“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” ― Dr. Seuss
No better moment exists than when you first get hit with that brand spanking new premise for a story. There will be those of you who disagree, citing the signing of a contract and being handed a check for your work as a better moment, but I beg to differ. When a story first bursts to life in your mind, you are in the superposition of optimism. The story will be great, the best thing you’ve ever written and will be well-received by the washed and unwashed masses alike. No reality lurking about to place limitations on your spectacular vision at this point.
So, you do your prep work—outlining, research, character development, etc.—and pound out your first draft. And you’re happy with yourself. Real happy. Your first instinct is to share it with the world, but before you slap your baby in the mail or post it online, I need to break some bad news to you. Your story isn’t perfect. Not only is it filled with mistakes but it’s a tad overweight.
Since you most likely don’t have access to an editor at this stage in your writing career, the onus is on you to sharpen the edge of your blue-pencil blade to fix typos and cull clumsy or ambiguous phrasing.
If you’ve ever handed a story to someone to read, a story you were sure was error-free, you quickly learned that spotting mistakes in your own writing is difficult. The problem with self-editing is your mind glosses over errors because it knows what you meant to write and sometimes reads that instead of what you actually wrote. Fortunately, self-editing is a skill you can learn to hone in order to eliminate mistakes and improve the quality of your writing:
1. Don’t edit on the fly
I know this is a hard thing to do, but when you’re writing why not concentrate on getting your idea down on paper first? Sure, if you spot a typo it’s okay to correct it or to approach a sentence from a different angle in order to keep flow going, but when you begin deleting sections of your work or get caught in the dreaded rewrite loop—reworking the same paragraph over and over again—you’re placing road blocks between you and the forward progression of your story.
One solution to help break you out of this bad habit may be to try a distraction-free writing program like OmmWriter, Write or Die, Freedom, Grandview, and Don’t Look Back.
2. Set it and forget it
Once you’ve finished your latest magnum opus, stuff it in a drawer and go about your business before you even think about attempting to edit it. Concentrate instead on one of the many things you had to put aside in order to make time to write. What you’re doing here is stepping out from among the trees so you can see the entire forest.
You’ll find when you eventually return to your work, you’re approaching it with a new set of eyes that are better equipped to spot things you’ve missed, things that don’t work as well as you initially thought they did, inconsistencies, etc.
3. Big picture editing before sentence micromanagement
I know, I know, you’re eager to jump in and fine tooth comb your work sentence by sentence, and good on you for being that keen, but before you get into the detail work, I need you to consider examining your content and overall structure. Is there important information missing from the piece? Or a section that’s either irrelevant or seems out of place? How about scenes in desperate need of drastic revision?
Focus on the major issues before you begin tweaking words and sentences.
4. Put your work on a diet
You’ve over-written the piece. Uh-uh, don’t argue. You’re a writer who’s in love with the notion of stringing words together to convey ideas that plant images your audience’s mind, which means you over-write. Don’t be ashamed, most writers use more words than are absolutely necessary.
It’s time to get your piece into fighting shape by cutting its body mass index by ten percent. It’s easier to drop this excess poundage than you think, by simply losing mediocre phrases, unnecessary adjectives, and repeated points.
5. Don’t rely solely on spell-check
A spell-checking program can be your friend, but we all know from experience that it isn’t foolproof. The human eye is still the best tool for catching those sneaky homophone imposter stand-ins (to, too, two; it’s, its; yaw, yore, your, you’re; there, their, they’re), the ever-elusive missing words, auto-correct mishaps, etc.
6. Be backwards in your reading
Mistakes love sliding past you because they realize how tough it is proofing your own work. One of the ways to flip the script and catch them at their diabolical game is to start at the very end of your story and read it backwards. Sounds silly, but it works.
7. Push your darlings out of the nest
One of the awful things about being a writer is that you’re never one hundred percent completely satisfied with your work. But no matter how determined you are to touch the face of perfection, the hard fact is your writing will never be flawless. Accept it. You’re just going to have to settle for the best you can humanly manage. You’ll know when you’ve reached that point when you begin making slight adjustments, then reverting it back to its original form.
It’s time to stop, kiss your darlings on the forehead and push them out of the nest and let them fly into the world.
Actually, there are a plethora of editing tips that you can utilize before you get to this stage and instead of listing them all, I’ve decided to post the links below and allow you to browse them at your leisure and cherry pick the ones that work best for you.
And just for kicks I decided to link a list of homophones. Ya never know, might come in handy:
Sally forth and be writeful.