Tuesday, 19 August 2014

20 Editing Tips For Fiction Writers

Editing is vital for any piece of writing - be it a short story or full size novel. Here's my 'go to' list of aspects to concentrate on in edits. It's not necessarily in any particular order - usually I'll go with what's most needed for that manuscript first, for example.

Because it would drive you insane to do one single pass over the manuscript for each of these things, I usually try to do two to three each pass, but sometimes do less, if the focus required for one aspect is greater. There's no point rushing - a good manuscript takes (lots of) time, care and effort.
Regardless of whether you engage the services of editors or not, regardless of whether you aim for traditional, hybrid or self publishing, you still need to edit your work to the best of your abilities. I hope this checklist will help!

Let the going insane editing begin!

1. Tense
Pick your tense and stick to it. Will you be using past or present tense (the most commonly used)? Unless you've got a really good reason for switching - don't. Jump on this like a hawk!

It's one of those things a reader will find exceptionally distracting, for example if your character 'jumped' onto a table and then 'dances'. Pick jumps/dances or jumped/danced.

2. Person
Pick your person and stick to it! Will you be using first (I), second (you) or third person (he/she/it)? Again, unless you've got a really good reason for switching - perhaps you're in third person but part of the tale is a memoir, a letter, an interview, or a really gripping first person account (for example) - stick to your person.

This is also a very distracting mistake for readers, who are jolted from the text every time the person shifts.

3. Punctuation
Check your punctuation thoroughly. A missing comma here and there is understandable, but be confident in your use of commas, semi-colons, hyphens, colons, full stops (etc). Punctuation isn't just a tool for separating clauses and sentences, it's a tool for pacing too. Your use of punctuation will (or should!) skillfully draw your reader through your text, neither too quickly or slowly.

Do you use short sentences to increase pace and tension where needed? Do you use longer descriptive sentences to slow your reader down and draw them into the setting/character? Do you add commas and other pausing marks, so that your readers can breathe (physically or mentally) whilst reading?

4. Grammar
Grammar is a tricky one, but its proper use can add a lot to your text. It can refine awkward phrases, sentences and passages, but equally it can be awkward and tricky to use depending on the language you write in. English, for example... is a pain!

One thing to beware of with grammar is to be careful when editing speech for grammar. Real people often don't speak grammatically correctly (and that's fine - it's life!). So, make sure that your own characters have natural speech. You can even use grammar to your advantage here to differentiate between characters - some characters may speak more grammatically correctly than others.

5. Spelling
Spelling is another must-check. Again, one or two mistakes might (and probably will) slip through the cracks. But if your manuscript is poorly edited for spelling, good story or not, it will be put down by a reader.

Ensure that the manuscript is well edited for spelling generally, but also take extra care to spell character names/places/technical vocabulary correctly. Some authors recommend use of a style sheet (a list of all key names, places and technical vocabulary) to refer to with ease for this purpose.

6. Sense check
This ties in with many of the other points - spelling, grammar, punctuation, tense person - but is just as crucial. Did you mean to say, "sand trickled through her fingers," but instead said, "sad trickled through her fingers"?

This is an edit where your brain really need to engage when re-reading your text. Don't just decode the text, concentrate on understanding it, translating it. Does it say what you think it says? Does it say what you want it to say?

7. Plot
This is a story development related issue. Sometimes you can fix this before you draft, by well plotting your story beforehand, finding and ironing out the mistakes. However, if you're a seat-of-the-pants type writer, you might prefer to write your first draft and then fix that. Both approaches are fine - it's whatever works for you, as long as you address it somewhere.

Your plot needs to make sense. There shouldn't be any gaps where characters, places, events or time are missing or out of sync. A timeline is a really useful way to ensure you have control over your plot and you can coordinate all your characters well. If they're anything like my characters, they need to be shepherded with stern looks and prods to make sure they're where they should be, when they should be.

8. Pacing
You need to ensure your story is well paced throughout. Are there bits where you cant be bothered reading? Why is that? They probably need cutting/fixing. Is your entire book action packed and your heart hammers all the way through? You might need to work in some downtime from all that drama. Even an exciting plot can become dull/too much if not well paced with some slower parts to ease tension and let the reader catch their breath.

One way to approach it is to imagine your story as a movie - can you imagine the entire thing without skipping over bits? If you find any part boring, your readers probably will too. Give them a reason to continue reading by making every word count.

9. Character development
Your characters should develop naturally over the course of the book. They should be recognisable as the same character by the end of the book, but they should change in some way, for example emotional/physical development, relating to whatever your main plot concerned.

10. Character voice
Character voice should also be easily discernable and consistent throughout. Does your character speak/sound the same at the start and end of the book? Unless that's part of the character development you've included, then the answer should probably be yes.

For example, some characters might use contractions (I'm, don't, can't) or slang (Innit man! Ey up?), some characters might not. By skillfully combining elements of realistic speech you can give your characters each a distinct spoken voice that will allow you to create dialogue scenes where you don't even need to label which character says what (which can then helps the flow of the scene for your reader).

11. More spelling, punctuation, grammar and sense checks
Sadly, one pass rarely picks up all the mistakes! (Wouldn't that be nice and easy...) This is one you really need to keep going over, with either an eye in the background during other edits (if you see a mistake, fix it, don't wait - you might forget), or as several edits where these are the primary focus.

12. Chapter/scene length
You may already have a clear idea of how long you prefer your scenes and chapters to be. It's worth flicking through your manuscript and seeing how consistent your chapter length is (or not). Variance can be good, however, if one chapter is 100 pages or 20,000 words long... you might want to consider shortening it!

This ties in with pacing and plotting, as you can use your chapters and secenes to keep enticing the reader to carry on reading. Your chapter ends shouldn't fall flat/answer all the readers questions - make sure they intruigue the reader enough to continue with some suspense, mystery, danger, conflict, dilemma (etc).

13. Entry hook
The book needs to start with a hook. Simple. Most readers judge a book (once they've picked it up having already judged and liked the cover/blurb enough to give it a try) on the first paragraph, or the first page at most. If you don't hook that reader then and there, they won't read the rest of the book, unfortunately. A killer opening is key. Rewrite this as many times as you need!

14. Plot resolved
This is a basic thing, but one not to overlook. Is your main plot resolved? Do you give the reader a positive or negative ending? Perhaps a twist? Perhaps a bit of a resolution, but you also end on a cliffhanger? (Aka write a sequel or angry readers will hunt you down!)

Readers will be so immensely annoyed if they've read your entire book, become emotionally entangled with your lead character and their crisis, only to never find out what happened. This doesn't have to dominate the story - I've seen advice to spend anywhere from a paragraph, a page, right up to the last 10% of the novel resolving the main plot. But resolve your plot and resolve it well. Leave a reader satisfied, even if it's not a happy ending.

15. Subplots resolved
Similarly to plot resolution is subplot resolution. Have you left any loose ends? If so, they should be purposeful (aka write a sequel or angry readers will hunt you down) or so minor that your reader doesn't care (although if your reader won't care, it's worth asking whether the subplot is important enough to include in the first place).

An unresolved plot is a surefire way to annoy a reader bigtime, but unresolved subplots will also be of great frustration.

16. Telling vs showing
This. Is. HARD. Only practice (and lots of it) will help you with this! Readers should be shown, not told how characters feel. Readers are clever; they understand subtle undertones without needing each character's feelings clearly labelled. Instead of expressing that a character is fearful, perhaps instead describe their body language, or use description to paint a particular scene.

A fearful character might have wide eyes, folded arms and crossed legs (closed body language), shaking/shivering/tremors, pounding heart, rushing adrenaline, a dry mouth, be shrinking into themself/cowering (etc). The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman is an excellent compilation of emotions and body language examples to help you if you're stuck.

17. Description 
Description can be a blessing and a curse. Too little and the story is bare. Too much and the story is cloyingly, sickeningly, overwhelmingly full of descriptions to an offputting level.

In a first draft, write what you think. Feel free to go overboard it can always be cut later (or more can be added if needed). This ties in with pacing - does the description slow down the pace too much? If so, it may be getting in the way of a great story and need some pruning.

18.  Speech tags
 "Dialogue can be tricky," she moaned. Often, simple is best with dialogue. Bizaarrely, despite there being so many good speech tags you could use - shouted, screamed, whispered, sobbed (etc etc etc), often the best to use is simple, old 'said'.

The reader's eye glances over this; it's invisible, effectively. Use of other words only makes the reader's eye pause/catch, disrupting the flow of reading. So, use other tags sparingly, when they are most effective.

"Dialogue can be your best friend, though," she smiled. Another trick to learn is that words cannot be smiled/frowned/cried/and so on. Words can only be said with the action of the mouth and voice combined.

So, this sentence should instead be two: ' "Dialogue can be your best friend, though." She smiled.' It's worth going over your manuscript with an eye focusing on this. I guarantee one character at some point will be trying to smile/frown/nod their words!

19. Senses
Engage your characters' senses to bring scenes to life. What do your characters smell, hear, see, touch, taste? Are your characters sitting down for a meal? Boring!

Make the pungent, tangy smell of mushrooms rise into your character's nose, causing them to salivate as they eagerly take a bite from the dish, their eyes closing in delight as it melts upon their tongue. Much more enticing! (Warning: This may make you hungry!)

20. Did you enjoy the story?
This sounds silly, but ultimately, even though you've been through your story so many times by the time it's finished that you really want to tear your eyes out or at least never see your manuscript again EVER... You should still enjoy your story. It should still consume you.

This is the time to go with your gut instinct. Is it as good as you can make it? Does it all feel right? If you have a little niggle that something is wrong, don't ignore it. Identify the problem, and address it. It's your story - only you can make it the best it can be. Make sure you're telling the story you wanted to tell.

Further reading
I would highly recommend the following books to help with fiction writing:
Orscon Scott Card - Characters & Viewpoint
Orson Scott Card - How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
James Scott Bell - Plot & Structure
Renni Browne - Self Editing for Fiction Writers
Stephen King - On Writing

Thanks for reading!
I sincerely hope this was a useful post! If you have any feedback, I'd love to hear from you. Is there anything you'd add to the editing process? Anything you'd take away? Any recommendations for fiction writing books?


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