FIRST DEFENSE. Most authors out there have a hard enough time coming up with a great story, and perhaps even more so writing one that is free of plot holes and loads of grammatical errors. Maybe some of you out there are terrible at spelling and word usage, and don’t know a past participle from a pom-pom. But whether you’re self-publishing or planning to submit to an agent or publisher, make sure your writing is the best it can be. You are the first defense against sloppy sentence structure, dippy dialog, and muddled middles. If you’re self-publishing and opt not to hire an editor to give your work a final going-over, you are your only defense against poor writing habits. Nobody can catch everything, but you should strive to catch most everything before your story lands in the hands of your readers, whether they’re customers buying your book direct, or an editor or agent reviewing your work for publishing/representation.
REVISING 1-2-3. Being your own editor means you’ll have to do everything when it comes to editing and revising. This may seem like an insurmountable task too big to even think about, but it can be done if you do it in stages rather than trying to do everything all at once.
1, FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. It’s okay to fix a few misspellings and punctuation errors along the way as your write your story. But you have to finish your story before you can move into the revision/review stage. If you keep going over the same parts of your story to fix little things and tinker with it, you’ll never finish. So you need to keep moving forward until you have a complete first draft. Then you can start the serious work of fixing what needs fixed.
2. GIVE IT A REST. Give your story two weeks or so to sit without going in and tinkering with it. This gives you time to step away from it so that you can come back later with a fresh perspective when you look at it with a critical eye. This step is really important, so don’t skip it. Repeat this step between each draft so that when you make major rewriting changes and then come back to review the finished product, you’ll be looking at it with a more independent critical eye.
4. BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING. The first thing to look at is how your story starts. Depending on what kind of story you’re writing – action thriller as opposed to psychological suspense, for instance – your beginning can be vastly different. You may start with a prologue, or not. But no matter how you start your story, the beginning must do one thing and do it well – grab the reader’s attention and not let go. One way to guarantee that it starts well is to craft a killer opening line and make sure the rest of your writing backs it up.
Also make sure your major characters show some kind of change or growth as a result of the central conflict or problem in the story. This is called character arc or character development. Your main character should be affected significantly through the course of the story. If he isn’t, then maybe you don’t have a story and need to pay more attention to this aspect. Many readers read stories because they are interested in the characters and what happens to them. Make sure you have something interesting happening to interesting characters.
6. DIALOG. Does your dialog ‘sound’ realistic and authentic? If everyone in your story spends a lot of time with ‘how do you do’ and ‘fine weather we’re having,’ you need to go back and make some major dialog changes.
Dialog in your story documents real-time interaction between your characters. Eliminate ‘talking heads’ where characters talk to each other about things they both know, simply to let the reader know what’s going on. Remember, it is not the characters’ job to explain the story to the reader every step of the way through dialog – that’s not the best way to tell a story. Your job is to tell the story in an interesting and unique way. Sometimes, the more subtle your storytelling methods, the better the story will be. In dialog, sometimes what isn’t said between characters can do more to tell what’s really going on, so make sure everything coming out of your characters’ mouths is critical to the story progression and also shows what kind of people they are and how they’re feeling at any given moment in the story.
Do your characters have a specific ‘voice’ that fits their personality and colloquial speech patterns, according to their background? You don’t want to give your cowboy transplanted to New York a hackney accent. And if you give a character an unusual speech pattern to denote regional source, ethnicity, or nationality, don’t go to extremes to spell it like it sounds. An occasional hint (a dropped ‘g’ at the end of a few words, for instance) may be just enough, and better than some garbled misspelled mess that no one can interpret.
7. BALANCE. So many stories suffer from the classic ‘sagging middle’ – meaning a whole lot of stuff happens, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the central conflict or problem that started the story in the first place. Many writers get sidetracked and dump a bunch of background information somewhere in the middle, weighing the middle of the story down with anecdotal or frivolous scenes that don’t need to be there, or maybe could be fed to the reader in smaller chunks at more opportune points in the story rather than dumping it all in the middle. And sometimes authors get sidetracked, led astray by an interesting support character who threatens to take over the story and steal the show. As you read through your story, make sure it stays on track. An occasional detour is fine for comic relief or to create a momentary lull of false security, but don’t let this take your story off course, and make sure such detours are minor and seem to be a natural momentary departure for the story.
But what if your story is mostly psychological, and has a lot of introspection? Well, you can add suspense there too by using techniques like ending your chapters or scenes with a surprise revelation so the reader wants to jump forward and find out what happens next. If you set up events that the reader knows will result in consequences, then the reader’s going to have this ‘oh no’ feeling hovering in the back of her mind as she wonders when the other shoe’s going to drop. That creates suspense without having to rely solely on a bunch of action like car chases, shootouts, and things constantly blowing up.
10. THE END IS NOT THE END. Toward the end of your story, you should have maneuvered the reader to the point where the ‘aha’ moment happens – the killer is revealed, the little boy is found alive, the cheating spouse is finally found out, etc. Along the way, you should have planted clues right in front of the reader but not made them easily identifiable as clues. Don’t let yourself be accused of deliberately withholding information from your reader or overplaying your hand. You have to maintain a balance of being fair with your reader while still maintaining a sense of mystery and suspense.
So, what if you don’t have a mystery or thriller on your hands? You still have to lead the reader to a logical conclusion for your story, with lots of spills and upsets along the way – emotional or physical, doesn’t matter. The point is, you should have a story with a beginning, middle, and end where a final conclusion is reached.
You can spend a few pages after the denouement to summarize a few things for the reader and get your characters set on a new path. But the end should feel like the end, even if you have another installment planned for a series. However, unless you are serializing a novel in segments, each book should form a complete story arc, and the conclusion should be satisfying even though a few questions or a new problem arise to carry on in another book.
But most importantly, the end should sell your readers on your next book, whether it’s another series installment or a new story altogether. How does your ending sell your next book? Well, if it’s good, then readers will be looking for more from you. Make sure you have something ready soon.
And now you’ve reached the end, and you’re done. Right? Don’t breathe that sigh of relief just yet...
11. GET THE GRAMMAR GREMLINS BEFORE THEY GET YOU. So, you’ve reached the end of the story and moved a few scenes around that seemed out of order, and fixed all the logistics of how your characters get from point A to point C. Now you’re ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of line editing. This means you’re going to have to read through your story again, from the beginning, but more carefully. This is where you’re probably going to want to take a break and come back later. That’s okay, we’ll wait...
Ah, you’re back and ready for the ‘line edit’ phase of revising your story. In this step, you’re going to need some writing resources – a trustworthy online dictionary (preferably free), or a printed dictionary, and some online or printed grammar resources for punctuation, sentence structure, and other rules of grammar. You’ll need to maintain a keen eye for any and all of the following as you read through your story:
● Sentence structure and how it affects the reading flow
Basically your sentences should be constructed so that length mimics pacing. Short sentences for fast-paced action scenes or dialog where an argument ensues. Sentence fragments that are missing a subject or verb, mainly consist of a phrase not intended to act as a standalone sentence. Sentence fragments disrupt reading flow because the reader expects to see something that is not there and pauses to make the logical connection to a previous sentence. Fragments are permissible when they are part of your writing style but should not be overused simply because they will lose their impact of disruption of the reading flow, and your writing of fragments will just look like poor or lazy writing that’s choppy and hard to read. Longer sentences tend to ‘muddy the waters,’ so those should be reserved for scenes where the pacing is more relaxed. Run-on sentences covering a page or more should be avoided unless it is a specific stylistic choice to mimic stream of consciousness writing. Be forewarned that reading sentences like this can be very exhausting for the reader, and may cause readers to stop reading when the process becomes too trying.
● Structural mechanics of modifying phrases and their placement within sentences
Misplaced modifiers are a source of reading confusion and should be eliminated. Example: She hung her coat on the coat tree that had a cute fringed collar. The phrase ‘that had a cute fringed collar’ is supposed to describe ‘the coat,’ not ‘the coat tree,’ and should therefore be placed as close as possible to the noun being modified. The corrected sentence makes more sense: She hung her coat that had a cute fringed collar on the coat tree. A bonus would be to eliminate unnecessary wordiness and write: She hung her coat with its cute fringed collar on the coat tree.
● Paragraph structure in relation to dialog and sentence content relationships
Paragraphs are groups of sentences put together because they all deal with the same subject or idea. Paragraphs are designed to feed information to the reader in small, easy to absorb chunks. A new paragraph should be started with the shift to a new subject, or the introduction of a different time frame or perspective or train of thought. Avoid paragraphs several pages long – that’s a sure sign that your writing needs better organization and structure, because it will be hard to read as a miasma of unending words with no logical breaks afforded by paragraphs.
● Punctuation, especially for dialog
Sentence punctuation indicates natural stops in though to allow the reader to absorb what is read before moving on to the next sentence. Poor punctuation can create confusion in the idea-absorption process. Dialog has specific rules for punctuation in regard to the ‘tag’ or narrative part of the dialog sentence. Study proper punctuation carefully to make sure you understand what’s required to give your dialog the format readers expect. And remember, use only speech-delivery verbs like ‘said’ or ‘exclaimed’ and not ‘huffed’ or ‘laughed’ to indicate a character is speaking. Don’t overuse tags like ‘he said.’ The idea is to let the reader know who’s speaking by using as few tags as necessary. The more characters involved in a conversation, the more necessary it will be to add tags identifying who is saying what. And don’t put the cart before the horse by putting a sentence before or after the dialog explaining that the character is going to or has said something. That’s totally unnecessarily over-telling. When the reader reads the dialog, the reader will be aware that the character has said something. Example of what NOT to do: Jack didn’t like the idea at all and was going to tell Marsha right now just what he thought. “Marsha, I don’t like this idea at all.” See how redundant that is? The dialog sentence tells everything all by itself and doesn’t need that other explanatory sentence to help out. It’s just too much.
● Word usage
Lie and lay, to and too, its and it’s, their and they’re, were and where ... all these are common pairs that are easily and often confused by writers who don’t understand the difference and don’t know the proper usage. Make sure you are not one of those writers. Another common mistake is to use a similar word for another – except for accept, for instance. None of these words are interchangeable, so don’t mix up their usage indiscriminately. If you’re not sure, LOOK IT UP. That’s what the dictionary is for.
● General wordiness
Writers who are sloppy about sentence structure and writing in general will often end up with 200,000-word tomes because about half that word count is due to unnecessary wordiness. The examples above and repeated below are common culprits...
Redundancy: Jack didn’t like the idea at all and was going to tell Marsha right now just what he thought. “Marsha, I don’t like this idea at all.”
Extra unnecessary words like ‘that’ or ‘in order to’. Example: She hung her coat that had a cute fringed collar on the coat tree. A bonus would be to eliminate unnecessary wordiness and write: She hung her coat with its cute fringed collar on the coat tree. Note that the second example is slightly shorter than the first. In general, eliminating unnecessary words could cut word count by a quarter.
THAT’S NOT ALL, FOLKS! There is much more to revising and self-editing than what’s been outlined here. These are just some of the highlights. Basically, whatever you can do to make your writing easier to read will make it stronger. So, don’t be afraid to wear the self-editing hat. It’s a lot of work, but in the long run it will pay off because it will make your writing better. And it could mean the difference between rejection or acceptance, or a one-star or a five-star review.
Patricia Morrison, Penumbra Publishing