Empty Pages – Let’s Talk About Editing (Episode 16)
In this episode I talk about editing, and I give some editing tips to help you out.
Welcome to Empty Pages, which chronicles my journey from first draft to published manuscript and beyond. I’m your host, Ian MacTire.
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In this episode, we will be talking about editing. So, if you have been listening, you’ve probably noticed that I seem to be a bit of a laid back person. That is generally how I am in real life as well. However, I’m going to start this episode off with a bit of a rant, and then I’m going to give you some helpful tips and information.
So, let me start by saying that you need to edit your writing! I don’t care who you are, or who you think you are. The best writers currently writing today have their manuscripts edited, so do you really think that you are somehow absolved from doing so? Uh, no, don’t think so! No one, and I mean NO ONE, produces the perfect work the first time. There’s a reason it’s called a FIRST DRAFT. Now as you get better at writing, your first draft will get better, but you will never be so good of a writer that you will never need to edit your manuscript.
I can’t tell you the number of times I read posts in writing forums and various social media from people spouting some daft bullshit about how they don’t need to edit, because their shitty first drafts are perfect because they’re “breaking the rules”, and they’re being “creative”, and if people don’t understand that, then people are “too stupid to get it”. Sorry, chief, but no, it’s you being fucking lazy, pretentious as fuck, and being a complete idiot!
Edit your shit!
And then there’s the people who claim “I don’t edit because I can’t afford it” or “I can’t afford an editor”. If you’re writing for yourself or just for friends and family, that’s fine, editing is probably not all that important. However if you’re serious about becoming a writer who is able to sell their books, then you WILL NEED TO EDIT, regardless of whatever your financial background is. It is what it is.
Now I really don’t want to piss on people who are struggling financially. I get it, I’m not exactly raking in the big bucks myself. However, that’s not an excuse. There is editing software out there, like AutoCrit and ProWriting Aid, that have free versions. These versions give you access to several reports that could help you edit your work, and you don’t need to spend a dime. In addition, these companies often have Black Friday sales on their yearly subscriptions, sometimes offering them at a deep discount. Still, the free versions will allow you to at least do some editing, which is better than none. If you continue on with this “I can’t afford to edit” bullshit, then you’re just being lazy.
And finally, we have the idiots who think “editing will change my writing style”. If you’re writing style is piss poor, full of plot holes, and hard to fucking read, then yes, editing will change your writing style. Again, that isn’t your writing style, it’s you being fucking lazy.
Now I’m willing to allow that some of you with this mindset might have seen something like this actually happen. When I was using Word, it would make these weird suggestions that if I chose to go with them, made my writing sound robotic. If this is the case, then it isn’t the editing that changed your writing style, it’s the fact that you’re using a tool for something it was never designed for. Word was designed for professional office documents, like memos and the like. It was never designed for writing fiction. Therefore, when it’s detecting what you’re writing, it’s basically telling you “this does not sound professional”.
This is like building a house using a pair of pliers as a hammer, and then when people tell you to use a hammer, you say, “I don’t use hammers, because they change the way I build houses”. If you’re in this camp, then learn to use the proper tools. Word will allow you to write whatever you want, but it’s not going to help with editing, unless you’re wanting robotic language, or your manuscript is really just a series of office memos.
Editing is where the magic happens. Your first draft is just getting it out of your head and onto whatever medium you choose, whether that’s paper, a computer screen, clay tablets, whatever. Editing is where you improve upon it, refine it, and actually give it a chance at being a best seller. You don’t edit your work, then I hate to break it to you chief, but your work will never become a best seller, or the greatest literary novel in the history of the universe. By not editing, you are guaranteeing two things: your book will never sell, and we’ll have to deal with your whinging bullshit about how you can’t seem to sell any books.
Edit your work!
OK, now that I’ve gotten it off my chest, and assuming you are still with me, here is the part where I give you some helpful tips and advice on editing your work. This is by no means exhaustive, simply because I can’t account for every genre, nor would I want to attempt it. If you’re a horror writer, I can absolutely give you more specific pointers. If you happen to write anything else, the best I can do is give you pointers for the general rules of writing that apply across the board. Therefore, these tips are for editing in general, and are not genre specific. Let’s begin.
Before I give you the tips, let me say, above all else, I recommend that you break down your editing into different tasks. So one task might be to just read your manuscript and look for plot holes. During this, that’s all you’re doing, you’re not looking for spelling errors, or poor dialogue, whatever. Your next task might be spelling errors. During this, you’re only looking for misspelled words and nothing else. The reason I say this, is because editing can be phenomenally overwhelming, to the point where you just look at it and have no idea where to start.
There’s a joke that goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is, “One bite at a time.” So how do you edit your manuscript? One task at a time.
So my first tip is, get an editing program that’s designed from the ground up for the type of writing you do, like the aforementioned AutoCrit and ProWriting Aid. These will allow you to run various reports that makes editing a bit easier, by allowing you to focus on one aspect at a time. This will help make editing a lot less overwhelming, and will also make sure the edits you perform are on par for whatever you’re writing.
Now to be clear, I am not getting paid to push these products. It doesn’t matter to me which one you use, or if you choose to use a completely different one. I’m not going to make or lose money one way or the other. If you want my recommendation, I would recommend AutoCrit, but that’s because I have used it extensively, have seen the vast improvements it has made in my own writing, and it has a wide variety of styles and genres that you can use. Personally as a horror writer, I use the horror genre when running my reports, because it will also flag additional things that apply to that genre. That said, it has a lot of other styles and genres to choose from, and you can even compare your work to individual authors if you wanted to. I’m willing to bet you’ll find one that will work for you.
Editing software will help you to find the things you need to fix in your manuscript. It will make suggestions, but it’s up to you, as the writer, to decide whether you need to make the change. It will not make the change for you. An example:
I ran a passive voice report on one of my works in progress to find where I needed to make the change to active voice. I made all the changes I could, then reran the report to find whatever I might have missed. I did this several times until I noticed that the only thing that it was now picking up was in dialogue. If I could change the dialogue and keep it sounding normal, I did. What was left was things I couldn’t change without making the dialogue sound off. The report was still flagging it, but I knew it was done.
And those other areas that were flagged that I changed? 100% made what I wrote so much better than what I had initially written. Plus, I can write in any program I want, and then import it into the editing software. Some editing software even allows you to write within it, so you don’t even need another program. It’s all up to you. That said, whatever you choose, you will want to make sure that it is able to handle whatever genre you’re writing in.
Second, once you’ve written your first draft, take a break from it. It doesn’t have to be long. It could be a day or two, it could be longer. Taking a break from it means that you will come back with fresh eyes. It’s much easier to spot errors, odd sentences, and plot holes after a break than when you’re still working on it. It’s ok to take a break.
When I’m taking a break, I’m usually either working on a different project (if I have one), or I’m doing something that isn’t writing related, like playing a video game or going hiking with my dog. During this time, what I’m not doing is thinking about that manuscript. In fact, I pretend that it doesn’t even exist during that time.
Third, when you do come back to it, before you do anything else, read it out loud. You’d be surprised at what you’ll miss when reading it silently, but you’ll totally catch when reading it out loud. I also suggest running it through some kind of software that can read it back to you as well. A lot of editing software has this ability, but so does some writing programs. While reading it aloud in your own voice is helpful, hearing it out loud from a different source is another way that it will catch things. You will also want to do this after each subsequent draft, so don’t think this is a one and done.
Fourth, if you wrote on a computer or other electronic device. Print it out. Seeing it in print is a lot different than seeing it on a screen, and this will also help you catch errors you might otherwise have missed. It will also allow you to jot down notes near the appropriate section.
Fifth, keep your writing voice active. When the writing is active, that means the subject of a sentence is performing an action. When passive, it means that the subject is being acted on. For example, passive voice would be something like “This cake was baked by Betty”, whereas with active, it would be “Betty baked this cake”. Writing that’s passive usually comes across as aloof and distant, whereas active writing is usually energized and keeps your readers attention. A good rule to keep in mind would be to put the subject first in the sentence. That’s not to say that passive writing is totally forbidden, but there’s a time and place for it and it’s not the entire manuscript.
Sixth, edit line by line. This sounds incredibly difficult, depending on the size of the manuscript. This is also where editing software becomes really helpful, although you don’t want to completely rely on it to the point it becomes a crutch. Look for ways to simplify what you’re saying, and make sure the words you use are the absolute best and most impactful for what you’re trying to get across. Writing something like “He hit the man in the face” might work, but does it really give the impact that you’re going for? Perhaps a better way would be to write “He smashed his fist into the man’s face”. Hit works, but smashed is much more visceral. Editing software might not catch that at all, so by going line by line yourself, you’re making sure you are strengthening your work.
Seventh, avoid clichés. You’ve probably heard that a million times, but it’s said a million times for a reason. When a cliché was first uttered, it probably sounded really wise and clever. Not so much the bajillionth time it’s used. Unless you can somehow put a unique spin on it, or incorporate it in a way that doesn’t seem tired and overused, don’t use them. Using cliché’s actually do more harm than good, and they can actually weaken what would otherwise be really strong writing.
Eighth, remove any weak “to be” verbs. These verbs will often, if not always, weaken whatever words follow. These verbs are things like “am”, “is”, “are”, “was”, “were”, “been”, and “being”. Replace these with stronger words. An example would be, “He was not very happy about mowing the lawn”. By itself it seems fine. But let’s remove the verb “was” and use a stronger word. “Mowing the lawn angered him.” The latter is much stronger, more effective, and much more engaging for the reader.
Ninth, remove weak adjectives. This is much like the last tip. Weak adjectives will also bring otherwise strong writing down. A good rule is that you want to remove any adjective that ends in “-y” or “-ly”, like “really” or “very”. An example here would be “He was really scared of spiders” could be made more effective by getting rid of really, and choosing a better word for scared. So, for example, “Spiders terrified him.” That’s not to say that you can never use these words. You just don’t want to use these words when you can choose something much better.
Tenth, “show don’t tell”. Make sure that what you are writing is conveying exactly what you want for the reader. This doesn’t mean that you are trying to dictate the exact same thing you imagine. It means you are writing in such a way that you draw the reader in, and have them feel present in your story. For this, you’ll want to use strong verbs, and choose specific and significant details. Don’t ramble, and you don’t want to tell readers how to feel, but you’ll want to give them enough details to set the scene and allow them to react.
Instead of telling readers, “William was angry”, instead try, “William gritted his teeth, his hands curling into fists.” The first is generic, it doesn’t really do anything. The second sentence allows the reader to “see” William’s state of mind and body posture. One caveat to keep in mind is that you can generally show more when the pacing is slower, but when the pace is meant to be quicker, like in a fight, then you want to make sure that your showing is a bit shorter and on the mark. Thus you will want to use less words, but choose more powerful words to convey what is happening, while not slowing things down.
So there you have it. If you made it this far, then I thank you and greatly appreciate you hanging in there. If the rant didn’t apply to you, then I hope you found it entertaining. If you got your feelings hurt by it, then I would suggest examining why that is, and hopefully, you will realize how important it is to edit.
I also hope that these tips are helpful. I want to be a damn good writer, and I want my fellow writers to be damn good as well, from both a fellow writer’s perspective and a potential reader of your work.
Stay classy, and keep writing, and editing, those stories!
This has been another episode of Empty Pages. If you enjoyed what you heard and want more of it, you can follow me at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from. Please leave me a review, as that really helps me out, and if you do, you might find your review featured in a future episode. You can find me at ianmactire.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram as @ianmactire. Until next time, I’m Ian and this is Empty Pages. Stay classy and write those stories!
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