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The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing

The Importance of Revision and Self-Editing (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

Why do authors need to know how to revise and self-edit?

Doesn’t the publisher edit?

Yes, they do. At least, the good ones do. (I’d steer clear of any publisher that doesn’t edit … or charges you for editing. But that’s another conversation).

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first?

If the publisher is going to edit your manuscript, why do you need to edit it first? Because you only get one chance to make a first impression for agents, publishers, and readers. #EditTips #AmEditing Click To Tweet

It’s a cliché, but you only get one chance to make a first impression. You need to make it count—which means presenting the agent or publisher with the best possible manuscript. Don’t destroy your chances by submitting something that’s less than your best.

Traditional Publishers

Publishers, like most businesses, are under pressure to produce financial results. Editing takes time, and time is money. Few publishers can afford to sign an author with a great idea but poor writing.

Publishers do edit. Publishers know authors make typos. They know we all have writing glitches or concepts we never grasp. Publishers understand that. But publishers want to work with manuscripts that have been written and edited well enough to enable them to assess the plot and characters, to judge the overall saleability of the story. They don’t want to be wading through complex and convoluted sentences that seem to say one thing but could say something different entirely.

Literary Agents

In fact, many publishers (especially US and British publishers) don’t even consider direct submissions from authors. They only accept submissions from reputable literary agents. Agents are paid on commission, usually 15% of the author’s advance and royalty. It makes sense that agent want to work with competent writers, as they get paid for selling manuscripts to publishers, not for editing those manuscripts in the hope of making a sale. It’s going to be easier to sign with an agent if you have stellar writing and self-editing skills.

Self-Publishing

What if you intend to self-publish? Then you definitely need an editor … and not just a proofreader. Traditionally published books will typically go through three or four rounds of editing: developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading.

Most editors charge by the hour. Some quote based on a word count or page count (a standard manuscript page is 250 words). Even if they’re quoting by the word or page, they’re budgeting on editing X words per hour or Y pages per hour so they earn their target hourly rate (and we’d like to earn more per hour than our teenagers earn at McDonalds).

So the more work your novel needs, the longer it’s going to take to edit, and the more expensive it’s going to be. That’s why it’s important to learn writing craft and learn to self-edit.

Here are nine free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing #AmEditing #EditTips Click To Tweet

Let’s look at some of the free or low-cost alternatives to help you learn to self-edit and reduce your need for paid editing:

Read Craft Books

Read books on writing craft. Read to learn, and never stop learning. (You can also mix this up with reading blog posts and reading about publishing and marketing—two more subjects you’ll need to master.)

Work with a Critique Partner

Many authors work with one or more critique partners, often swapping a chapter at a time. You revise and edit their chapter or manuscript, and they do the same. This is a great option, as long as your critique partner knows the craft of writing fiction—otherwise they could be giving you bad advice.

Work with Beta Readers

A beta reader is a volunteer who reads you full manuscript and offers feedback on specific issues. Some authors use beta readers for the final proofread, after the copyeditor has covered the manuscript with (virtual) red pen. But it’s more common to work with beta readers before the manuscript goes to an editor. After all, there is no point in polishing a novel with underlying plot or character issues.

Enter Contests

Contests are a cost-effective way of getting feedback on your writing. Most contests for unpublished writers offer feedback from the judges. Even contests that only judge the first five or fifteen pages can be useful, as most recurring writing issues show up in those early pages.

Judge Contests

You don’t have to be a great writer or self-editor to judge a writing contest—many contests are actually looking for reader judges.

If you’re a new writer, then reading a published novel with judging criteria in mind is a great way of learning what agents, editors, and publishers consider important in a novel, and will help you with your own writing. If you’re a more experienced writer, then judging is a great way of giving back to your favourite writing organisation!

Hire a Writing Coach

Some writing coaches have expensive packages, but many charge by the hour. You can learn a huge amount in a couple of hours when the coach is specifically focused on your writing.

Hire an Editor

Freelance editors don’t always charge hundreds or thousands. Most charge by the hour, and many will offer a free sample edit. Many will also agree to edit a sample of your manuscript (e.g. the first 5,000 words) for a reasonable fee. This won’t identify overarching plot or characterisation issues, but will show you your writing strengths, and the areas you need to work on.

Take a Course

I’m a big fan of Margie Lawson’s online training courses (www.margielawson.com), and credit Margie’s Deep Editing techniques with helping me with my contest wins. There are other great options out there: Author Accelerator, One-Stop Shop for Writers, and My Book Therapy, to name a few. Also check out the Romance Writers of Australia OWLs and the RWNZ webinar recordings.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference is a great way of learning more about the craft of writing. It will also help you connect with potential agents, publishers, critique partners, beta readers … and freelance editors.

No matter how you plan to publish, it’s in your best interest to learn to edit your own work.

It will reduce your overall editing costs and will improve your chances of attracting the attention of your dream agent and publisher.

I’ll be sharing my top tips over the next few months.

Cutting the Diamond (Self-Editing Your Novel)

Cutting the Diamond

In our series on Creating Diamonds from Coal (aka self-editing):

Today we’re going to work on what might be the most difficult part of the self-editing process: cutting.

Yes, there are words in our manuscript that have to be cut in order to allow us to see the final shape of our diamond, to allow it to shine.

And that last sentence is the perfect example. There’s nothing wrong with it—the spelling, grammar, and punctuation are all correct. But it could be improved with a little judicious shaping and cutting to turn our blah to brilliant:

We must cut the unnecessary words and allow our manuscripts to shine.

Thirty words to twelve.

What Needs to Go?

Back Story

Back story is what happened before the novel began, the events that formed our characters, that led them to believe a lie.

Writers need to understand this back story so they can write a convincing character arc. After all, if we don’t know where the character has come from, how can we show readers why they need to change?

We don’t need to tell the reader every detail of back story—especially not in the beginning. Going into the past can halt the forward motion of the plot, and I’ve read novels where the back story goes back generations. There is a writer maxim that we should leave back story for the back of the story and there is an element of truth in that statement.

We don’t the beginning of our novel to be bogged down with back story, but we also don’t want to leave our readers wondering why the main characters are the way they are.

There has to be a balance. The trick is to reveal back story a piece at a time. Margie Lawson says to think of back story like a pane of glass.

Write everything we know about the character, all their back story, on that pane of glass.

Then smash it.

Now we can pick up the pieces one at a time and insert them into the story, sliver by sliver, at the place where reader needs to know that sliver of back story. Nothing more, and nothing less.

If cutting your backstory makes you bleed, consider two things:

  • Cutting is going to make your story better.
  • You can repurpose your deleted backstory for marketing.

For example, you could use your deleted back story as the basis for a series of blog posts introducing your characters, or as a lead magnet to incentivise people into signing up for your email newsletter.

Clichés

You’ve probably heard the advice that writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But has anyone told you why?

Because clichés are predictable.

And we want to avoid predictable writing. We want to write (and read) fresh, original writing. Writing that encourages us to keep reading, because we don’t know what’s coming next. If we read the start of a cliché, we know what’s coming next … so what’s the incentive to keep reading?

If you’re going to use a cliché, twist it. Change it. Make it your own—better still, make it your character’s own. A twisted cliché isn’t predictable, so it keeps the reader engaged (and perhaps gives them a laugh).

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue is an area new writers struggle with, both with the actual words the characters speak (the actual dialogue) and with the way the is identified (the dialogue tags).

There are several common problems with dialogue:

  • The ‘dialogue’ isn’t dialogue at all: it is back story, with two or more characters telling each other what they already know. This slows the story down.
  • The dialogue is too formal for the character.
  • The dialogue is monologue. Dialogue exchanges should be brief—no more than two or three sentences at a time.

Know your characters, and ensure their dialogue is consistent with what they would say in terms of vocabulary, sentence construction, and tone.

Many authors overcomplicate the speaker attributions—how the author indicates which character is speaking. Browne and King say:

  • Start the paragraph with dialogue, not an action.
  • Ensure the words in your speaker attributions are the right way around—he said, not said he.
  • Avoid creative speaker attributions (e.g. Beth clucked, Beth chided).
  • Avoid using adverbs in your speaker attributions (e.g she said smilingly).
  • Don’t explain your dialogue (e.g. Beth said, astonished). If Beth’s dialogue hasn’t shown the reader Beth is astonished, telling us won’t solve the problem.
  • You can use a speaker attribution (Beth said) or an action beat (Beth nodded), but there is no need to use both (Beth said, and nodded).
  • You don’t need to add any dialogue tag if it’s obvious who is speaking.

You can also use a dialogue cue. Writing instructor Margie Lawson coined this phrase to refer body language and vocal cues (such as volume and tone of voice) which show subtext in the character interactions.

Getting the dialogue tags right is an easy way to improve your manuscript.

Repetition

The deliberate repetition of words, phrases or ideas can be used to great literary effect. However, most of us have words, phrases or stylistic habits we tend to repeat unconsciously (for example, I have a bad habit of using ‘however’, and tend to use parentheses too often).

There are several kinds of repetition:

Repetition of a single word

This could be using the same word twice in quick succession, or repeatedly using an unusual word or one that doesn’t fit in the style of the novel.

Repetition of an expression or movement

Many characters do nothing but nod or shrug or smile or sigh. In The Word Loss Diet, Rayne Hall says:

If your novel contains four smiles, each of them creates strong emotions in the reader. If it has a thousand smiles, the effect wears off.

It makes us wonder if the character has had Botox, that they can’t manage any other expression. It makes the character seem as genuine as The Joker.

It’s good to use actions to show us how a character is feeling. It’s not good to use the same action over and over and over. Brainstorm original ways of showing emotion. Invest in a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglasi. Write fresh.

Repetition at the beginning of sentences or paragraphs

Common issues include starting sentences with -ing words, with he or she, or with the character’s name

Repetition of an image or idea

Many authors give two different images to describe a scene or an object. This is the most difficult to spot, but the most important to notice and delete because it can weaken your writing.

Revise any repetition that is not specifically intended for emphasis or effect.

Weasel Words

Weasel words are words we don’t need, words which drag down our manuscript and make it more wordy than it needs to be. To illustrate, the second clause in the previous sentence (everything after the comma). The first seven words were sufficient to make the point.

Common weasel words include:

It

Either unnecessary or confusing. If you can cut it without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. Otherwise replace ‘it’ with the noun it is referring to. (Can you see the potential for confusion?)

That

If you can cut that without changing the meaning of the sentence, do so. I find I can cut at least half.

Adverbs

An adverb is describing a verb, attempting (and failing) to make the verb stronger. Instead of using an adverb, replace the weak verb with a stronger version. Or cut the adverb.

Adjectives

Instead of using a string of similar adjectives, use a single strong adjective that best describes the noun.

Weasel Phrases

There are also weasel phrases:

  • She nodded her head (what else would she nod?).
  • She nodded her head in agreement (nodding rarely signals anything other than agreement).
  • She stood up (no one is going assume anything else).
  • She crouched down.
  • He clapped his hands (a small boy might clap his feet. Otherwise, we’re going to know what you mean).
  • She thought in her head (yes, some people say this. But it still sounds silly).

 Overused Words

New writers often overuse words like look and turn (and their synonyms: gaze, watch, glance, study, observe, peek, peer, stare, and glare). I’ve never counted, but Rayne Hall says:

A bestselling novel by a top author contains around five ‘look’ and five ‘turn’, while a new writer’s book uses them five hundred times each.

Writers also use unnecessary words like begin and start. As a rule, we are either doing or not doing. I am either writing or not writing. I am not starting to write.

Remove Qualifiers

Instead of saying really well, find a single strong adjective that gets the point across. Weak or meaningless qualifiers include absolutely, actually, basically, certainly, completely, just, literally, much, only, quite, rather, really, somehow, somewhat, that, therefore, totally, very, and well.

Most of us have a unique set of weasel words. I recently read a manuscript where the author used some variation of magic five times in the first chapter—magic, magical, magically. Used once, magic is an interesting word. Used five times in one chapter, it feels out of place in a novel that’s not about magic.

Find your weasel words, and cut them.

Telling Words

Many authors use words like saw or felt or thought. These words are telling where you should be showing. They’re a sign you’ve slipped out of deep perspective point of view and telling the story yourself, rather than showing the story through the point of view character.

If you’re using point of view correctly, the reader knows anything seen is being seen from the perspective of the viewpoint character. To say the viewpoint character noticed something is unnecessary. So instead of:

Beth saw Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

If we already know Beth is the point of view character, the ‘Beth saw’ is redundant, and adds unnecessary narrative distance. We only need:

Jan wore a long black trenchcoat and knee-high boots.

Telling words to watch for include past, present and future tense versions of:

  • See (notice, watch)
  • Feel
  • Think (ponder, wonder, realise, understand, consider)

Sentence Structure

Many new authors want to vary their sentence structure from the traditional subject-verb-object. Many hit on the idea of starting sentences with ‘as’ or with present participles (-ing words). This introduces two other issues:

It can weaken your writing by making it less active. Browne and King explain:

Two common stylistic constructions are:

Pulling off her gloves, she turned to face him.

and

As she pulled off her gloves, she turned to face him.

Both of these constructions [as and –ing] take a bit of action (“She pulled off her gloves”) and tuck it away into a dependent clause (“Pulling off her gloves”). This tends to place some of your action at one remove from your reader, to make the actions seem incidental, unimportant.

Starting a sentence with ‘As’ or an -ing word

This implies the two actions are occurring at the same time, as in the examples above. But many authors use this sentence structure to describe what becomes an impossible series of consecutive actions:

Climbing out of the car, she ran up the steps.

Not even Superman can run up steps while he’s still climbing out of a car. Our sentences need to reflect the correct order of our character’s actions:

She climbed out of the car and ran up the steps.

Sentence Structure

This is the standard sentence structure of noun-verb-subject (she-climbed-car), with the added modification of conjunction-verb-subject (and-ran-stairs).

Using the same sentence construction all the time can feel repetitive. But it’s better to use the correct repetitive sentence structure than an incorrect alternative (verbing, noun subject) that leaves the reader wondering what you meant.

Instead, use a combination of simple, complex, and compound sentences to vary your writing. Add sentence fragments

Consider sentence length. Short sentences feel fast. They increase pace. Long complex and compound sentences slow the pace as they meander across the page, which means you can use varying sentence lengths to increase or decrease the pace of your scene, or to manipulate the reader’s perception of time.

Writerly Words

‘Writerly words’ is a Margie Lawson phrase, meaning something that doesn’t sound natural, something that sounds as though a writer wrote it. This makes it a subtle form of author intrusion—where the author uses a word they like, but that’s too formal to be consistent with what the point of view character would say or think.

Conclusion

Cutting unnecessary words and phrases will tighten your writing and reduce your word count—in a good way.

These are suggestions, not rules. You don’t have to follow them all. In fact, you don’t have to follow any of them. But every time you’re tempted to leave an adverb in, or explain an emotion, think:

Does this make my story stronger?

Be honest. If you’re not sure, save your darlings somewhere then delete them from your manuscript. You can always add them back later if you get feedback from readers or editors that something is missing.

You’ve put the pressure on your diamond, examined the rough diamond, shaped the stone, and cut the stone. Give your manuscript one final polish, to make sure you’ve got the spelling, grammar, and punctuation right.

Now let it shine!