Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Important Tips for Self-Editing

by Annette Lyon

Recenty I taught a class on self-editing at UVU's annual Book Academy conference. When I first got the assignment, I wondered if I could fill a whole hour.

Then I started taking notes on common things I regularly see in my freelance work. Next thing I knew, I was cramming information into the workshop, and we still had more to cover when it ended.

Below are just a few tips from that class. I may give more in the future.


Be Specific
I've talked about specificity here before. (Read that post! It's a good one, if I say so myself.) But it's a topic that needs mentioning again, because it's something we writers easily forget.

When Lisa Mangum, a senior editor at Deseret Book (and great novelist) heard I was teaching the self-editing class, she told me to make sure to mention specificity. But she didn't use that term.

Instead, she called it "strong nouns and verbs."

(I'd add strong adjectives to that list, with the caution to use them sparingly. Think of Mr. Keating's lesson on tired versus exhausted.)

The stronger your nouns and verbs, the stronger your story will be. So the man didn't walk; he sauntered. The woman isn't driving a car; it's a Jeep. The path isn't lined with flowers, but with columbine.

Read the original post in the link above for a more detailed explanation and examples about specificity.


Cut the Dead Wood
This means repetitive words, ones that weak, or are in some other way unnecessary.

Here are a few examples of dead wood and how to trim it for crisp writing:

in order to = to
due to the fact that = because
a long period of time = a long time OR a long period
he nodded silently = he nodded (I dare you to nod loudly)
were going to = would
he knew that = he knew
all of the things = everything
the tragic drowning death =the tragic drowning (if someone drowns, we know they're dead)
her hair hung down = her hair hung (implies down)
she spoke with an impatient tone of voice = she spoke with an impatient tone (implies of voice) OR she spoke impatiently (But don't use too many adverbs. See below.)
they stood up = they stood


Sensory Duh Moments
This is another form of dead wood, one that's easy to overlook.

He nodded his head (as opposed to nodding his what, elbow?)
She blinked her eyes (as opposed to blinking her toe?)

And so on. I see this kind of dead wood with gestures, wiping tears, squinting, tasting, and more. If your character is using one of their five senses, great! Just don't be redundant in pointing out which one; we can figure it out.


Watch Your Adverbs
Here's another one Lisa asked me to mention, so take note of it.

Some people eschew all adverbs. I'm not in that camp. But I do believe that about 80% of the time, the narrative and dialog can and should do enough showing that we don't need an adverb for clarity. Look at your adverbs and ask yourself if there's a more powerful way to say the same thing without using them.

(Hint: Maybe you can use a stronger noun and/or a stronger verb.)


Last One for Today: Avoid Passive Voice
Yet another issue Lisa mentioned.

Contrary to popular belief, passive voice is not just any sentence with a word like was in it. A to-be verb (is, was, were, am, etc.) can signal passive voice, but not always. I've written about passive voice before as well, so if you're unsure what it is, go read that post.

One thing I'd add is that passive voice can be a great tool when it's intentionally used to obscure who did something or for a character to avoid blame. Before trying that, be sure you know what passive voice is and how to use it.


I'll delve into more self-editing tips another time. As always, don't panic about these things in the drafting stage. Let your muse carry you then. Later, when it's time to don the editing and revision cap, pull out your notes and apply these tips to strengthen your work.

6 comments:

Donna K. Weaver said...

Good stuff here. When I was a Harry Potter forum moderator I learned very much how using the passive voice is less accusatory. =D

Heather B. Moore said...

Sounds like a great class, and thanks for the self-editing reminders!

Josi said...

This was awesome, and so timely. I just did a search of my WIP (which is due in a matter of days) for all the dead wood phrases you had here--I had a TON of "In order to" and a bunch of "Stood up" as well as a few of every other one you mentioned here. Thanks for this post, Annette, and for being brilliant!

Lori Folkman said...

This is great! I'm printing it out and keeping it by my computer to refer to frequently!

Zia Blue said...

hmm, thank you for the reminders! always useful.

PaulDail.com said...

Similar to what you said, but a little different. Passive voice can also be used to indicate a weak character, one for whom the world is acting upon, instead of the other way around.

Some good tips here.

-Paul D. Dail