Top 10 Tips for Self-Editing Your Writing

It's been a busy week for us, and it's mainly been taken up with editing and editorial feedback. We proofread completed manuscripts that we're getting ready to publish, we edit manuscripts that are almost there, we provide editorial feedback for those that just need an extra nudge or a bit of extra work, and we also give constructive criticism for queries we receive through Submittable. It's a difficult job: both reading and writing are incredibly subjective, and any piece is bound to be intensely personal to the author.

So while it can be a struggle to edit any creative writing, there are certain issues that crop up regularly and are easily fixed. We see these in queries as well as full manuscripts, in new writers and established authors. You don't need a professional editor to check for these little aspects, and they can make a big difference in how polished your work seems.

1. Strip out your exclamation marks

In communicating online in more informal ways - emails, social media - it's difficult to convey tone (emojis can replace voice tone and facial expressions but aren't always appropriate) and an exclamation mark can soften sentences that might seem abrupt or rude. An exclamation mark in your writing, however, is much like a shout. Unless your characters are literally yelling, exclamation marks can overwhelm your writing and make it seem juvenile. Of course, there are occasions when an exclamation mark can be useful -- to convey sarcasm, a joke, a wry observation, or even just the enthusiastic nature of one of your characters -- but don't overuse them.

2. Get rid of rhyming phrases

Obviously if you're writing poetry or deliberately intend for your writing to have a rhyme to it, then disregard this point. Occasionally, it just so happens that a perfect word in one half of your sentence rhymes with the word at the end, or the final words of consecutive sentences rhyme. It happens more often than you might think, and can be a distraction. Swap up your words or sentence placement to keep the flow.

3. Check for repetition

Some words tend to creep into your writing and make themselves so comfortable they crop up a couple of times. The more unusual a word is in everyday speech, the more likely it's to be noticed if it's overused.

4. Vary sentence length

A lot of long sentences are like motorway driving: it flows easily enough, but it can get dreary. Similarly a rash of short staccato sentences create a sense of road bumps (or marching boots). Maybe that's the effect you're going to in a particular section, but in general varying your sentence lengths makes for more natural and pleasant reading.

5. Keep your voices distinctive

Unfortunately, this can be one of the most difficult things to achieve and must be handled quite subtly. It's natural for us to create speech in our own natural cadences and dialect, but even characters from the same town will have different ways of talking. Parents are likely to be more formal than their irreverent children; a teacher may adopt more convoluted sentences than the shop assistant (but don't adhere to stereotypes). Ideally, you'd like your characters to be identifiable by their speech patterns. Don't fall into the easy escape of clichés and accent to tell one character from another, but look at their background: gender, age, upbringing, education, peers, occupation, personality traits, and many others will all have a subtle bearing on how a character speaks to others -- and, of course, their speech might change depending on who they're talking to.

6. Use all five senses (minimum)

Understandably, when we're telling a story we focus on what happened and what was said -- we're often explaining to friends who are familiar with the setting, the characters, a context. As writers we need to absorb the reader by creating all of this around them. Writers often focus on what things look (and, to a lesser degree, sound) like as if they're creating a film, and run the risk of alienating the other senses, which are often much more evocative. Describing the appearance of a run-down building can be made even more effective by giving the reader a hit of what it smells like. Taste and touch are perhaps much more familiar and able to ground your reader in your story.

I remember a teacher in secondary school asking us how many senses there were, and when someone in the class reeled off the five, the teacher (quite smugly, I thought) then asked about our other senses - sense of balance, sense of justice, sense of decency. You don't have to fill your text with these (or even mention them at all if they're not relevant) but they can be worth exploring. After all, a sense of right and wrong often predominate the stories we tell, however subtly.

7. Watch your exposition

You've introduced your reader to a couple of total strangers -- your first appearing main characters -- and so you feel obliged to tell us everything you can about them. In some novels it works well to give us an overview of the character and their relationship with the main character, whereas in others it's preferable to have titbits of information revealed as the story progresses. If you opt for the latter, don't force information out of your characters. However subtle an expositionary chat over a cup of tea might seem, readers can pick up on it. If your plot point or backstory doesn't come up in conversation, there's no shame in telling your reader. "Show don't tell" is a useful rule for the most part, but it can be broken.

8. Don't overwhelm your writing

Trim it down. Unfortunately, however much you love that one passage that took you two days and a packet of Oreos to write, if it's not working then it has to go. In general, less is more - an evocative sentence can do more for your reader than reams of description.

9. Proofread on a different device

This isn't a must-do, but reading on a different device can give your fresh eyes to look at your text more objectively. Stepping away from the Word document that you've laboured over for hundreds of hours can help you see your writing as something other than your own work. If you have a Kindle, send your document there; if it's a small piece of text you're working on, you could print it out; and if all else fails, there's always your phone. If you don't have another format you can use, a trick is to change the font on your computer -- try a sans serif so your eyes aren't tempted to glide through the text.

10. Ask another reader to check it over

The thing is you, you know your writing. Not only do you know exactly what it's meant to say so you might miss out on typos or forgotten words, but if you accidentally repeat yourself or a bit of information that you should have saved for later slips in, you might not recognise it. I recently read a piece where the author had been doing some reshuffling of her work: an exposition paragraph was included when the character was first introduced, and then it appeared again forty pages later when the character and main character met. Everything seems familiar: you've gone over it a dozen times. But a second pair of eyes can pick up on things like that, as well as any confusing details that can be easily straightened out once you realise they're there.

These are the most common aspects we see when editing, and these ten can be final consideration before submitting to a publisher or agent. Are there any tricks you use for editing that we could include? Leave a comment and let us know! (… I've allowed one exclamation mark in this post)




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