Cole, here! 👋 Let me introduce my friend, M. Lynne Squires. Not only is she a gifted writer (Pushcart nominee, HELLO?!) I think she has a superpower when it comes to staying organized and setting up systems that work. So it was a no-brainer to have her as a guest to share her thoughts on self-editing for fiction writers. She gets right to it, so I will, too. *But be sure to check out her info, below.* Here’s Lynne!
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Let’s cut to the chase on the topic of editing. Every single thing you write needs to be edited.
I’ve read works by folks who refuse to change a single word of their original manuscript. They are unwilling to step back and objectively view their work. What follows isn’t for those folk. Herein are some guidelines to tighten and polish your work.
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Gina McKnight said, “Writing is like riding a bike. Once you gain momentum, the hills are easier. Editing, however, requires a motor and some horsepower.” Typing ‘the end’ is gratifying. Time to break out the champagne, or at least your favorite coffee.
And it’s also time to gear up for part two – self-editing. This is the work you do before you send your manuscript off to your actual editor.
What does self-editing look like? Some people do it all on the computer. Others prefer to print out the work, and with red pencil, Post-it notes, and a copious amount of coffee in hand, begin the fine-tuning process. You do you.
The first step that will help hasten the process is a simple one. Read through your manuscript with an editing program. Microsoft’s Editor, Grammarly, and ProWriting Aid are some of your options. Do a bit of research to select what works best for you. But remember this – the suggested changes are just that – suggested. Regardless of the one you use, they can quickly help you alleviate spelling errors, find repetitive words and phrases, point out spacing problems, and flag possible grammar mistakes.
I do not recommend these programs replace a human editor. The invaluable part of an editing program is the errors they catch that you can’t see because you have read your work dozens of times and become blind to the minor errors your brain corrects while reading.
The next suggestion comes courtesy of Crystal Wilkinson via a class I took from her. I do this, and it is well worth the time. You’ll need your paper manuscript and a couple of highlighters. Taking your work one page at a time, highlight all the adjectives one color and all the verbs another color.
Review each adjective. Ask yourself is it necessary, is it the best word choice? If your page is littered with highlighted words, you need to consider if you overuse adjectives. Often, adjectives are peppered throughout our writing, directing the reader to perceive something. For example, to say “the homeless man’s dark, worn, bedraggled, herringbone overcoat trailed through the snow” paints a picture for the reader. But to say “the homeless man’s bedraggled overcoat trailed through the snow” allows the reader’s mind to fill in the details of the coat.
Mark Twain said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” It’s a fatal mistake to assume the reader is incapable of ‘seeing’ details and embellishing the story in their mind. Hemingway is often credited with using the least words possible to say the most. Highlighting his adjectives would result in a page nearly devoid of color, yet the prose remains strong.
The verbs you have highlighted need to be reviewed for repetition. A word of caution, however, using ‘said’ is okay. Readers skim over it ideally well without issue. Don’t struggle with searching for alternates to every ‘said’ you have used. Save those for spots where a stronger word would make the most impact on your story. Consider announced, believed, described, disclosed, divulged, expressed, noted, proclaimed, recounted, or revealed instead.
As for other verbs, beware of repetition or using a verb that doesn’t precisely describe the action. Verbs are power words, so use them judiciously.
Another problem area to look for is using too many cliches. Cliches are someone else’s words. Using too many results in your voice being lost or hard to discern. Banish them and replace them with your words.
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Finally, let’s talk about words that need to go. The top of the list is that. I’ve never found an instance where removing that was a mistake. Other words that do nothing to enhance your writing are of, really, very, most any ‘ly’ words, down, up, then, start, begin, sudden, suddenly, just, almost, rather, and somewhat.
Search your manuscript for these and see if removing them leaves your intent intact and more concise.
William Zinsser, the author of “On Writing Well,” says, “Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.”
He’s not wrong.
NOW, YOU! Tell us your self-editing tips in the comments.
M. Lynne Squires is a Pushcart Prize-nominated Appalachian author. Her books include the award-winningLetters to My Son – Reflections of Urban Appalachia at Mid-Century. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including the Anthology of Appalachian Writers volumes X and XIII, and Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment. She pens a monthly feature column for a regional publication, is the host of the WV Library Commission television show WV Author, and regularly teaches workshops on social media for writers. She is currently working on a short story series set in a 1950s insane asylum.
Connect with her at www.mlynne.com.
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This is a great blog post, Cole. Thanks to you and Lynne for all the fine information. I’ll share this site with the Vintage Quills.