Seven Habits of Highly Effective Authors: Habit Five
Wow! We’re at Habit 5 already! Let’s summarize quickly before we move on.
Highly Effective Authors…
1. Write every day.
2. Understand the business side of publishing.
3. Learn how to take criticism.
4. Set goals and meet them.
And now Number 5: Highly Effective Authors learn how to edit (there’s that four-letter word) their own work.
I don’t know if you realize this or not, but self-editing is harder than you think. For one thing, it means the author must realize that every word she’s bled and sweated onto those pages are not golden. No one’s work is perfect. And I’ve found that each writer has both his/her own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
Sometimes it takes a while for you to learn what your personal strengths and weaknesses are. But take my word for it–If your book gets published but isn’t thoroughly edited, you’ll find out pretty quickly. Reviewers can be harsh critics.
So, if you don’t know what you should be looking for, how can you possibly fix it?
A few suggestions:
You could find a critique group or partner.
If you’re brand new to writing, I highly recommend you find yourself a critique group or partner. For a number of reasons. You’ll learn to take criticism. You’ll polish your craft by critiquing other people’s work. And you’ll take advantage of your partner’s strengths. Ideally their strengths will complement yours.
But I will warn you, not all critique groups/partners are created equal. You still need to have some idea of what kind of help you need before you pick a partner. Do you need help with grammar? Finding redundant words? Tightening writing? Finding your voice? Closing up Swiss-cheesy plots? You need to find a partner with skills in those areas.
You could use a reference book.
There are several nonfiction books out there about how to edit fiction. Most of them concentrate on basic grammar and the technical aspects of writing. So, if you don’t use verbs properly or write loose, twisty-turny sentences, you might get some help. If your weakness is inconsistencies in plotting, they may not do you a bit of good.
You could enter some writing contests to get anonymous feedback.
Contests are a whole ‘nother topic. In fact, I’ve done some blogging about them. Some authors fall into the habit of writing and polishing three chapters, entering hundreds of contests, and never finishing a book. There’s also the problem of conflicting (or downright useless) feedback. At least in RWA chapter-sponsored contests, the judges are often unpublished writers. And these people can get *really* hung up on nitpicky things while missing more important issues (like the fact that the heroine is totally TSTL and should never leap into an erupting volcano). However, if you hear the same thing from every judge who reads your chapter, you can assume there’s a problem.
Conversely, you could volunteer to judge a writing contest.
When you judge someone else’s writing, you’re developing a critical eye, learning what to look for in your own work.
* * * * *
Here are a few suggestions on how to read your work with a more critical eye:
1. Let the book sit for a few weeks and start working on something else. Then go back and read it, cover-to-cover in a single day. Look for dropped threads in your plot.
2. Read it again. This time look for inconsistencies. Is your heroine wearing a blue top in the beginning of a chapter and a red one later? Do your characters undress twice in a scene?
3. Read the book backward, last chapter first, and so on, looking for inconsistencies, dropped threads and holes in your plot.
4. Read it (beginning to end) again, concentrating just on dialogue. Do your characters each have a unique voice? Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Are you using action beats to break up long-winded soliloquies and attribute the dialogue to your characters (versus “he said/she said”/dialogue tags after every line)?
5. Now, read the scenes in each character’s pov’s, skipping the ones in the others’. Make sure each character’s journey is consistent and complete.
6. Read it again, slowly, this time looking for smaller issues, long blocks of narrative (telling), POV abuse, unclear sentences, loose writing, repetitive sentence structure (always starting with “he” or “she” for example) and misused words (who’s/whose, they’re/their/there, it’s/its).
7. Finally, use Word’s Find and Replace feature to highlight weasel words (as, there, then, etc), -ing verbs, adverbs (-ly), and forms of To Be to see what kind of concentration you have of them in your book. Rewrite sentences if you can without making them clunky and awkward (I once went too far with this, and ended up with a huge mess. Some “was’s” are necessary).
I hope these suggestions help! Editing can be painful, but it’s a necessary evil. And the results are definitely worth it.
For more information on editing:
Self Editing by Lori Handeland http://www.eclectics.com/articles/selfediting.html
Self Editing Checklist
Elements of Style
Self Editing for Fiction Writers