Writing Course: Self-Editing Your Work

You have written a story – short story or novel, it doesn’t matter. Now it is time to self-edit it. It is easy to find flaws in other people’s work, but quite difficult to recognise them in your own.

There are three components of self-editing:

1. line/copy-editing,
2. sentence editing,
3. content editing.

Line/Copy-editing

A point to remember, whilst the spell check in word processors will identify some misspelt words, you should never rely on it when self-editing as they do not pick up words that are correctly spelled but used in the wrong context (such as to, too, two, their, there, would, wood).

However, you should use the ‘find and replace’ function to check the following:

What to Look For What to Do
Words ending with ‘ly’ Adverbs tell rather than show. A lot of the time if you strengthen the verb, you can eliminate the adverb.
and, so, but, however, because Avoid connectives where possible. Try a full stop and make two sentences, or rearrange and shorten the sentence.
that If the sentence reads well without it, delete it.
thing, stuff Don’t be lazy! Be specific.
he, she, him, her, his, hers If you have two or more characters, don’t rely on pronouns as the reader can become confused as to who is doing/saying what.

Sentence Editing

Once you’ve completed the basic line/copy-edit to correct spelling and grammar, you will need to examine your sentences and the words used. Ask yourself these questions:

Is the language specific, strong?
Do your words allow visualisation?
Is the main character well developed, convincing?
Will the reader sympathise with the main character?
Is there jargon or cliches that should be removed?
Are you too wordy or concise?
Is the word choice supportive of the setting?
Is the tone consistent?
Are there shifts in tone, tense, style or voice?
Is the dialogue convincing?
Does the dialogue move the story along?
Does the dialogue reveal character, conflict or emotion?

Content Editing

The course tackles this last but I feel this should be the first thing you do as major changes could result which may mean the work you’ve already completed in the line/copy-edit and sentence edit has been wasted.

Some more questions you should ask yourself:

What is your story about?
Can you sum up, in one sentence, what you story is about?
Are you saying what you want to say?
What does the main character want? Is this clear from the start?
Where is the story set? Is it important?
Will the reader relate to the main character?
Does the story have direction?
Is there a catchy beginning?
Is the conflict clear from the beginning?
Do the characters face interesting obstacles and make difficult decisions?
Does every action have cause and effect?
Is the main character well developed and interesting?
What is the character’s ruling passion or fatal flaw?
Does the character struggle, grow, change, make a stand?
Is the right character telling the story?
Does the setting create the right mood, have a strong sense of time and place, further the theme and plot?
Is there continuance, consistency and credibility?
Has the point of view or tense changed?
Are the characters believable?
Is the narrative voice right for the story?

Professional Presentation

Once the story has been written, rewritten and edited until it is the best it can be, it is time to take steps to ‘present’ your work in a professional manner.

I would recommend you using William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format Website as a guide, but here’s a quick checklist:

  • Use A4 good quality white paper
  • Use no less than 12 point black font
  • Never use colour ink
  • Use double spacing for manuscript content
  • Use a title page, or more often these days, insert the following onto the first page of the manuscript:
      story title
      author’s name
      approximate word count
      full name, address and contact details
  • Insert into top header, except first page, right aligned, in the following format:
      story title/ author’s surname / page number
  • Left justify content.
  • Make sure there is no extra white space between paragraphs and the first line of each paragraph is indented up to five spaces (3 is a good number).
  • Never bind pages.
  • Always keep a backup copy on disk (or, do what I do, email yourself a copy for safe keeping).
  • Most important, always read the publisher guidelines and do as directed. Always!

 

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Editing Course: Using Technology

Editing and proofreading is not just about printed matter/publications, it also involves working with other technology such as:

A website, where you would proof the pages on-screen and either email, fax or post back the corrections.

A PDF document, where you would proof the document on-screen and email back the corrections.

A Word, RTF or other soft document created in a word processor, where you would edit the document using “Track Changes” and email it back to the client.

An editor/proofreader must understand the processes of doing their work using technology. However, it is up to the individual if these services are offered. Of course, the more flexible you are, the better for you.

How Much to Charge

To start with you would probably charge about $20 – $25 per hour, but this will increase to $25 – $35 per hour as you gain experience. This is the same amount you would charge to edit/proofread hard copies.

Remember, proofreading attracts a lower fee – $20 – $25 per hour. Copyediting is around $25 – $35 per hour. And substantive editing is $40 upwards.

Keep in mind also that you will probably have to print out the soft document as it is usually easier to work with.

Technology Jargon

It is always helpful to know the jargon when using technology. Here is a short list of meanings:

These days it is not uncommon to see “e” in front of words (for example, email, e-zine, e-commerce, ebooks). The “e” means electronic.

“Uploading files” means sending files.

“Downloading files” means receiving files.

“PDF” means portable document format.

“RTF” means rich text format.

“Log in” means to access an account (and is two words).

When editing/proofreading, it is important to remember the following:

Internet should always be spelt with a capital “I” as it is a proper noun.

World Wide Web should always be capitalised too, for the same reason.

Web, when referring to the Internet, should be capitalised as it is the formal abbreviation of a proper noun.

Email can be hyphenated (e-mail) or can be written without the hyphen (email), but all other “e” words should be written with the hyphen, unless house-style dictates otherwise.

Using Spelling and Grammar Checkers

It is dicey to use spell checkers included in word processors as they are unreliable.

Use them only if you have the right one installed for your location (ie it is no use using a US spell checker if you are in Australia), and you only use it to pick up everyday typos at a glance. Do not depend on them and always edit your own work for errors.

Remember, these checkers are often wrong!

What would the reader do?

Have you ever read a book and not accepted the character’s actions? Have you ever declared aloud, “That’s stupid, no one would do that.” I have. And I’ve heard other people say it too. But in all honesty, how do you know how you’d really react if confronted with a axe-wielding maniac or if you unexpectedly found yourself in an unknown world. How do you know how you’d truly feel if a stranger snatched your child from your side and took off with him? How do you know what you’d instinctively do if a gun was held at your head. How would you know, unless you experienced it yourself.

Sitting comfortably in your lounge room reading about a character who experiences these things is not the same as facing the situation in real life. Yes, as you read, you might feel your heart quicken and you may even recognise a quiver of fear run up your spine, but that’s as far as it goes. You don’t have to rely on your legs to carry you to safety. You don’t have to hope your scream is loud enough to wake the neighbours. You don’t have to actually fear for your life or make a snap decision. And in that moment of terror, how do you know you’ll be capable of making a snap decision? You can’t know until you are in the situation.

I didn’t accept this until I reacted to the news of my son’s passing. Being such a practical, straight laced, focused person I never thought for a second that I would collapse in a heap on the floor. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I went down into the foetal position and sobbed. If anyone had suggested that I’d do such a thing, I would have smirked and said, “I don’t think so! That’s just not me.” And I would have meant it, but I would have been wrong.

It’s reasonable to say that you don’t think you’d react in the same way as the character, but you cannot say their reaction is totally wrong. Everyone reacts differently and that reaction can change due to their mental status at the time or the emotional investment they have in the situation or past experiences of a similar nature or just from shock. You might view the reaction of a character in a book as silly or stupid, you may even laugh, but if faced with the situation yourself you will soon discover that we don’t always react the way we think we will.

Many years ago, I wrote a rape scene. I have never been raped, but my instincts told me that I wouldn’t necessarily scream. I think I would, however, fight against the violation to the end and I guess I’d keep all my strength for that instead of wasting it on screaming. I hope I’m never in the situation to find out what I really would do. However, several critiquers told me that the scene was not realistic. They felt the lack of screaming flattened the scene and they urged me to do a rewrite. This brought to mind an incident when I was about 15 years old. I was sitting with my parents, watching a movie, when the loudest, most terrifying, scream penetrated our home and announced that someone was in desperate trouble. We rushed outside, as did a lot of our neighbours, to find a young woman running and screaming at the top of her lungs. The man chasing her quickly took off into the shadows, but was caught by police later. Upon seeing us, the woman made a bee line directly to my father and begged him to help her. She later told us that the man was waiting in the bushes near the bus stop and pounced on her as soon as the bus disappeared around the corner. Her wild screams saved her from events I would rather not think about.

Yet whilst I was thinking about the comments I received on my scene, I concluded that it wasn’t wrong. Just because the majority of readers felt they would scream bloody murder, it doesn’t mean I wrote the scene incorrectly. I decided to keep it as it was. Then…several days later I received an email from a critiquer who had read the scene but hadn’t offered her opinion, but she had seen what the others had said to me. She had taken several days to think about it and then she decided that for my sake (and for the sake of the scene) she had to speak up. She had been raped! She told me that reading the scene bought it all back – the emotion, the fear. She said that despite what everyone else thought, the scene (to her) was more realistic than any other she had ever read. Her experience was exactly like my scene. My words had connected with her on the deepest level and, although she was battling with past demons because of what she’d read, she needed me to know that my scene was good, that it didn’t need changing.

She understood that for me it was just a scene, but she opened up to me like I was another rape victim. My words connected us and she shared so much of her experience with me that saying I was grateful just didn’t feel right…or appropriate. I find myself wondering, all these years later, if she realised her emails boosted my confidence as a writer. If I could connect to one person in that way, perhaps I could connect to others…that thought drove me on.

But why have I brought this up today? On the train this morning I sat behind two young women discussing a book they had both finished reading recently. Unfortunately, I don’t know what book they were referring to, but what caught my interest was their conversation on how they felt the main character’s reactions were totally wrong. When I heard one of them say, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t react like that. Would you?”, it made me think of that rape scene. Surely readers don’t expect everyone to react in the exact same way they do. Do they? As a writer, I must chose carefully how I want my characters to react to the situations I put them in. Are they going to do what everyone expects of them, or are they going to react in the way befitting their personality? I will chose the reaction for their personality every time! To do anything else, just wouldn’t seem right.

Some Mad Hope: When Nothing Is Good

I often roam the internet, making my way from one website to another, reading hundreds of words written by other people.  Those words sometimes anger me, at other times they make me cry, but today I found words that inspire.

Some Mad Hope: When Nothing Is Good.

This is a post that reminds us about the small things in writing.  The things that can be tedious and time consuming, but are very important to all writers.  It reminds us that after hours and hours of sitting alone and writing, we then sit for hours and hours alone and edit, before we sit for hours and hours proofreading.

When I read, if I see a single mistake my reaction is, “haha, a mistake!”  When I write, I’m conscious of this but it doesn’t stop the errors getting through.

The author of the post “When Nothing is Good” is correct when she says that nobody notices when everything goes well, but those same people are quick to jump up and down when something turns pear shaped.

I’d like to be remembered for a good story, not for a story full of errors, so I edit and edit and edit some more.  When a story flows nicely, the reader is taken on a lovely journey.  As writers, we have to ensure the reader is so absorbed in the story that nothing can distract them, especially typos, poor formatting and bad grammar.

How Do I Edit?

Benjamin Solah added a post by the same name – How Do I Edit? – to his blog earlier in the week. I found it interesting to read about how someone else tackles the editing process and then I started thinking about how I would answer the same question. I admit it isn’t easy to answer but I’m going to have an attempt at doing so. This might end up being a long post.

My answer relates to novel length manuscripts. To make my answer less complicated I will talk primarily about my current project – Mirror Image – but the steps below are generally what I do for all my projects.

When I start a new project I usually create a document, setting the page specifications to conform to publisher requirements, and save the document in a folder with the same title as the manuscript – in this case Mirror Image. This folder will be found within My Writing folder. So the location would be… My Writing>Mirror Image and the saved document would look like this… Mirror Image V1 10.1.09. I like including the date as it is a reminder of when I started writing the story.

When I move onto the second draft (or first edit of the completed manuscript) I will save the document as Mirror Image V2 29.5.09 and version 1 will be moved into a new folder within the Mirror Image folder called Old Versions. I don’t like clutter or the risk that I might open the wrong version by mistake and not realise what I’ve done. However, I do like to keep old versions in case I go mental and ruin a story by over editing it…or heaven forbid, I delete it by mistake (this hasn’t happened yet, but the possibility is always there). All future edits will be handled in the same way until I end up with a lone document entitled Mirror Image Final 15.7.09. This is the version that will be submitted to publishers.

But how do I get to that version?

The first edit is always done on screen. I read through the document making minute changes such as typos and easy to fix plot errors. I make notes about the not so easy to fix plot errors or character inconsistencies. My only thought in this first edit is to get a handle on how the story reads and you can’t do that if you spend months fixing mistakes, so I want to read the story through in no longer than a week or two.

The story firmly planted in my mind – major mistakes and all – I then let the story sit for a while. Not too long as I find I lose momentum. A couple of weeks to a month is generally long enough. During this time, I’m still working on the story mentally. I’m thinking about how those major inconsistencies and errors can be fixed. Do I need to do a bit of replanning? Or do I need to rethink my characters? Is more research required? If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions then I’ll get started on that, otherwise, I’ll just think about how to make everything more realistic, smoother and truer to what has been planned.

The second edit is where the major changes take place. Depending on what the problem is I might follow a single thread and change it before turning my attention to something else or I might attempt to make all changes as I work my way through the manuscript. In the past I have removed characters, inserted new ones, deleted plot threads as well as created them and I have deleted entire scenes, rewritten others completely from scratch and adding new ones. Editing can be a complex, time consuming procedure, but a writer must be prepared to do whatever it takes to improve the storylines and plots within a manuscript. It is hard work and often monotonous.

At the completion of the second edit, I’ll move quickly into the third edit, which is a repeat of the first edit – mainly fixing up typos and minor errors. Again, I’m concentrating on how the story reads and how everything fits together.

Once this is done, I will consider asking readers opinions. With Mirror Image, someone I trust to be honest and constructive has asked to read it when I’m ready to share it. However, with other projects, I normally turn to writers I know and places like Critique Circle (which was more than helpful when I got to this stage with Cat’s Eyes). I find the feedback from readers invaluable and the manuscript always improves because of it.

Depending on the feedback given, I may have to repeat edits two and three above.

When I’m satisfied that the manuscript has been polished to printing stage, then that’s what I do. I print it out and read it (with red pen in hand). I’m always surprised by the number of typos I still find, but that’s the way of a writer.

Unless I discover something terribly wrong with the manuscript, in which case I could possibly have to do edits two and three all over again, which would be unfortunately at this stage, I would now move onto what I would hope is the final edit stage.

This is when I read through the manuscript, yet again (usually on screen), and make adjustments to anything that I feel isn’t quite up to standard. I will make the changes noted on the printed copy and I might even try to improve word usage (if I think it’s required). With luck, I will be happy and that will be the end of the editing, however, sometimes more read throughs are necessary. How many? As many as it takes!

So, for me, it wouldn’t be unusual to do at least six edits on a novel length manuscript. This is, of course, if I get the storylines and plots just about right on the first draft. Major problems will mean additional edits have to be done. I think I average eight edits for most of my projects.

Planning a Scene

I was recently at Jim Butcher’s blog – author of the Dresden Files. There is a lot to read there, but I was especially interested in the article about using an arc to plan a story. His suggestion is to simply draw an arc on a piece of paper. Naturally, the beginning of the arc is the beginning of the story and the end of the arc is the end of the story. Then you place “markers” across the arc which coincides with crucial events in your story. Finally you add in more markers for other important scenes and anything else that moves your story forward. This is a good idea.

Anyway, I don’t need an arc for my current manuscript – Mirror Image. It’s well and truly passed the arc stage. Not being one to pass up a good idea, I figured that the most important scene in my manuscript – the climax, which is long and complicated – needs a lot of work and I could adapt the arc for improving that scene.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been drawing arcs everywhere. But something good came from all that physical labour. I realised that the scene has to be cut down into four crucial sections and each section needs an arc of its own. This will enable me to focus on the emotions of the MC and therefore build the tension accordingly, which is something that didn’t quite happen in the first draft.

What I did was, in blue, put in essential “events” from the character’s viewpoint including what the character was feeling at the time. These were added to the top of the arc. Then, in red, I added events that other characters contributed to the scene, which affected the MC and in turn affected the overall scene. I added these to the underside of the arc. I’ve done this for Section 1 of the scene and will do the same for the other three sections over the next few days. Then I’ll have a comprehensive plan for the climax. However, I will not be tackling the edit of this scene for some time yet. I am currently working through each character’s storyline and I need to finish doing that because I might find other things that must be added to the arcs. However, it was because of this that I discovered missing elements for the characters I have done. The storylines feel unfinished yet once the climax has been reached I cannot go back to these other characters and give them their required resolution. In other words, this information must be added to the climax. I have no choice. I did say the scene was complicated, but hopefully using the arcs will help me get it right eventually.

The Lure of a New Project

If you visit a lot of writers’ websites, you’ll soon find a large majority of them openly admit to starting more stories than they finish. There are several reasons for this, but I’m going to talk about only one of those reasons today – the lure of a new project.

Yesterday, after a strong fight against it, I allowed the lure of a new project to take hold of me. I must say that the feeling is quite overwhelming and I can attest that the excitement of working on something new and fresh is what forces writers to stray from their current project. The writer has not stopped loving the old project; they just need a complete change of scenery. We do this all the time in everyday life. We change jobs when we start feeling bored and depressed with the old one. We seem to change partners at the drop of a hat these days. So why can’t a writer change projects too?

We spend many long months, even years, planning and writing a project (this is especially true when writing a series). Is it any wonder that we grow a little tired of the … well, same old, same old? To me, it’s not surprising at all. New ideas are always surfacing. We might write the idea down, but we will usually return to the job at hand. However, as the months tick by, the lure is more tempting and then…before we realise what’s happening, we have strayed.

Be warned, if you allow the lure to take you too often, then you will be one of the writers who openly admit to starting more stories than they finish. Do you want to fall into that category? I believe none of us do.

A serious writer will discipline themselves against the lure. They will set up guards to force the enemy back. They will build traps to stop the evilness from approaching their sanctuary. They will do whatever it takes to see their current project completed and submitted. That’s how a writer becomes an author. They submit completed manuscripts for publication, which is something you cannot do if you never finish a manuscript.

So, take this as a warning. The lure of a new project feels great. It’s exciting. It’s even inspiring and motivational. But if you give in to this weakness too often, you’ll never finish a project…and you’ll never become a published author.

How to Murder Your Muse

A muse is similar to a witch’s familiar, which is usually associated with a black cat. The cat is a companion to the witch, but it doesn’t do the work of the old hag (although it can be a pair of extra eyes, which I suppose she could find helpful). A muse on the other hand is meant to fill the writer with extraordinary ideas and help the words flow like the gushing waters over a waterfall. In other words, the muse is using the unsuspecting writer and is writing the novel through them.

I’m not sure I like that idea. When I finish my manuscripts I want to know that all that hard work is actually mine, and that I haven’t been something else’s vessel to get the work done.

To be honest, I’m not even sure I believe in muses but if you insist you do have a muse and you really want to be rid of it, how do you murder that pesky presence?

You could try to trap the little devil, but I haven’t heard of anyone being successful in this task. Muses are adept at hiding just when you need them most. In fact, they take great delight in playing hide and seek and will often disappear for days, if not weeks, at a time.

You could fool it into believing you’re not ready to sit down and write, because a muse loves to appear at those times. It knows the writer gets frustrated and annoyed when it’s an inconvenient moment and that gives the muse a thrill. The excitement is heightened when the writer has absolutely nothing to write on too. Oh, how the muse enjoys that.

I must hang my head in shame, because I’m not able to tell you how to actually “murder” your muse. I wouldn’t want the authorities knocking on my door and accusing me of being the mastermind behind such an act. I believe the best line of attack is to go the other way – ignore it completely. Every time it shows its ugly head, push it to one side and don’t listen (and you’ll feel a certain amount of enjoyment after doing this for a while). The muse, however, will find this treatment intolerable. A word of warning, muses have a temper and it’s quite amusing to watch them stamp their feet and shout profanities so you’ll have to keep your own amusement in check. If you are strong enough to do this for a prolonged period (a couple of weeks should do it) then the blighter will pack up and leave.

You see, a muse wants everything its own way. It’s not interested in your plans (especially fast approaching deadlines) and it certainly doesn’t care about the assorted ideas you have. The muse looks down at its vessel as being inferior and…well, to put it bluntly…stupid. The writer must do as the muse directs or all Hell breaks out. It’s that simple.

However, we writer types know we are not inferior and we certainly are not stupid. If we sit down and think about it carefully, we don’t need the muse. All the muse is doing is dictating when we can write and what we write about. We have our own ideas and once we rid ourselves of the fearsome muse, we’ll be able to write whenever we want…and what’s more, we’ll be able to write in peace.

How to Plot Your Novel

I’ve been plotting novels and short stories for some years now, but that doesn’t mean I think I know everything that needs to be known on the subject. Because of this, I continually borrow books from the library, or purchase them if they are being sold at the right price, to ensure I’m not doing things the hard way, or I’m not forgetting to do something altogether.

I recently borrowed a book called How to Plot Your Novel by Jean Saunders. It’s a relatively old book, but in this case the content is still viable. I didn’t read the entire book (and rarely do with this type of book as I usually pick out the sections of interest to me), but I wanted to share – in point form – the main items I got from the book.

  • Find a theme you are passionate about.
  • Know the kind of book you want to write.
  • Keep the proposed length within publishing bounds and plot your novel to appeal to the widest audience.
  • Create good characters, who you know well, and who have real motivation and goals.
  • Learn how to ask yourself questions such as “What if…?”
  • Scenes and chapters should be linked together.
  • Throw the reader a curve now and then, without relying on coincidences.
  • Don’t allow your story to sag in the middle by sustaining pace and keeping control of your characters.
  • Dramatic scenes need their calming counterparts.
  • End your story without leaving loose ends, and leaving the reader feeling satisfied.

I believe the points outlined above are common sense, but should be reiterated often because it seems that many books being published these days are not paying attention to these important details. Hence, the quality of reading is lowered and the chance of the author becoming a best seller slim.

If you’re a writer and you can place a tick beside each of the above, then you’re off to a great start. Naturally, there are other items that could be put on the list too, but these are the essential ones, in my opinion.

Being Invisible

Excerpt from The Business of Writing for Children: An Award-Winning Author’s Tips on Writing Children’s Books and Publishing Them, or How to Write, Publish, and Promote a Book for Kids by Aaron Shepard.

All at once, in the middle of the story, I “woke up” with a shock. For just a few seconds, I had completely forgotten I was sitting in a hot tent with a thousand other people – forgotten even that I was listening to Connie Regan-Blake. She had drawn me into the story so completely that I was aware of nothing but that story’s unfolding within my own mind.

That moment taught me that the height of storytelling – oral or written – is when the teller becomes invisible.

Part of becoming invisible is to engage the reader’s imagination with concrete images, as discussed earlier. If the imagination is busy enough, it will wrap the reader up in the story and draw attention away from the writer.

Have you read a book where this has happened to you? I have and I found that I felt that I was part of the story. In fact, I was part of the story. I tend to imagine myself as one of the characters and I ‘live’ the plot.

The difference it makes to the story is enormous. The pages turn automatically, the setting and characters move before your eyes. And before you know it the story has come to an end and you are left with a feeling of wonder…and disappointment because it’s over.

On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of stories where I find myself flicking forward to see when the chapter ends. Or I might continually look down at the page number to see how I’m progressing. Naturally, doing these things means I’m not right into the story. I’m distracted by the words, the author (maybe), everything around me, because something about the flow or plot doesn’t grab my total attention.

As a writer, being invisible must be a talent because I think it must be hard to do. I can’t say that I’ve tried to achieve this when I write, but I certainly would take it as a compliment if someone told me this happened to them whilst reading one of my stories.

Writing is like painting a picture. An artist uses colour to place an image before our eyes, whereas, a writer uses words. To become invisible, we have to pick the right words, a good balance with description and setting, rounded characters and realistic dialogue and action. It’s not easy, but can you make yourself invisible when you write?