“I’m writing my life story, and no one knows it better then me. So what can an editor do that I can’t do for myself?”
For openers, a good editor can help you avoid looking foolish, and that assumes you’re pretty good at the basic stuff like spelling, grammar and punctuation. For most memoir writers, the task is the first long written work they’ve ever done. The assumption that living your life qualifies you to write about it in a way folks will eagerly read is misguided at best. While it certainly helps to have lived the story, that kind of experience doesn’t automatically make you a good writer, though it will undoubtedly help.
Fortunately, it’s not that difficult to cobble something together that reads smoothly, covers the topic, and won’t annoy readers–all good things to strive for. There are endless lists available on the internet which profess to warn the unwary of the “Ten Most Dreadful Mistakes Writers Make” or the “Five Things Keeping You from Becoming a Bestselling Author,” etc.
Many of these sites are more interested in getting your name and email address than they are in helping you patch up a leaky manuscript. They’re eager to sell you more lists and/or software so you can solve your writing problems without investing any effort on your part.
Psst! There’s a special going on–today only. Just two meager payments of $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) will net you a Magic Writing Wand. Simply wave it over your manuscript, and a horde of editors and agents will storm the castle gates with offers too good to believe. Seriously. We’re not kidding. Hurry–don’t delay!
I also have a list of things to look for and/or change, and I suspect it’s not all that different from the other 9 gazillion such lists you can choose from. What most of those lists don’t have, however, is a plan for actually doing the updates. Oh, yeah, and my list is free. I don’t want your name and address, just your attention.
What follows is my Top Ten Fix List for writers of non-fiction (which is similar to but shorter than my list for novelists). Do yourself a favor though, write the best stuff you can, first. Only then should you work your way through the list. Here ’tis:
- Replace adverbs with active verbs. Even if you limit your search to words ending in “ly,” you’ll spot the worst of them. It’s easier for a reader to visualize someone jogging or racing than it is to imagine them moving swiftly.
- Replace clichés with your own expressions. Why re-use something trite like “dog tired” or “hard as a rock,” when you could bring your text to life with originality. Why not “leg-dragging weary” or “hard as a fanatic’s heart?”
- Whack weasel words. Start with “really” and “very,” then hunt down other empty expressions like “rather,” “started to,” “nearly,” “almost” and the rest of their ilk. Why be satisfied with flabby expressions such as “she began to wonder” when you can leave out the fat and simply go with “she wondered.”
- This about “that.” The word “that” is almost always unnecessary; delete it whenever you can, and make sure you don’t mean “who” when you’re writing about people.
- Break up long, convoluted sentences. Go for a mix of sentence lengths.
- Double negatives are double awful. Whether intended or not, double negatives can make your writing seem amateurish.
- Beware of “was.” It usually signals passive voice, and you don’t want that. In passive voice, things happen to people. It’s better to show people doing things. Don’t tell me Alonzo was really tired; paint me a word picture of Alonzo dragging himself into bed, too exhausted to undress.
- Be specific. A ’48 Ford sans muffler is way more interesting than a “noisy, old car.”
- Get rid of pet phrases. We’re often unaware of them until someone points out how repetitious they are, and then it’s too late. Learn to recognize your pet expressions so you can nuke ’em. They’re easier to find when you read your work out loud.
- Dialog is your friend. Long paragraphs can be visually daunting. Imagine a page or two with only an occasional indention or two. It looks like a solid mass: frightening. Break it up with dialog, even if it’s internalized speech. Find someone and make them say something!
So, how do you actually use this list? Don’t memorize it and try to find and fix everything in one exhaustive editing session. Take it one item at a time, and check off each one as you complete it. Go through your whole manuscript ten times. Yes, ten! Focus on each of the topics and deal with it exclusively. Then move on to the next.
Unless you have a deadline that actually involves someone’s physical demise, take the time to do the job right. Who cares if it takes an extra day or two? Who cares if it takes an extra month or two? If you cared enough to write it, isn’t it worth the additional time required to make it worth reading? The number of people who’ll read it just because they love you is horribly limited. So write for everyone else, too! Make your story the best it can be. It’ll be around a lot longer than either of us.