Edit? You mean I’m not done yet?

Whoa. Edit my own book? Where would I even start?

Dollarphotoclub_87054689 txtFor most writers, especially those who haven’t already completed at least a couple full-length novels, you need to let your work cool off before you do anything. Why? Because your brain believes your brand-spanking new manuscript is flawless, and it will prevent you from seeing errors.

While your latest work is still steaming from its trip through your cerebral cortex, you won’t be able to do much with it. You must let it cool down; it’s critical that you put some distance between you and your baby. Otherwise you won’t be able to see the difference between the bits you think are cute and cuddly, and the ones everyone else will see as just downright, no-doubt-about-it ugly.

Editing requires a dispassionate mind, the ability to see what’s wrong, and the willingness to make corrections. It’s virtually impossible to achieve that state of mind when you’re looking at something you just finished writing. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count. So, wait a while; work on something else. Get your mind on another project.

If you’re writing a memoir, the easiest way to do this is to start working on another chapter. Let the last one rest. In fact, consider building up a “reservoir” of chapters (or related essays). Don’t go back and edit the first one until you’ve written two, three or even four more. That way, the earlier material will have cooled off, and you’ll be in a better frame of mind to make corrections. And corrections will be required. They always are.

Dollarphotoclub_64220823 revAssuming you’ve achieved the appropriate mental state (far short of nirvana), it’s time to look for the editorial equivalent of low-hanging fruit: weasel words, stative verbs, adverbs, and clichés.

I’ve addressed all these topics separately, so I won’t go into great detail here. Just know that these four issues are responsible for damaging more potentially good stories than anything else.

Start with weasel words–they’re legion, and they’re sneaky, so look hard. Most of them are empty qualifiers like “almost,” “rather,” “sort of,” “nearly” and “about.” Such words tell the reader you aren’t sure what you’re trying to say. Don’t let Samantha be “rather” pretty or “almost” perfect. Why hedge your bet? Hang it out there. If Samantha is a knock-out, say so! If she’s not, then figure out why and say that. “Samantha could have been a runway model if only she knew how to walk without falling down.” Or “Jeptha had it all, except a clue about what he was doing working in a shoe store.”

Next come stative verbs. For our purposes, these can be reduced to one little word: “was.” Use the FIND feature in your word processor to highlight every instance of “was.” (If your word processor doesn’t offer this feature, find one that does. If you can’t afford anything, download one of the freebies. Apache Open Office, for instance, is a great product with all the bells and whistles in MS-Word.) Now look at every sentence which contains the word “was.” Look, too, at how often it appears on any given page. Treat the word as a warning flag and ask yourself: Is this the best way to show what’s happening? Take the time to think about better ways of saying the same thing. See if you can’t find a real verb to carry the load. Remember: active verbs “show,” passive verbs (including all forms of “to be”) “tell.”

F’rinstance, which tells you more: “Nell was pretty,” or “Heads turned when Nell walked by.” One might even elaborate on the effect Nell’s presence had on males in the immediate locale: breathing slowed, stomachs tightened, mouths went dry, etc. On the other hand, it might be more fun to make observations about the female reactions to her passage. Sure, it might be a bit of a challenge, but it’ll make your work so much more enjoyable to read.

Adverbs suckUse the FIND feature again to locate words that end in the letters “ly.” For our purposes, consider any such words adverbs. Just as with “was,” adverbs tell rather than show.

Examples: 1) Mary walked hurriedly to the store. Does that form a picture in your mind? Okay, maybe. But if you said: Mary raced to the store, or dashed, or stumbled, or waltzed, or skippedthen you’d be painting a picture. 2) Joel watched happily as his daughter danced. [Yawn.] For the love of God, give poor Joel a transfusion! Pump some life into him. Let him grin, laugh, giggle, or howl as he watches his baby girl dance. Let him stick out his chest, or poke a neighboring parent and point to his offspring. Make him say something: “That’s my little Daisy–right there. Look at her twirl!” Don’t let adverbs take the place of words that actually paint a picture.

Finally, read your work out loud in your best dramatic voice, and pay attention! Are there phrases in there that sound overly familiar? I’m talking about phrases like: “sharp as a tack,” “fast as lightning,” “down and out,” and “blew me away.” These are clichés, and they’ll drain the vitality from your work just as profoundly as “was” and any member of the street gang of adverbs.

Take the time to rewrite them. Find a way to put the exact same idea into your own words. In many cases it won’t be easy, but work at it anyway. The problem with clichés is that they become invisible. A reader’s eye will skip past them without slowing down, and they could miss something important. Clichés are almost universally ignored; they just don’t stand out. They become part of the white noise that populates our world. Find a fresh way to say the same thing. Your goal should be to come up with something everyone else will wish they’d said. Let them turn YOUR words into a cliché. Now *that* would be something to be proud of.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Edit? You mean I’m not done yet?

  1. An-l says:

    Great info–the learning process of becoming a better writer is never ending. Interestingly, excuse the dear ‘ly’, I just re-read Chapter 28 & 29 in Write Naked last night about how easy it is to overlook the small stuff. I’m guilty of everything written in this those chapters and this blog.. I promise to take it to heart this time. Thanks Josh.

    • joshlangston says:

      There’s a reason why some editors earn a *lot* of money. I wish more writers would hire them. The stuff in this article carves some decent scratches in the surface of the topic, but there’s a great deal more.

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