Quick Hits on Self-Editing
Okay, so I’m giving you a little rundown today regarding the rules on self-editing. As I mentioned in my previous article, this isn’t a complete rundown and it’s important you find a mentor fast.
However, it’s also important that you have an idea of what not to do as an author. Don’t follow these rules and you might have a hard time finding a reading audience. Follow them, and you’ll be set.
Rule #1: Show, Don’t Tell
It was cold doesn’t paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but saying Cain fastened his cloak around him as he turned his face against the wind definitely does. Lira didn’t just say something angrily; she narrowed her eyes and thrust her hands to her sides. Cheesy examples, but you get the point.
In show, don’t tell, just show the character(s) in action and you’ll be golden. If you go through your manuscript and are reading things like ‘she was scared,’ or ‘he was ecstatic,’ show this through action.
Rule #2: Omit Needless Words
Okay, take a look at the show, don’t tell section again and take note of the phrase ‘definitely does.’ Definitely could’ve been omitted. Always omit words that tell the reader something.
Because we need to trust our readers actually know what’s going on. See, actually could’ve been omitted here.
Because could’ve been omitted, too. We need to trust that our readers know what’s going on. Hmmm, sounds better. We need to trust our readers know what’s happening.
When we omit, our sentences are shorter. Our paragraphs are also shorter. Our words have more power. I could’ve said, ‘our words now have more power,’ but the reader knows our words ‘now’ have more power, so we can just say our words have power.
Rule #3: The Power of Said
“Why are we going here?” Savannah asked.
The question mark shows the reader a question’s asked. We don’t have to rehash on the fact.
In most cases, readers don’t need to be told someone asked or exclaimed. The question mark and exclamation point do their jobs.
Instead, just say said. People don’t grunt, cough, wheeze, or croak dialogue. They say things.
While my preference is to omit as many dialogue tags as I can, there are many situations where we can’t, like if a scene contains more than two people.
Rule #4: Cut the Throat Clearing
It’s a fancy term for overloading the book with backstory. I made this mistake during my first drafts of Northern Knights. These days, too much backstory will scare readers away. We live in a fast-paced society these days, and our books must be likewise.
Instead, get straight to the action. I learned this during my later drafts of Northern Knights, which eventually made up the final manuscript.
If backstory is important in your novel, tell it through action, or through dialogue. Show a conversation between your characters, but don’t show it through a thought bubble as the main character looks into the mirror and reminisces on how he or she got to such a stage.
Rule #5: On the Nose Writing
Hollywood loves this term. It basically means describing a familiar location. For instance, in Northern Knights, some of my settings include campus dining halls, emergency rooms, and hotel lobbies.
Do I really have to go into detail with any of these places?
Think along the same lines. If your book takes place in middle-class suburbia, do you really need to explain the neighborhood?
Unless something is there that is important to the story, you don’t have to get crazy descriptive with settings everyday people are familiar with.
Rule #6: 1 + 1 = ½
Two adjectives are nowhere near as powerful as one adjective, strong nouns, or strong verbs.
Further, when a reader reads a work, few of them are interested in picturing a character’s every detail. In Northern Knights, the reader knows both Cain and Lira are in top shape due to the fact they’re both college athletes. I don’t have to say ‘Cain stood at a compact five feet, seven inches, with a ripped, six-pack of abs, ringlet hair that fell into his hazel eyes, and possessed pasty white skin.’
The reader knows from page one that Cain is a college athlete. They’re already picturing an athletic-looking kid.
A few pages later, Lira’s athletic physique appeared in the doorway. Again, I don’t have to describe Lira’s toned, somewhat muscular arms, chiseled cheekbones, and defined legs. The reader knows.
Just hint at description and the reader will get it. Remember, in a fast-paced society, the reader is more interested in the action, the story plot, more than they are description.
Rule #7: Simple over Complex
Choosing a simple word over a complex one will always win you readers. Unless you’re writing a piece for scholars, go with the common words. For fiction writers, this is even more important, as average people are reading your work.
Rule #8: Don’t be Redundant
Please, don’t add anything unnecessary. He clapped his hands, for instance, is redundant. If someone’s clapping, do we really need to be told the character is clapping their hands?
She nodded her head is another one. He shrugged his shoulders. Okay, you get the gist.
Just stick to ‘he clapped,’ ‘she nodded,’ and ‘he shrugged.’
Rule #9: Get Rid of Ups and Downs
Unless it’s needed, of course. You don’t need to say they flew up into the air. They flew. They descended down the chute is unnecessary. They descended the chute. Looked up, looked down, etc. Eliminate all of it.
He got up, she sat down, etc. It can all be avoided.
Rule #10: Get Rid of That (and other words)
That, very, just, suddenly, only, etc. You don’t need to use any of these words. That is overused, and for every sentence containing ‘that,’ see how it regards without the word. Ditto for very, which in almost every case a stronger noun or verb can take the place of very.
Suddenly has no more impact than it would if the author just states what ‘suddenly’ happened. Suddenly, the metal put a hole through the wall is weaker than the author writing ‘the metal put a hole through the wall.
Rule #11: Your Reader Gets It
In other words, resist the urge to explain. Many novice authors think they have to explain their character’s every action. Cain sets the story in motion when he attacks Southpoint police forces in Northern Knights when they invade the hotel lobby in an effort to round up high school and college-aged kids.
There’s no need to explain Cain’s actions; the reader knows why Cain is acting, especially since they know about his desire to play pro sports and live a self-serving life.
The same goes for any situation, especially controversial ones.
Or, there are times the author is explaining every little detail, which again, can be avoided. Many novice authors will say this: He opened up the car door and sat down in the driver’s seat.
For one, you can eliminate up and down. For another, an author can say ‘he entered the car,’ or a similar type of word choice.
Rule #12: Again, Your Reader Gets It
Avoid quotations except in dialogue. Again, if you’re quoting something outside dialogue, it gives off the notion your reader doesn’t get it unless you mark it otherwise.
Newsflash: The reader will get it.
Rule #13: Stop Saying What Isn’t Happening
You don’t have to say ‘she didn’t respond,’ or ‘he wasn’t talking.’
Scott told Ashley to leave the room, but Ashley refused.
If the character didn’t commit the act, the reader knows it’s not happening. If Scott asks Ashley a question, and she turns and gazes out the window, don’t say Ashley’s saying nothing; we know.
The same goes for ‘he didn’t move,’ or ‘she didn’t follow her mother’s orders,’ or anything similar.
Rule #14: Nouns and Verbs Outlast Adjectives and Adverbs
They say adjective and adverbs contribute to lazy writing while strong nouns and verbs reign supreme. I’m here to tell you that is definitely the case.
I never knew this until I incorporated it into my writing, but when I did it added so much power the reader could paint an accurate picture in the mind.
Doesn’t ‘she ran quickly down the field’ sound inferior to ‘she bolted downfield?’
Or, it’s so much better to show something through action, as if you can allow the reader to visualize your book like they’re watching a movie rather than reading.
“I can’t stand this,” he said aggressively.
He slammed his phone on the table. “I can’t stand this.”
Rule #15: Don’t Hedge
Avoid hedging verbs. You don’t need to say ‘he almost smiled’ or ‘she almost laughed.’ They either did or didn’t.
Never write ‘he slightly grumbled,’ or ‘she kind of frowned.’
There’s no hedging when it comes to verbs. Verbs state action, so they either did something or they didn’t.
Rule #16: Literally Isn’t Figuratively
You don’t need to say her or she ‘literally died’ when meaning it in a figurative manner. The same goes for all figurative language.
If you mean something in a figurative manner, ensure you say it as such. Something like ‘I literally laughed until my ribs cracked’ is useless unless it really happened.
The same goes for anything of its kind.
Rule #17: Readers Don’t Care About Stage Direction
Related to on the nose writing, we don’t need to know everything that’s going on in the scene unless it has something to do with the story. If you find yourself giving off-stage direction that has nothing to do with the story, delete it.
Before describing any location, object, or action, ask yourself if it contributes to the story. If not, cut it.
Rule #18: Don’t Head Hop
This is a tricky one because it involves mastering point of view. Whose point of view is the story taking place in? Or better yet, the scene?
If the scene (or whole story) takes place in Cain’s point of view, but the author instead tells the reader what Lira is thinking, that’s called head hopping and it will confuse the reader.
You only need to convey the point of view character’s thoughts. I like picturing the point of view character as myself, only seeing my own thoughts and not knowing the thoughts of non-point of view characters.
The reader will know what the non-point of view characters are thinking with their actions the author describes. If Lira’s angry with Cain (point of view character), she’ll thrust her hands to her sides, or scoop her books and storm out of a room.
Always describe non-point of view characters’ emotions through action and you’ll be gold.
Rule #19: Stop the Clichés in Narration
You might have a character that speaks in clichés, and that’s cool. What you don’t need, however, is to narrate your story in clichés, as your writing will get old fast. Clichés are ideas or expressions that have become so overused they’ve lost their original meanings.
Avoid them in narration. It will tire the reader as clichés aren’t original. If you want a solid readership, make sure your writing style is something original. If not, you won’t last long in the writing craft.
Rule #20: Shayna and Savannah Didn’t Cut It
Okay, Savannah stayed, Shayna got written out.
Because while I proofread Swords of Destiny I kept getting the two names mixed up, even if their voices were distinct. Instead, I thought typo, then no, then another typo, followed by another false alarm.
Luckily, Shayna had a group of friends in Northern Knights.
Enter Kiya, one of Shayna’s mind traveling best friends.
The voice remained the same. The character was the same. I just changed the name and altered the character’s appearance somewhat. And you got Kiya while Shayna stayed in North Columbia.