Writing is hard.
Editing your own work is, some would argue, harder.
What are some common mistakes editors watch for?
1) Let’s start with something pretty common: the overuse of “that.” Everyone does it; we use them when we speak, so they sneak into our writing. The trick is to go through and cut the ones that aren’t needed before the book gets handed off to someone else. Removing excess “that”s is a process a colleague and I used to call a “thatectomy,” and it never ceases to amaze me how many find their way into manuscripts.
2) One of the biggest issues I run into is the concept of “show, don’t tell.” I’m sure every writer has heard this one over and over, and that’s because it’s true. Don’t describe what’s going on directly; make me feel it, see it, believe it. Give me action.
3) Here’s a tough one: crafting natural-sounding dialogue. Dialogue should sound like how people actually talk. As in the rest of your writing, sentence structure should be varied. It’s okay to add a few ellipses (when someone trails off) and em dashes (when someone is interrupted), because this happens in real life.
3.5) Be careful how you use dialogue tags. In most cases, “she said,” “he answered,” or “he asked” are just fine. No need to run to the thesaurus to use “questioned,” “queried,” “opined,” “interjected,” or, my personal (not) favorite, “ejaculated.” Using these less-common tags throw the reader out of the story, which is the last thing you want them to do. “Said” and “asked” are common and easily read-over, which is just what you need here.
4) Speaking of not running to the thesaurus, don’t turn to synonyms unnecessarily. A thesaurus is great if you’re looking for that one word that you can’t quite put a finger on, but it should be used very sparingly.
5) One writing practice to cut down on is the use of passive voice—cut out as many unnecessary “to be” verbs as you can. Own the action, make the characters own the action. “There was a haystack in the middle of the field,” for instance, can change to, “A haystack stood in the middle of the field.” The sentence is not only a little bit shorter, but stronger.
6) Another common issue is adding too much backstory. It’s absolutely wonderful when every character has a story and a history, but the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know all that—or if they do, it can be doled out in small pieces, rather than dumped in all at once. That leads us to “info-dumping,” when a writer “dumps” all the relevant information of a place, person, or event in one spot. Parse out what’s necessary to advance the story, and what will only bog it down.
7) One final thing—be sure there’s conflict, a hook, a reason to keep reading. We read as a form of escapism. Without conflict of some sort, why will we keep reading? Conflict can be person against person, person against nature, person against god, person against animal . . . the list goes on and on.
How can one writer possibly look out for all these things while they write? Well, here’s the thing: with the first draft, don’t focus too much on all these at once. Or even any of them. The first draft can simply be getting the story down on paper, knowing you’ll be coming back later to fill in the blanks, fix the plot holes and mistakes, and tighten the dialogue. How many drafts this takes is up to each author. Each time you look at a draft, focus on a few different elements. For example, after the first draft, the next step may be to work on the deep, developmental issues—issues with the plot and flow. As it gets cleaner, move to focusing on the nitty-gritty grammatical issues.
Keep your favorite reference books nearby, and your favorite editor on speed-dial.
And remember . . .