By Lois J. Peterson
I wasn’t around when publishers signed up authors, then helped them improve their grammar, punctuation, and anything else that needed fixing. But I do know that these days your submission’s more likely to be accepted for publication if you learn to edit your own work yourself before submitting it..
Self-editing takes time to learn, and discipline to exercise. But it can pay off.
Issues of subject, style, organization, and presentation will affect how a piece of writing fares when it hits an editor’s desk. This article’s designed to help you look closely at text, and eliminate problems before you send it out.
Below are the ten most common problems encountered by the editors, book doctors, and contest judges I polled for this article.
You seldom need them; eliminate them by using stronger verbs to create more dynamic images or scenes. Any one of a host of stronger verbs can be used to replace the following adverbs: he walked briskly / she said quietly/ the flags waved lazily / the children played happily.
Adverbs used alongside a strong verb are doubly redundant. In she tugged sharply, and he hesitated briefly, the adverb repeats the idea already implied by the verb. The word hesitate implies brevity; tug is itself a sharp action.
To track down adverbs in your work, set the ‘find’ function of your word processor to catch anything ending with ‘ly’, then replace the associated verb with a stronger one and eliminate the adverb. Keep count of how many adverbs you find in each piece, and aim to reduce their occurrence in subsequent work.
These arise in ideas and scenarios, as well as in language. Could the neighbor not borrow something other than a cup of sugar? Are there only spiteful nuns at the child’s convent school? The use of a mirror to reflect a character’s appearance has become clichéd, as have stories that end with a protagonist waking from a dream.
I used to think that clichés are acceptable only in characters’ mouths. I’ve since come to believe that characters should only use them if they’re unoriginal thinkers with no other way of expressing themselves. But the question arises – can a writer not convey lack of originality in an original way, rather than resorting to clichés?
Contractions / possessives / plurals
One editor says she sees contractions, possessives, and plurals misused so often she ignores them, and fixes them later. A contest judge tells me that if there’s more than one such error in the first page he’s unlikely to bother with the rest of the piece Your best bet is to write for the contest judge, and be relieved if a permissive editor catches you out.
If you’re confused between its and it’s, consider this—the possessives his, hers, theirs, ours and yours do not have an apostrophe. Its is just another possessive. It doesn’t need one either.
But contractions do. It is a hot day becomes it’s a hot day, in the same way that She was not unhappy contracts to she wasn’t unhappy.
Plurals are easy. They never need apostrophes.
Seven dogs are in the yard and the black one is scratching its leg. My dog’s asleep at home, just about covers it.
Watch out for words repeated too closely on a page. Then, either change them or move them. If you leave them where they are, make sure it’s for a reason—for emphasis, irony, or to underline the meaning of the phrase or sentence.
In one draft of a recent story, I repeated the phrase she took his arm five times. Although the story was about an elderly man attended by female caregivers, I revised the piece so the reader would not be distracted by the repetitions, or worse still, start looking for the phrase’s next occurrence. I’m always alert to references of flying wedge haircuts and French heels on Ed McBain’s women. Somehow he gets away with slipping them into every novel, often more than a few times in each. But you might not want your readers to play ‘find the verbal tic’ with your work.
The repetition of ideas can contribute to ‘too much tell, not enough show’.
Junk Unlimited’s CEO has a tidy office. Paper clips are ranged in military fashion around the magnetic holder. The few papers on his wide mahogany desk are placed edge to edge, and the phone sits right up against the desk’s beveled corner. The idea expressed in the first phrase is repeated through description. We know this guy’s tidy by what we’re shown, without the reader needing to tell us.
It recently came to my attention that an article was published claiming that the passive voice is not so bad. I forget where or by whom, and from the way I wrote that first sentence, you can’t tell either.
The passive voice, in which an action is not directly attributed to a subject, is often used in business communications. All cars parked in the forecourt will be towed away might not be as confrontational as a sign that reads, The manager will tow away John Bloom’s car if he dares to leave it parked outside the front door again. However, the second version lends a more dramatic tone to the warning, and might get prompter action. If you want to involve your readers, use the active voice so they can tell who’s doing what to whom.
The only time you might need to use the passive voice is when your intention is to convey disassociation from an act or situation.
I overuse commas, and often only know how many is too many when I read the piece aloud. Lots of people misuse semi-colons. When does a period fall inside quotation marks, and when does it fall outside? These and other fine points of punctuation are discussed and explained in a number of books on grammar and writing. Some are listed in a sidebar, here. Learn the right rules of punctuation and use them.
My favorite is the man put his hat on his head. Where else would he put it? Now, if he put it on his elbow…
The Writer’s Digest website once posted an impressive list of redundancies that included phrases such as circle around, never before, young baby, raining outside, future plan, gather together. See how many you slip into your writing without noticing. You’ll produce tighter, more compelling work if you learn to edit out redundancies as you go, especially the ones you don’t need.
One sign of amateur writing is excessive use of dialogue tags such as he explained / she retorted/he cried / she replied / they begged. The good old he said / she said are discreet and non-intrusive. A writer’s obligation is to convey mood, tone, and meaning through the dialogue itself, rather than depending on tags.
If these simple tags sound repetitive, try leaving speech unattributed when the speaker’s identity is clear. Or use a combination of dialogue/action to convey who said what and why.
“Get down from there.” Mary grabbed Jean’s arm and dragged her down from the monkey bars, works here without any attribution.
Oregon editor and critique group leader Elizabeth Lyon’s best advice is to avoid using weak verbs in power positions.
The weakest phrases are those that employ variations of the verb ‘to be’. These include there were/there are/it is/it was. Power positions occur at the beginning and end of books, chapters, paragraphs and sentences – the doorways that meet, greet, and send readers on their way.
There were four people sitting at the dining room table when George walked into the room. He’d never seen them before, might be more powerfully written as Four strangers looked up from the table when George walked into his dining room.
Minnie Howes dropped dead over her Sunday bowl of porridge has more dramatic impact than It was Sunday morning when Minnie Howes dropped dead over her bowl of porridge. There are, however, times when weaker verbs are used with good reason. It was Sunday Morning when Minnie Howes dropped dead over her bowl of porridge, and Thursday afternoon when her body was discovered by the gardener peering through the window, tells a different story.
Spelling and word use
It’s all very well to spell check a piece of writing, but don’t expect it to catch everything. I recently wrestled with the spelling of recognizance. I was so pleased to get it right that it took a better editor than me to point out that the word I wanted was reconnaissance. If you don’t know the difference between their and there, heirs and hairs, the spellchecker isn’t much help.
An old proofreading trick is to read a piece backwards, one word at a time. This forces you to consider every word out of context, helping you identify errors, or find more appropriate words.
And don’t use the first word that comes to mind. Good diction makes for better writing.
These are not the only elements you should monitor as you develop your self-editing skills. But you can use these as a base on which to build your own checklist, adding weaknesses that re-occur in your writing, and things that others point out when they review your work.
Then check your writing against it as you work to make your writing the best it can be.
The editor will thank you.
Lois J. Peterson’s stories and articles have published essays in a wide range of magazines and newspapers. She is coordinator of the Surrey Creative Writing Program in British Columbia, and has recently published ’101 Writing Exercises To Get You Started and Keep You Going’, available by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org