Every writer needs beta-readers and every author needs editors, but YOU are the first line of defense when it comes to content and quality control. If anyone knows your writing intimately, the verbal tics and words you lean on too often, the character traits and archetypes you put into your work, it’s you.
That’s both quasi-tragic and wonderful.
It’s quasi-tragic because you’re an expert in your own writing and can’t see your own flaws.
It’s wonderful for the same reason. If you can step back and brutalize your own writing, your finished manuscripts will have a sense of polish. It’s hard–the story and characters are your babies and you’ll do anything to keep them from harm–but necessary.
So let’s bring out your inner self-editor.
Put it aside, no matter how long it takes. The best time to self-edit is several days after you’ve finished a project. Maybe you need several weeks or a month, but you must mentally separate yourself from the story. When you do this, you’ll spot grammatical errors, inelegant language, poor plotting, repeated words, and hit-you-in-the-face foreshadowing lacking in subtlety.
Just print it, baby! The “green” among us will hate this one. Print out a physical copy of your work to catch your mistakes. It’s too easy to gloss over problems on a computer screen. If the idea strikes you as environmentally unfriendly, try reading your work on a device other than your computer…something like a smartphone or e-reader. Changing up the reading format helps you read your work with fresh eyes.
Activate the T-800 Adverb-inator. Writers and editors are embroiled in an all-out War on Adverbs. Unleash the T-800 Adverb-inator. In many cases, you can eliminate adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs. Whenever a sentence starts to rhyme from all the “-ly” words in it, you need to pare it down. The less often you use adverbs, the more impact the ones you do use will have. If you’re using Word, employ the “Find and Replace” feature and search “ly.” The results will amaze you.
“That” doesn’t always fly. The word “that” has many uses. The fish was that big. The horse that won the race is from champion stock. That movie was great. In many cases, “that” can go. Some sentences need it for flow or clarification purposes…and if it feels right to use “that,” by all means do it. However, you can trim it most of the time.
Comma comma down dooby doo down down… Breaking up is hard to do, but using commas correctly can prove even more challenging. Nothing is worse than the meandering, paragraph-long sentence that’s really several sentences strung together with commas. In most cases, shorter, punchier sentences are easier to follow.
Theme show. Not every story starts with some grandiose, life-changing theme. Like it or not, your story has some theme or purpose tied to it, even if it’s not explicitly stated. Make sure to identify the theme, no matter how elusive it may be.
“Be” aware. Action verbs, action verbs, action verbs! The verbs of “be” are flexible and familiar. They work well with adverbs, but limit your arsenal. Action verbs engage readers and turn so-so prose into memorable writing.
Get some perspective…and stick with it. When working with a first-person narrative, watch out for writing stating what another character is thinking. In third-person writing, look for any jarring changes in perspective, especially in stories with multiple points of view. A scene starting from a certain character’s perspective should never deviate from that perspective.
What’s the consistency? Character traits and motivations should not inexplicably vary from scene to scene or page to page. Think about it like this: Your very best friends usually won’t surprise you with their behavior. You know them well enough to predict what they’ll say or how they’ll react. Characters should be like your very best friends. When they do something inconsistent with their personalities, you should identify it with laser-like precision.
Read it. Out loud. People may look at you funny, your significant other may tell you to shut up, and you may feel uncomfortable. However, this is the best way to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of your words. Read the whole thing aloud…you’ll be amazed at how many mistakes you’ll pick up. Your brain won’t “fill in the blanks” when you read aloud, allowing you to find missing words, awkward structuring, etc.
End it, already. Writing an effective ending is one of the hardest things to do. A good self-editor feels the pace of the story and understands when it reaches its conclusion. Writers easily succumb to pitfalls like false endings, unnecessary epilogues, and thematic diversions. Understand the exact moment when the proverbial credits should roll.
Self-editing is only part of the revision process. You always need to have someone with a critical eye look over your work. And if you do know an experienced editor, make friends!
Matt Adams is a TV news producer whose short stories have appeared in A Thousand Faces, Wily Writers for Speculative Fiction, and anthologies from Library of the Living Dead Press. He lives and works in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and man-eating frog. You can check out more of his work at http://mattadamsauthor.blogspot.com.