So you’re writing your story. Making your way through page after page, and at some milestone – whether it’s the end of a chapter, a scene, or even a paragraph, you get that itch to “fix it”. The phrasing feels off. The structure isn’t right. It doesn’t tell the reader what you want them to know. All sorts of things can motivate someone to start going over and editing their work as they go.
Now, I want to be clear that there’s nothing inherently wrong with self-editing. I could (and probably will, one day) write an entire article about my views on the pros and cons of editing as you write, but that’s not what this piece is about.
Instead, I’m going to talk about the three most common mistakes/issues and the like that I encounter as an editor, go over my suggested fixes, and discuss the proverbial magic bullet that helps me avoid the majority of these pitfalls in my own work. Take my word for it – the more of these little things you catch before they get to an editor like me, the better for all sides involved.
“Don’t make me say it again.”
It’s not uncommon to be so caught up writing a scene that you don’t realise you’ve used the same word (or phrase) several times in the same paragraph. In fact it’s kind of good – usually means you’re channeling whatever image you’ve got in your head onto the page. Clever wordplay can always come later.
But for a reader, it can be somewhat jarring. It interrupts the flow of a paragraph, makes them remember that they’re reading words instead of picturing whatever it is you want them to picture.
Here’s a basic example, featuring a fictional version of Rush’s lead vocalist Geddy Lee (because I can):
Geddy stared up at the giant as it loomed over him, awe overwhelming his fear as he gripped the steering wheel. For its part, however, the giant didn’t seem to notice him, too intent on the path ahead to look down. Feet the size of trucks shook the earth as the giant moved on, each great stride carrying it a hundred metres further.
Try reading that aloud. See how saying “the giant” over and over breaks the flow?
The fix for this is fairly obvious – simply don’t do it. Find new ways of saying things, new phrases, describe something rather than name it, throw in a few synonyms.
Geddy stared up at the giant as it loomed over him, awe overwhelming his fear as he gripped the steering wheel. For its part, however, the titanic creature didn’t seem to notice him, too intent on the path ahead to look down. Feet the size of trucks shook the earth as it moved on, each great stride carrying it a hundred metres further.
That’s not to say you should whip out a thesaurus for every instance of a word – there are times when it’s either unavoidable or it simply works. Some words are just too common to avoid, and that’s absolutely fine – examples of this include articles (obviously), pronouns, and when writing dialogue.
(This last one is a particularly relevant example of this exception – it’s entirely okay to say “said” repeatedly. I strongly advise against trying to use something different after every line of dialogue.)
“Same thing, Different… Sentence.”
Similar to my last point in more than one way, this is something that happens fairly often to even experienced writers. Granted, some people are able to avoid this more naturally than others, but when caught up in your own story it’s easy to make the mistake of starting almost every sentence in a paragraph in the same way.
Let’s check back in with Geddy, shall we?
He turned on the car radio with trembling hands, looking for something to soothe his nerves. He fumbled with the dial, trying to calm himself as the giant vanished over the horizon. He told himself that, at least, the titan was heading away from the city.
Try that one aloud. Feels kind of clipped, doesn’t it? Like it starts and stops? It’s because the first instance of “He ___” put the idea that that’s how things start in your head. This sort of mistake comes up a lot when writing dynamic sequences, when you’re actively talking about something happening – things happen one after another, and the structure can suffer as a result. As with the word repetition issue, it’s easy enough to fix it during your editing.
With trembling hands, he turned on the car radio, looking for something to soothe his nerves. He fumbled with the dial, trying to calm himself as the giant vanished over the horizon and told himself that, at least, the titan was heading away from the city.
Just a minor alteration of one sentence’s structure, the fusing of two others into one, and just like that you’ve got something flows considerably more naturally.
Does it Even Matter?
The last of the three most common issues I come across is also the most nebulous and involves at least a touch of personal taste. As such, bear in mind that this point isn’t a technical mistake so much as a semi-subjective point that can nevertheless be highly disruptive to a story.
There’s an old writer’s adage that goes (more or less) as follows:
“Is this the most interesting part of your character’s day? If not, why aren’t you showing us that?”
This is something to take to heart – is what’s happening in whatever scene you’re writing relevant to your story, or is it just something you want to say? Is it something you actually feel is important enough to give to your readers?
Is it needless exposition? Overdone world-building? Filler? If not – good! Go for it. Keep it in.
If so? Cut it. Change it. Do something with it.
Geddy Lee, for example, has just witnessed an actual giant walk by his car. Now, he doesn’t outright panic because he’s goddamn Geddy Lee and has seen a thing or two in his day, but he does try and calm himself down by turning on his radio and looking for something to listen to. He’s a musical sort of guy, after all.
But do we now need to read a passage about how he remembers his last world tour? Or how he was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame with Rush in ‘94? Or how soft the towels were in his last hotel and how much he misses those?
If it serves the story, if it gives us some needed insight into his mental state? Absolutely. If not and it’s just something you want to shoehorn into your tale – then no. You don’t need it, your readers don’t need it. They’re reading a story about Geddy Lee and a giant. You’ve got their attention with that, hold on to it.
Tell them about the last giant Geddy Lee killed, how he partnered with Hugh Laurie slay it with the legendary pocketknife, Berwhale the Avenger. How he knows he must find Mr. Laurie again, but the only one who could tell him where he is would be Stephen Fry, who is held prisoner by an undead army of Spinal Tap drummers.
The Magic Bullet
The three issues above are essentially small things that I nevertheless come across often in my work as an editor, and in my writing I fall into the same traps. I repeat words, I start sentences off the same way, and I write passages that are entirely irrelevant to serving the plot. I think that all of us are guilty of at least one of these, and that’s why we edit our own work.
The trick is spotting them and recognising them when you see them, because this isn’t something our spellchecker is going to pick up.
Now, you could just hire an editor to do it for you – in fact I advise you do, at some point – but self-editing is important, and believe me when I say it’s better for both sides of the editor/writer relationship if you’ve gone over your own work before getting one of us involved.
So the panacea? The magic bullet? The grand secret? Not so grand, really, given that you’ve been doing it through the whole article:
[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#006489″ text=”#ffffff” align=”center” size=”3″ quote=”Read your work” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]
Sound elementary? Sure, it is, but I mean really read it. What you’ve written, not what you think you’ve written, and that can be harder than it sounds.
So many writers are so sure of what they’ve written that they rush ahead in their reading because they’re so intimately familiar with their own work that their brains just skim over it, and that’s where we miss mistakes.
A good way to avoid that particular pitfall is to read things aloud. It slows you do, makes you go over every word, and let’s you hear the mistakes. Plenty of the hard copies of my stories have little red dots over each word where I’ve tapped a pen against the paper as I read to make sure I don’t miss any of it. Read it aloud, or have someone read it aloud for you – the reader won’t have your memories of having written it, so they’ll be taking things in for the first time and you’ll be able to hear what sounds off. Or find a voice synthesizer online, or an app – computers will read things out exactly as you’ve written them. Maybe they won’t get the inflection or emphasis right, but you can pick out the most obvious issues.
Question yourself, always. Ask yourself if it flows, if it’s at all relevant to the story, if doesn’t feel like something that’s just tacked on.
It sounds basic, but you’d be amazed at how much even experienced writers can benefit from this. I’ve passed this bit of advice along to many of my clients, and when I follow it myself I notice a dramatic improvement in overall quality.