Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Top Ten Essential Self-Editing Tips

Writers can break every style rule if it is with intent and furthers the manuscript.  But nothing screams newbie like a flood of adverbs and every sentence beginning with a gerund.  These tips won’t guarantee publication, but be warned, ignoring them will have any mag worthy of your adoration dragging your submission into the trash icon.  Before you send your work out into the cruel world of publishing, make sure you clothe it in well-edited garb.  I recommend you read your final draft ten times if you are a beginning writer, once for each of these checks.  You will probably find other errors to correct as you do, so much the better.  If this seems like too much trouble (first lesson for would be writers: it is damn hard work), check any article or story in The New Yorker, New York Times or other publication holding high standards and see how many times their writers ignore these tips. 

  1. Watch out for passive voice. It creeps up on the best of us.  Remember the rule:  Use “Do not use passive voice,” instead of “Passive voice should not be used.” 
  2. Ration those adverbs, the ly word,s and if you use them, treat them as though they will bite you.  (Notice I didn’t say use them sparingly!)  When you force yourself to give up writer’s shorthand, you strengthen your prose.
  3. Check your use of had, as in I had called him after I had put my dinner in the microwave last night and he had called me back before I had gone to bed.   For this one, drop the had as soon as you establish past tense.  “I had called him after I put my dinner in the microwave last night and he called me back before I went to bed.”
  4. Ditch non-specific adjectives such as wonderful, beautiful, amazing and terrific, unless they are in dialogue and reveal character, e.g., someone who says everything is wonderful as a way of demonstrating she blinds herself to unhappy realities.   A beautiful sunset to you might be ordinary to me.  Rather, let the reader see what is beautiful. The setting sun threw a mantle of orange and red over the horizon.  Or some such.  Specificity is the writer’s best friend. 
  5. Read for word repetition.  Never use the same word twice in a sentence, and don’t allow it to show up more than twice in the same paragraph, once if it is a short paragraph.  The OED lists almost 172,000 words in the English language.  Find an alternative.
  6. Check that you don’t say the same thing two or three different ways.  If you do, pick the one you like best and delete the others.  A note to writers who find it hard to delete a favorite sentence.  Use it someplace else or realize that if you can write something that good once, you can do it again another time.
  7. Tighten your prose by using sentences with the fewest words possible and words with the fewest letters.  Think about this:  is it more important to show off your vocabulary or hold onto your reader?
  8. Check your characters’ names.  Don’t have them beginning with the same letter or your reader will get confused.
  9. Rein in those gerunds, especially at the beginning of a paragraph.  Running down the street, she tripped on a tree branch slows down the action, whereas putting the action first, She tripped on a tree branch . . .gets the blood racing.
  10. Punctuation, punctuation, punctuation.  Don’t confuse your reader with a misplaced or absent punctuation mark.  Read Eats Shoots Leaves if you need a refresher.

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