Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Common edits to improve your writing

A lot of editing and rewriting involves relatively minor mechanical and technical changes. A lot. Not that I'm complaining; making these simple changes is a routine part of my work, and if nothing else it keeps me steadily employed. Many of them are changes I make to my own writing on a second draft!

However, I thought it'd be helpful to share my "greatest hits": the advice I give most often, and make use of most often when revising my own work. If you can apply this advice to your own manuscript, it will become noticeably cleaner. This doesn't mean it'll be perfect--but once a story is polished technically, it can be easier to spot and address more subtle or individual strengths and weaknesses. If a manuscript is full of run-on sentences, it can be hard to even follow the plot, much less worry about how it meshes with the character arcs!

  • Which brings me to my first bit of advice, and the one tidbit of information that has been most useful to me personally this past year: the average sentence should be about 20 words long. Some will be shorter. Others will be much longer. You'll want to manage longer sentences carefully (especially if they're over 30 words), and you probably won't want to use more than one or two per paragraph. The first sentence in this bullet point is 35 words long; the third is 27. 
  • Check to make sure that a long sentence isn't in fact a run-on or a comma splice. I don't think you need to be a grammar expert to be a good storyteller. However, being able to write clear sentences is important to allow readers to follow along. Also, being able to spot and fix run-on sentences (as well as to avoid writing many of them in the first place) will save you immense amounts of time on your second draft--and, if you hire an editor, a manuscript with fewer sentence boundary errors to correct will save you money, too. 
  • When it comes to sentence boundary errors and sentence structure issues, such as parallel structure, I encourage all writers to approach them humbly. Overconfidence about my ability to write a clean sentence meant that I've taken a long time to acknowledge and fix several of my most awkward habits. I'm still catching myself using poetic comma splices or abandoning parallel structure without good reason. I suspect I'm not alone in my overconfidence, either, because sentence boundary errors are the single issue with manuscripts that I spend the most time fixing. 
  • One method to catch run-on sentences, which also is an excellent method to study your word choice and voice in general, is to read the story aloud. Listen to the places you pause--for effect or for breath--and try to make them match the punctuation on the page. Raise your voice when you write a question mark (which should only go after a direct question). Only take a breath at periods/full stops (and shorter breaths at semicolons, shorter still at commas). Learning to read aloud was an important part of my own long education in the fact that, hey, I really do write too many long sentences! 
  • The English language is not like German--it's likely that far fewer nouns need to be capitalized than you might think. That is, I more often have to put nouns in lowercase than I do capitalizing them in the manuscripts I edit. Some of these excess capitals may be hypercorrection (the same thing that causes people to say 'whom' instead of 'who' in the wrong sentence, or to say 'I feel badly' rather than 'I feel bad'). I believe you can trust your gut here. Unless a word would look distressingly wrong without the capitalization, it’s probably just fine in lowercase. 
  • However, if you don't trust your gut, here's a handy rule of thumb: a noun is capitalized if it names a unique item (the Thames river, the Story Addict blog) or is being used as part of a name (I thanked my doctor by saying "I'll never be able to repay you, Doctor Barnes"; I told my mother, "Good morning, Mom"). If not, then probably not. Note that 'Mom' is capitalized when it's addressing the mother, but lowercase otherwise. I was excited to hear Aunt Janie was coming for a visit. -vs - Her aunt, Janie, came to visit that weekend.  
  • Dialogue can appear clunky when it's always tagged in the same way. By this, I don't mean to encourage using "said-bookisms"-- "said" is a clear and invisible word. However, every line of dialogue does not need to be prefaced by "Character Name Said." That makes a manuscript look like a screenplay. Also, consider using a variety of dialogue tags--sometimes "Character name said" and sometimes "said Character Name" (odd as it sounds, I've read manuscripts that only used the latter form, and it invariably began to sound awkward). Sometimes action beats instead. The variety will keep a conversation lively and interesting to follow. However, dialogue tags that are awkward, unnecessary, or repetitive can distract a reader so much that it ruins the entire scene. 
  • Be careful of the phrase "and said". Often this is superfluous--readers will assume that the character who performs an action beat is also the speaker within the same paragraph (on which note, remember to start a new paragraph each time there's a new actor or speaker). Occasionally, adding "and said" will produce a sentence that overstays its welcome in an anticlimax--She felt her world crashing down around her, leaving behind only a hollow emptiness, a chilly void like she'd never felt before, and said, "I'm so unhappy."
  • In general, "and" sometimes links information within a sentence that doesn't need to be linked (a made-up example I enjoy sharing is She was crying on the stairway all night and she had never liked getting takeout, anyway.
  • Speaking of connecting information and avoiding anticlimax or bathos: details of character action, emotion, dialogue, and inner monologue should be carefully chosen to contribute to a particular mood and communicate specific ideas. Be careful of language that might be distracting or carry connotations you don't intend. Synonyms rarely mean the exact same thing. 
  • I always highlight repeated words in manuscripts. It's a good idea to avoid repeating the same word within a brief amount of space unless it is necessary to make a point or communicate clearly. Depending on how unique a word sounds, and thus how memorable or noticeable it is, I suggest avoiding an echo of it within the same sentence (always), within two adjacent sentences (usually), within a single paragraph, or even within a full page or entire chapter. Likewise avoid repeating the same figure of speech. 
  • Some of the most common verbs I find myself highlighting are turning/turned, looking/looked, walking/walked, and smiling/smiled. Some writers attack the problem of characters turning, looking, walking, and smiling too much by using synonyms, which is good for word variety but may still lead to characters behaving in eerily repetitive ways. Consider cutting some instances of these words and synonyms, but also consider when different word choice would be stronger. She looked at her mother angrily could become She glared at her mother. Likewise, She walked towards him could be She approached him or She stalked towards him depending on the nature of the scene. And lastly, these verbs can be unnecessary within context. Characters can be assumed to have turned to the person they're addressing (if they haven't, this is worth mentioning), to have looked at an object the narrative in their point of view is describing, or to have walked to the room they come into. 
  • A weird fact: 'blond/e' is one of very few English words that is gendered. Men are never blonde, they are blond
  • Dialogue is considered part of the same sentence as the dialogue tag.  “She said” is not a complete sentence. It should be connected to the line of dialogue by a comma. Capitalize appropriately. This one is worth stressing, being perhaps the second most common error I correct, and common among manuscripts that are otherwise very polished. 
  • I have a personal preference for showing only dialogue in quotation marks, and putting all other communication (such as written text the characters are reading) in italics. There isn’t complete consensus on this, though. All the same, I suggest avoiding reader confusion by never using quotation marks for a character's unspoken inner monologue. Instead, use italics (I thought, this story is harder to understand than I expected. I muttered to myself, "I could write a blog post about this."). The risk here is making it look like your character has just called his boss an unprintable word aloud, and readers will wonder why he isn't being fired.
  • Passive voice is to be avoided except for when there is a specific reason in favor of using it. Aside from being verbose, passive voice obscures the identity of whoever is performing the action, adding an unnecessary air of mystery (except for when the writer uses passive voice to build an air of mystery very deliberately). Passive voice can also blur the line between action and description--was the ladder set against the wall when they entered the room, or is the protagonist leaning it there right now?
  • Filters such as I thought, I felt, I heard, and I remembered are often unnecessary, and can be cut unless they contribute to clarity or sentence rhythm. 
  • It's common advice to "show" rather than "tell," but it's important to focus on "showing" the most important details (it is the storyteller's privilege and duty to decide what details are most important to the story). Use "telling" to communicate information that needs to be known to make sense of the story, but isn't dramatic or significant enough for showing. If a detail doesn't really add to the story, you don't need to mention it at all unless you want to. 
  • Melodrama is a matter of personal taste. In general, though, I believe most manuscripts benefit from making use of subtly and having extreme and intense moments stand out because of their rarity. If every character screams their dialogue in every scene, it becomes harder to tell when a disagreement is really serious. If a character bursts into tears over failing to find a parking space, it'll be a struggle to show how much worse the character feels when Aunt Janie goes missing. 
  • Once information is shown or told, it won't need to be introduced again, although it may be referred to as the character has cause to remember it. Outlining can help you keep track of when you introduced specific information, and that will keep you from repetition that leaves the reader thinking "Yes, I know already, get on with it!" Rereading will also help catch this. 
  • Nobody wants to think they have unwarranted tense changes in their first draft--but it's quite likely that you do. I almost always do, because I write my outlines in present tense and most of my fiction in the past tense. Sometimes when an author gets caught up in the moment, they switch into present tense. And authors who intend to write an entire story in present tense will sometimes slip up and use past. Luckily, this is usually quite simple to fix; just be aware that this happens so you aren't caught unprepared. 
  • Always look up the spelling of brand names, trademarks, and websites. They tend to be idiosyncratic. Also, once you've looked them up, ignore Autocorrect when it tries to tell you differently. 
  • Speaking of looking up spelling, the Merriam-Webster dictionary is free online, and can be very useful to check spelling and to make sure a word means exactly what you're using it for. Bookmark it.
  • Merriam-Webster will sometimes give you multiple ways to spell a word, especially when it comes to hyphenated ones (although as a quick rule of thumb, adjectives are often hyphenated when nouns are not. He's a blue-eyed boy with blue eyes.) Once you decide on a preferred spelling, you may want to make a note of it on a 'style sheet.' This is also a good way to keep track of formatting decisions (such as whether you spell out numbers or use digits--fiction writing leans towards spelling out most numbers under 1,000--and whether or not you're using the serial/Oxford comma). Copyeditors make style sheets for each manuscript they're working with. They don't have to be fancy. A Post-It note over your laptop that reads "always use hyphen when M-W.com says so; spell one-nine hundred ninety nine and write 1,000<; no Oxford comma; A.M. and P.M." does the job as well. 
  • Metaphors are an area of great risk and great reward. Some people don't think in analogies at all, while others live in a parallel world populated by associations. I'm in the latter group myself, and I enjoy rich, poetic metaphors that build a story thematically and use language in fun ways. However, be careful of cliches, and do make sure your metaphors fit the tone and setting of the story (“The death of Romeo set Juliet on an emotional roller coaster.”) 
  • And lastly, a piece of advice for being edited: it will take time, but be sure to look over each change as you accept it. I always try to protect the voice of each writer, but sometimes I'll rewrite a sentence to offer an example. Or I'll suggest several different changes, and the author can pick the one that fits their story best. Perhaps I'll suggest something that absolutely clashes with the story's goals, and the author will have to click the "Reject Change" button. That said, editors do try hard to make a story the best it can be, and we don't make our suggestions lightly. If you're rejecting every change an editor suggests, consider why that is. Possibly your styles don't mix--but it's not a sign of disparagement for your original authorial voice to correct run-on sentences or suggest you double check the spelling of a word. Be an active partner in polishing your story, and you, your editor, and your readers will be better off from it. 
  • A lot of what I learned about writing I learned from being edited. I also learned a lot about writing by helping to edit others' work (both in critique groups and even now, as a professional editor). I learned several things about writing by carefully reading others' stories, both published and unpublished. And I learned a lot about writing from, well, writing! Never let pass an opportunity to learn. Reading, writing, and rewriting will also help you think more about stories and give you inspiration for your next work.