How To Write Well: 10 Essential Self-Editing Tips

picture of woman editor Do you want to write well?

The easiest way to write well is to edit your writing.

The best person to edit a manuscript, article or blog post is the author herself.

Sure, writers can — and should, when necessary — hire a professional copyeditor to correct a manuscript before it is sent off to an agent or book designer for self-publishing. But the writer knows her material better than anyone else, so she’s the best person for the job.

Learning to self-edit is a lesson in awareness. It’s all about understanding the common mistakes writers make, and how to fix those mistakes.

You want to know how to write well, but you might not want to spend hours studying grammar books. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want to waste time struggling over sentences that would be easy to fix if you knew the rules.

So it might be worthwhile for you to learn a few basic rules, if only to have more time to spend with your family, or whatever it is you’d rather be doing.

Here are ten easy tips to get you started.

 

#1. Give it a rest.

Leave your writing alone for a while — an hour, a day, a week. Pick it up again when your brain is rested.

Pay attention to what jumps out at you as awkward. Trust that feeling. It’s almost always right.

 

#2. Read aloud what you wrote.

Or have your computer read to you using a software program. You’ll catch clunky sentences, missing and repetitive words, and misspellings.

 

#3. Search and destroy weasel words.

Weasel words are the words you use out of habit. Often, they are pesky adverbs like very and just. Or phrases like began to or started to.

Make a list of your most common offenders. Then search for those words and see if you can take them out without altering your intended meaning.

 

#4. Trim sentences.

Take a look at each sentence and see how many words you can cut out.

Often a phrase of three or more words can be rewritten with only one. Less is more — and almost always better.

 

#5. You need commas.

Check to make sure you put commas before direct address in dialog. There’s a big difference between “Let’s eat Dad” and “Let’s eat, Dad.”

Speaker tags always use commas: John said, “I hate grammar.” Don’t be deceived into thinking little bits of punctuation don’t matter. They do.

You don’t want characters eating other characters unintentionally, right? Unless you’re writing about zombies.

 

#6. Don’t overdo the punctuation.

Writers sometimes use excessive punctuation. Avoid using a lot of exclamation marks or pairing them with question marks to tell the reader something is important.

Let the context and word choice communicate the importance of a particular sentence.

 

#7. Pay attention to verb conjugations.

If you write “I lied on the couch after the man drug me across the floor,” your reader might think you’re writing some weird espionage novel.

You probably want to say “I lay on the couch after the man dragged me across the floor.”

The most mutilated verbs are lay, sink, drag, swim, and shine. Watch out for them!

 

#8. Ditch extraneous tags when writing dialog.

If the reader knows who’s speaking, you don’t need to tell them over and over — especially in a scene with only two characters.

Flowery verbs such as quizzed, extrapolated, exclaimed, and interjected, stick out. Instead, use said and asked, with an occasional replied or answered.

 

#9. Avoid passive construction.

When sentences begin with “it was” and “there were,” readers are left wondering exactly what “it” is. These words are vague.

“It was hot today” can easily be replaced with “the sun baked his shoulders,” which paints a clearer picture. Think: strong nouns and verbs.

 

#10. Check those tenses.

All too often, writers shift into past tense when writing present tense, or vice versa.

Even more common is the use of the wrong form of past tense. “I was sleeping badly for a week” should be rewritten as “I had been sleeping badly for a week.” If the action was a continuous one for a time in the past, you need the “had been.”

 

Self-editing needn’t be either hard or painful. The more you apply yourself to learning the “rules,” the easier it will be to write well.

Good writing has more to do with good self-editing than anything else. Take pride in your writing by learning ways to improve your self-editing technique.

What other self-editing tips do you use to write well? Share in the comments below!

 

About the author: 

C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and copyeditor. She gives instruction on her blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage— helps writers get a painless grasp on grammar.

Thanks to Bigstockphoto.com for image: Editing

Passion: How To Tap Into Yours Every Time You Write

Passionate woman

Would You Like to Tap into Your Passion Every Time You Write?

You have a great idea for an article, blog post, short story or novel.

You feel the topic is fresh and interesting, and you’ve brainstormed your main points. After a bit of work, you come to the moment when you’re ready to write.

But when you get down to actually putting the idea down on paper (or into your Word document), you can’t seem to infuse that initial excitement about your idea into your writing. It seems to fall flat.

You know it’s not the idea that’s the problem. Nor is it your writing ability; you have the chops to write well.

So what is the problem?

 

The Difficult Transition from Idea to Execution

 

Sometimes the transition from idea to execution causes problems.

At times, the story seems to be hovering over some lost horizon because, as the cliché goes, you can’t see the forest for the trees. And if you are working on something as enormous as a novel, it can seem like a huge forest with so many trees (elements) that your vision can get muddled and your eyes tired from trying to “see the big picture” all the time.

Kahlil Gibran said in his famous book The Prophet that “thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly”.

I memorized that line more than forty years ago because of its profound wisdom. Just how do we get our terrific ideas to ‘fly’ in a cage of words?

We do so by tapping into our passion. Passion for our topic and passion for shaping words.

 

Don’t Mistake Enthusiasm for Passion

 

You can be passionate about your story idea, but that could just be enthusiasm. Don’t confuse the two. I’ve heard clients talk quite excitedly about their plot, and it might actually be a great idea. But when I dig into the writing looking for the heart of the story, I don’t find the passion.

So, what do I mean by passion? I’m talking about a strong feeling, conviction, belief that comes from within. A belief that this is an important story to tell, a pertinent theme to explore, or a significant argument to make.

If you can find a way to tap into that joy of shaping words to create a beautiful bird, it will come through in your writing.

 

Return to Your First Love

 

Your greatest hindrance to passionate writing is self-criticism.

Instead of worrying over why we write, or analyzing our writing to death, I suggest we return to that first love of storytelling. That’s why you started writing anyway, isn’t it? We must not only shut up the ‘critic’ and other inner hecklers that get in our way, we need also to journey back to a simpler place, where we rediscover the joy of creativity every time we sit down to write.

Sure, if we have a contractual deadline dangling over our heads like the sword of Damocles, it can be a bit tricky to stop glancing up. But if we want to get to that place of passion, we have to.

Can we write like that every moment we sit down and dig into our story? Not likely, though I imagine there are some writers who come close.

Is that something we should aim for? I’m going to say “no”, because I think the emotional and energetic side, to put it one way, doesn’t always serve us best. There are times when we have to get quiet and think. Or not think. Times we have to problem-solve and talk to ourselves, untangle tight knots in our plot (or back).

So maybe passion doesn’t look like excitement all the time. Passion can also look like dedication, persistence, patience, meditation. To me, it has many faces.

 

What Does Passion Look Like?

 

These are some of the things I notice in books that scream passion:

  • A delight in the languageAmateur writers and writers lacking passion tend to lean more toward the cookie-cutter or formula-type way of structuring plots, scenes and sentences. There is no depth.
  • A delight in rich characters - As writers, I feel we should be fascinated by people. Humans are complex, contradictory, confusing, erratic, surprising, hilarious — the list goes on. Writers should capture the human condition in all its weirdness. Passionate writing loathes stereotyped characters.
  • A delight in storytelling - When you read a riveting story, you can sense the writer herself is enthralled with the story. She’s not just plunking down the words she thinks will fit nicely, the way you might work a jigsaw puzzle. She’s enamored with the process of telling the story.

 

Passion Might Not Be Important for Every Writer

 

Passion may not be why you write. Writers write for various reasons, each of them valid and not to be judged.

I have friends who pump out novels using formulaic structure, and they aren’t a bit passionate. They make a decent living at what they do, they support their families, and they are perfectly happy with their work. I think that’s terrific . . . for them.

And it may be terrific for you as well. There is a need in many marketplaces for skilled, non-passionate writing, and someone has to do it. (Think of all those computer tech manuals!)

But someone also needs to write passionate stories for readers longing for such stories. Maybe you are one of those writers.

If you want to be one, you need to stir up your passion for words, for your characters, and for storytelling itself. You need to push away all those encroaching voices within and without that pull you away from your passionate core.

Some people listen to stirring music or read great literature before sitting down to tackle a scene, or take a walk in nature to clear their head or stir the imagination.

Can you think of some ways that might help you tap into your passion when you sit down to write? If so, share them here in the comments. Let’s incite each other to passionate writing!

 

About the Author:

C. S. Lakin is the author of thirteen novels and works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach. Her websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and instruction and encouragement to help you survive and thrive in your writing life. 

Image: Passionate woman courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com

5 Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel

Key Questions to Ask

Key Questions to Ask

As a professional manuscript critiquer and copyeditor, I ask a lot of questions.

Sure, I also give a lot of suggestions and fix badly constructed sentences. But it’s the questions that get to the heart of the story.

Asking authors questions helps them think about what they’re writing and why.

So much important information seems to be missing in so many novels, especially first novels by aspiring authors.

Novel writing is tricky; there are countless essential components that need to mesh cohesively to reveal the heart of a story.

Questions Create Story

Starting a novel is asking a question. What if . . .? What would someone do if . . .? What if the world was like this, and this happened . . .? These initial questions lead to more questions, which shape and bring life to characters and story.

Questions are the key.

After thousands of hours of critiquing and editing hundreds of manuscripts, I’ve noticed there are some questions I seem to ask a lot.

These are five key questions you might need to ask as well, while writing or rewriting your novel.

  • Where is this scene taking place?

    I shouldn’t have to ask this, right?

The writer is thinking, “Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.”

It may surprise you to know that readers can’t read your mind. The biggest problem I see in novel scenes is the lack of sufficient information to help the reader “get” where a scene is taking place. Just a hint of setting, shown from the character’s point of view, can do wonders.

And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, and exactly where in the world the action is taking place.

  • How much time has passed?

    So many scenes dive into dialog or action without telling the reader how much time has passed from the last scene.

Scenes need to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months have     passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader in confusion.

  • What is your character feeling right now?

This is a biggie. It alternates with: How does your character react to this?

So many times I read bits of action or dialogue that should produce a reaction from the point-of-view (POV) character, but the scene just zooms ahead without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking.

For every important moment, your character needs to react. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically and finally, intellectually. Often a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.

If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back.

Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.

  • What is the point of this scene?

This is a scary question. Not for me—for the author.

Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really. Every scene has to have a point—to reveal character or plot. And every scene should build towards a “high moment”.

  • What is your protagonist’s goal in the book?

If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story.

The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible. This involves your main character having a need to get something or somewhere, do something or find something. Or some variation of that.

That goal should drive the story and be the underpinning for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds your novel together. It may not be a ‘huge’ goal, and in the end your character may even fail to reach that goal—you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.

I actually ask a whole lot more questions than these. And many are just as important to crafting a powerful novel. I’ve found when writing my own novels that if I just keep asking questions—the right ones—I’ll find the answers that are right for that story.

If you can get in the habit of continually asking questions as you delve into your novel, you may find it will lead you to the heart of your story.

What are the questions you ask? Please share in the comments.

 

About the Author:

C. S. Lakin is the author of thirteen novels and works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach. Her new websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction and instruction and encouragement to help you survive and thrive in your writing life. 

Image: Key Questions to Ask courtesy of Bigstockphoto.com