Note from Steam Powered Dreams Founder:
I am so excited for the start of our Second Draft series where we take a look at what to do once you’ve finished with your first draft and are heading towards publishing! I want to thank Andrew Scott, the author of this article, as well as Marie Elrich. They have both been working along side me to produce these articles for you! I’d also like to give a huge thank you to all the readers who took the time to read our articles. Without you, there would be no reason to write!
Finish it. Leave it. Read it. Cut it. Read it out loud. Cut it. Pretend you’re not you. Cut it again. Repeat from step two.
Before you scour the internet looking for submission guidelines and how you can make your work ‘stand out from the crowd’, before you worry about choosing the right font that combines professionalism with personality, and before you start telling people you’re a novelist because, “y’know, the real definition of a novelist is that you’ve written a novel,” and you have, so there. Before doing any of that, remember that, without proper editing, they are all as useful as gilding a lily or a turd.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Copy-editing, which is cleaning up the words; and you may have heard of developmental editing, which is getting the story right (both topics we’ll talk about in the coming weeks), but you may not have known that you have to do both of these things yourself before you pay a professional to do them better.
Before we go any further, I want to make sure you understand that all advice here is for the writer who has completed step one. Do not edit as you go, that way leads to treating every sentence as a mountain to climb rather than the louse-riddled step on the rope bridge to your salvation that it is. Finish your masterpiece and read this article afterwards. Go on, off you pop!
Done? Great! Welcome back. Below you’ll find different tips and tricks to help you with self-editing, now that you know how important it is.
The First Tool First
The spell-checker is the one device that has done more for making people seem literate over the past twenty years than millennia of talented rhetoric before, and it’s not to be scoffed at. No, it’s not going to catch all the times you used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’ but it’ll save you the job of looking up ‘necessary’ on dictionary.com, which will lead to finding out who invented ‘OMG’, which will lead to 45 minutes of clicking on synonyms to ‘improve your vocabulary’ whilst never actually writing a bloody word of your novel.
Why did we start with such an obvious tool? It’s simple. As a writer, you should use the tools at your disposal but use them in the right order. Stephen King, in his ‘Bible for Writers’ aptly titled ‘On Writing’, uses the analogy of a toolbox. You put all your main tools (your vocabulary and grammar) right on the top shelf. But before you even open your toolbox, imagine that your spell-checker is the toolbox itself that sits in full-view, reminding you that you have a job to do.
Let’s take websites as an example. One bad sentence with misspelled words can quickly cause it to lose its credibility, no matter how amazing the rest of the content is. The same goes for your manuscript. Agents, Publishers, and even Readers will send your manuscript to the bin in a flying arc if they find any in yours.
It isn’t just spelling that these checkers look for. Don’t ignore that wiggly green line that offers ‘Consider Revising’. Approach as if it’s a snake that hasn’t moved in an inordinate amount of time, but do approach it. Snobbery is poison in self-editing. The wiggly line isn’t there because your computer wants to avenge your choice to keep that earlier sentence in the passive; it’s there for a reason. If you’re unsure as to why you used that semi-colon, well, consider revising it. Go away and learn how they work and, if you don’t want to do that, take the bloody thing out and write two easier sentences that get your point across. You don’t get points for complexity in writing.
Bottom line is that spell check is important. Use it, but with care and in constant companionship with your own brain.
Walk away. Put it in a drawer, in the freezer, bury it in a plastic bag in the garden and walk away. For two weeks, maybe more. If you’re writing articles, such as this one, and you don’t have the luxury of a fortnight, then make it two hours or twenty minutes. Walk out of your room and read something better written by somebody else, but either way, leave it. It will have the same effect as finding dirty laundry. You can’t smell it now, but walking out of your bedroom and taking a bath, you’ll come back and be able to sniff out that forgotten sock under your bed like a bloodhound.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter how long you leave it, what matters is that you come back to it with ‘fresh eyes’. You want to treat your writing as if you were standing in a bookshop and you’ve opened to the first page for the very first time. Does it tempt you? Begging you to see how long you can stand reading it before you get tired? Or does it make you want to scoff and ram it back onto the shelf while cursing the ‘luck’ of some people who ‘managed to get that junk published’?
Remember, you are the first reader and it’s your job to make sure you’re entertained, at least before boring somebody else with it.
There’s nothing ambiguous to that title. You love beautiful sentences, that’s why you write, but not everything has to be a Dutch triptych. The best sentences are colour fields, with only one thing to say. For that reason, cut.
Neil Gaiman said that one of the things he learned from journalism and writing children’s books was to treat writing as if you had to pay for every word you put down. Make your words valuable, make each one as indispensable as the breaths you take.
When you think of your words as something tangible, they become more valuable and you realize that too many can clutter up the room.
A mentor of Stephen King’s gave him two pieces of advice when he was a teenager that he considered relevant enough years later to add to “On Writing”:
“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
We’ll come back to the second piece King received later, for now this is a useful dictum to keep in mind when you’re enjoying your descriptions, or your taste for metaphor. No doubt there’s a reader out there who’ll accept these dalliances, possibly even enjoy them, but most readers are reading for the story alone.
This doesn’t mean you have to bury your love of the sentence, it just means that you have to combine that love with the functionality that each sentence must guide your reader through the story. They’re on a journey through a dark tunnel and your sentences are the torches that guide them through. If they’re too big or too many, they’re unlikely to make it out the other side.
Read It Out Loud
After you’ve winnowed out the inessential words, read it through again. The whole thing. Read every word and read them to any inanimate object you have at hand. Diane Athill had this to say about reading out loud:
“Read it out loud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can only be got right by ear).”
When you run out of breath before the end of the sentence you need to cut again, or at least add a comma or two. When you find yourself reading in monotone then there’s no bounce to your phrases. Think of the masters of the ‘sentence’, Bradbury, Gaiman, Clark Ashton Smith, each sentence feels like it’s nourishing you, making you a better human. Even those predictable but loveable Eric Ambler books still feel like you’re eating a chocolate-chip cookie. There might not be any surprises in the cookie, but you enjoyed every bite and feel sad for it to end.
And nowhere is this act more important than when it comes to dialogue. Do people actually talk that way? Sure, if your story takes place on Mars they’re unlikely to talk with a lilting brogue, but it still has to sound ‘natural’ to get your point across, to create a character. When you read it out loud, the bad phrases screech like nails on a blackboard.
An easy trick, but one that should be used sparingly, is to qualify drab dialogue with adverbs. “He shouted sheepishly.” “She whispered vociferously.” However, if you do decide to go down this route then do be aware that you’ll be making an enemy of the majority of the great writers over the years. Gaiman scoured American Gods for ‘inessential’ adverbs after he read “On Writing.” Elmore Leonard actually called using them a “mortal sin”. He says they distract and interrupt the exchange:
“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’”.
Read it out loud. Your prose will flow at the right pace and you’re less likely to have Leonard and King at your door with pitchforks and kindling.
Give It Away … Later!
The second piece of advice King got from his first editor was this:
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
A question we get asked quite often is when and to whom should you send your manuscript. The short answer is we think you should most definitely send your manuscript to other people. Pay them, if you can – and finding somebody invested in the final product would be even better – but the writing with the door closed has to come first.
What this means is that your first draft, and possibly your second and third, should be your own. No one else should see them. They are there for you to get your ideas down and start to make a story with them. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about what you wrote, ask others opinions about certain concepts, but keep the writing for yourself.
Self editing can be hard, and it can take some of the fun out of writing but it is the most important step, after completing that first draft. Remember to take joy in writing but take it seriously too. Writing is a solitary task and that moment of glory you may be thinking about, of signing books in Barnes & Noble, comes after years of being alone with the blinking cursor on the screen, and even then it may not come at all. Love the words, but hone your craft.
Most importantly, finish what you’re working on and THEN complete the steps above. It’s a long and arduous process with very little return on your investment in time, but like Margaret Atwood said:
“Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but – essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
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The next article in the Second Draft series will introduce you to editors and why they are important.