I’ve been engaged with a group of writers fairly actively lately exchanging critiques. It has been a thoroughly rewarding process, allowing me to hone my own craft whilst helping others. I find critiquing someone else’s work much easier than my own, as I have distance and can examine it in more detail. Along the way, I learn more about what I think works vs. what doesn’t, and my own writing also improves.
As part of this process, I find there are a number of pieces of advice that I provide regularly. Some are things I have learned through experimentation, some from an earlier age when I was still in school. Most, however, have come from other writers, and from helpful blog posts and articles.
I’ve decided to summarise my process and advice for editing your own work here. I’ll try to reference out as much as possible to the source of any rules I include.
I plan to return to this post regularly and update it as my toolbox updates.
Note: This is focused on copy editing. It is also not to suggest I feel my work doesn’t need professional editing afterwards. This is the editing I do before I let anyone else look at my writing (including editors).
Find a group
Yes, this article is about self-editing. However, and I can’t stress this enough — find a group. Of strangers.
Our loved ones encourage us, but to grow we also need objective truth. Additionally, it is preferable that truth is delivered in a constructive manner that helps us improve.
I joined an online community of writers dedicated to critiquing (Scribophile) and it has been invaluable. They have a competitor called LitReactor which also seems very good, but I haven’t engaged with that community yet.
Trying to find all errors in your work in one pass is too hard. It takes multiple reads to find
all most (let’s not kid ourselves) of the issues. However, I find if I try to look for everything every read-through, I end up missing more. From what I have read, I am not alone. Instead, complete multiple reads of your work, each time focusing on one specific type of issue. For instance:
- Dialogue tags
- Redundant words.
If you spot something else whilst you read through, mark it for later or fix it, but keep your search focused each pass.
Read out loud
Many writers offer this advice and I echo it here. Make sure you read your writing out loud. You don’t have to do it every time, but it needs to be done.
What to look for
Sentence & paragraph length
Variety is the spice of life. Reading quickly becomes a chore when the text is monotonous. This includes writing where sentences and paragraphs are too similar in length. Vary your writing, making sure to intersperse long sentences / paragraphs with short ones.
In addition to variation, beware allowing sentences becoming too long. Long sentences are harder to read, and slow the reader down. This impacts pacing, degrades clarity, and risks losing the reader’s interest.
When considering if a sentence is too long, take into account the context of the passage. Action / fast-moving sequences benefit from short sentences — allowing the reader to speed up and “feel” the pace of the action. There are places where long, even convoluted sentences may be appropriate. My rule of thumb is to consider the context appropriateness, and then make sure that these long sentences are kept to a minimum.
Sentence & paragraph starters
Check what words you use to start your sentences and paragraphs. As above, variety is key.
He stood up, grabbing his keys. He went to the door. He realised he had forgotten his coat. He went back to get it….
There are few things more boring than long sections of text in which the sentences all (or predominantly) start with the same word (unless you are repeating a word or phrase for dramatic emphasis). Experiment with different sentence structures to break up text such as above.
Show vs. tell
There are lots of articles already about show vs. tell and I’d rather not create another. At its core, this is about helping the reader experience the action, rather than merely hearing a report on it from a narrator. I recommend reading this useful Scribophile article on the subject.
This help article from Autocrit provides some advice on spotting “telling.”
As with all things, there are exceptions. Sometimes “telling” is the best approach to an event. Use your judgement, but ask the question.
Active voice vs. passive voice
Active and passive voice is about sentence structure. Active voice is where the focus is on the person or thing doing the action, where passive voice the focus is on a person or thing having the action done to them.
Active: A roaring wind buffeted the ramshackle hut. [The wind is doing the action]
Passive: The ramshackle hut was buffeted by a roaring wind. [The hut is having the action done to it]
The generally espoused theory is that active voice is more engaging for the reader, where passive voice feels more objective (and therefore better for more formal writing such as reports). I recommend reading this Scribophile article on passive vs. active voice.
As always, no rule is absolute, and the passive voice can be very useful. I found this article defending the passive voice helpful in explaining why you might want to use passive voice.
“Why do you bring up dialogue tags?” she asked.
Dialogue tags — or dialogue attribution — can be contentious. There are many who espouse only ever using the basic “he said/she said.” I’m not quite so hard-line, but I agree any attribution more exotic than the basics (said, replied, asked, etc) should be used sparingly, and questioned during editing to confirm they are appropriate. If you want to use other attribution tags, be careful to make sure the description is possible for talking. For instance:
“Why is it always me?” he sighed.
You can’t actually “sigh” a sentence. However, you can sigh before or after a statement:
He sighed. “Why is it always me?”
There is a useful article on using dialogue tags here.
Adverbs in dialogue tags
Adverbs in dialogue tags are generally considered a no-no. For instance:
“I will not be ignored!” she said angrily.
The above reads ok, but “angrily” is redundant. In this case their statement (and the exclamation mark) make it clear they are angry. The general rule is to strive for dialogue and actions that convey this meaning, without resorting to adverbs. If you wanted to really emphasise their anger in the above:
“I will not be ignored!” she yelled, slamming the door.
There is an Autocrit support article on adverbs in dialogue here. See “adverbs” below for more detail.
Adverbs are wonderful things — until you start editing. All those lovely “-ly” words in your writing? Question them. All of them.
Adverbs have a place, but should only be used when you are certain there isn’t a single verb that can stand alone. By definition, if you are using an adverb, it means the verb you have chosen doesn’t convey the correct meaning by itself. The result is a longer sentence that is watered down. If you can, find that magical verb that provides the meaning you want, but without the additional adverb. This results in a stronger sentence. For example:
“He ran quickly down the road.”
“He sprinted down the road.”
The second sentence is stronger — it is shorter and sharper. I go into the use of adverbs more on this dedicated post.
“And” is a dangerous word. We tend to overuse it when drafting, linking many related ideas together in daisy chains of phenomenal length. The result are sentences that become so long they are slow to read (readers have to slow down to hold it all in whilst completing the sentence) which affects the sense of pace and can be frustrating. Additionally, when overused the word tends to repeat a lot, and repeating words annoy readers.
I always make sure when editing to stop and question every instance of the word. Do I need it? Can I restructure the sentence to remove the word? Would it flow better if I broke the sentence into two?
Less is more. When we talk conversationally, we often include a lot of filler words, such as “that,” “then,” or “just.” Many of us also have a tendency to include them in our first drafts. These words dilute our sentences — adding no value and taking up space (and reading time). Hunt them. Remove them with extreme prejudice. For example:
First draft: It was then that he realised the problem, he just didn’t know what to do.
Trimmed: It was then he realised the problem, he didn’t know what to do.
See? The second version still makes perfect sense, but is cleaner.
There is a second type of redundancy I watch out for as well — restating facts, or stating the obvious. Try to avoid restating something you have already told the reader, unless you do so for emphasis. For instance:
Allison crouched in the shadows, keeping quiet. Her muscles ached from crouching for so long.
The first sentence tells us Allison is crouching, telling us again in the second sentence is a waste of words. Instead, you could put:
Allison crouched in the shadows, keeping quiet. Her muscles ached, and she yearned to move.
The second example uses a similar number of words, but removes the repetition / redundancy and instead adds more to the imagery.
The second aspect of this one is stating the obvious — if the reader should know something without being told by the events or actions that have happened, don’t hit them over the head with it.
Cheating (using tools) — updated April 2017
I cheat! I use tools to help me complete my editing passes faster, and with more accuracy. You don’t need to do this, but it can be very useful. From my inclusion of their support articles above, you can probably guess I’ve used Autocrit. It isn’t cheap, but I’ve found it to be a useful tool. Just recently I’ve adopted ProWritingAid — a competitor to AutoCrit. This tool checks all the same things as AutoCrit, though there are some subtle differences in what each picks up. I’ve found ProWritingAid has a more robust grammar engine, and — most importantly — a great suite of apps in addition to the web app. There is a windows and mac desktop client, which can edit word, markdown, and scrivener files directly, there is an integrated add-in for Word on Windows, and a chrome browser extension.
I feel Microsoft Word deserves a mention here as well. Late last year / early this year Microsoft made good on its promise to release a more powerful grammar checker geared towards writers. If you have an Office subscription and keep up-to-date, you should have this (at least on Windows, I don’t know if it is out on Mac). I’ve been impressed with it so far. It isn’t as good as the paid services above, but it is a huge improvement over the previous word tool.
What about you?
I’d love to hear if anyone has other things they look for? Other techniques they use? Or other tools they recommend.