this if at all possible.
15. Read it aloud.
Seriously. Read it out loud. Does it sound clunky or mechanical? Time to rewrite it.
16. Step away from the work.
Once you’re done with the first draft set it aside for a week or so. Don’t touch it. Let your mind relax so you can have a more objective view of the story. You’ll be amazed at the flaws you can see and correct on the next pass.
17. Format accordingly.
If you’re submitting to a publisher be sure to follow their manuscript guidelines. Not doing so is the fastest way to ensure it gets dumped in the garbage.
18. Don’t over-edit.
It’s really tempting to just start cutting the story into itty-bitty pieces and before long you have…well, not much. You have to know when to stop. It’s usually an organic feeling. Remember that you don’t want to get rid of context. You only want to get rid of the fluff that doesn’t add to the story.
Now, edit away my little spaz monkeys!
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of what you should or shouldn’t be doing, I think it’s a great starting point. Keep in mind that you’ve put a lot of hard work into crafting your tale and you don’t want to just settle for good enough. Both your readers and you deserve better. Your future publisher will also thank you for your professionalism and dedication to the craft. Until next week, fly safe out there. o7
UPDATE: Just so I’m perfectly clear on this, this is the editing I suggest you do before submitting to anyone and typically takes place during the revision process. This is not the end-all, be-all of editing and you really should have a professional editor give it a look before self-publishing.
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Also published on Medium.