I could stop right there with title, don’t you think? Doesn’t matter what you write; novels, articles, screenplays. If you write it you better edit it.
Why, you say, if the story is great and your writing passable? Well, mainly because passable doesn’t cut it these days.
What you’ve written must be as perfect as possible. Depending on the reader, be it editor or script reader, the small things can cause that person to drop the work and move on to another leaving yours for the trash which means rejection. Or if you decide to go indie and publish something on your own you’re going to be looking at painfully bad reviews which aren’t going to help you at all.
The day when some anonymous editor somewhere will fix all your little boo-boos is long past. And you sure don’t want some summer intern copyediting your work. This is up to you. Don’t give anyone an excuse to put your writing down.
So, how to self-edit to the best standards? Whatever it is you’ve written, first set it aside for a while. A few days, a few weeks, maybe a few months. I know you want to get your writing out there, but work on some other writing project for a while, creating a new manuscript or screenplay. You want to give the thing a chance to ‘ferment’ and for you to clear your brain so you can look at that work with new eyes.
If you don’t give it and yourself a break you’re going to read and re-read and keep right on skipping over spelling errors and grammar mistakes and weird typos without even seeing them because you’re going to see what you WANT to see, and that’s a perfect manuscript. Yep, nothing to do here! No more work needed!
Wrong. You need to ‘kill your darlings’ as someone once said and giving yourself some time and space will enable you to do just that.
And unless you’re somewhat magical you’re going to need several read-throughs to do a great job. The first run through will do little but tighten up the writing and catch glaring errors. Then comes the fine tuning. Think about reading the material out loud or from back to front to catch the little stinkers still hiding.
And finally a general pass through again to see if you’ve left any plot holes or done something really strange like getting one chapter out of order (yes, I just read a book with chapter three AFTER chapter eleven and it had been published by a major house!)
So, what do you look for in a written story other than the obvious, glaring typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical slams? How about words that end in ‘ly’ or ‘ing’ or words like ‘is’, ‘was’ and ‘of’. Many can be removed and those left in used cautiously only where really needed. And searching for such things is usually done better by hand than machine.
Printing a copy out is a good bet. But if you want to do it on your computer, toss the document up, enlarge the type and use the highlighter to highlight those areas by section. You’re going to find lots and lots that can be easily reworded to keep things from getting unwieldy.
And don’t depend on your spell checker. Yes, it’s good for a quick first run and will pick up obvious mistakes. But if you’re writing and you use their, there, or they’re you can find they’re spelled correctly, but misused. And then there’s the writer who doesn’t know the difference between it’s and its. If that’s you, find out!
We’re not in the 18th century so writing in the active voice is the preferred method. Add action to your writing, keep it bright and crisp. What’s ‘active’? It’s when you give the action to the character. “Sam drove the car” as opposed to “the car was driven by Sam.” It’s a much clearer way of writing and certainly a lot less boring.
And learn about story structure. The story needs a beginning, action, heightening tension, a climax, the descent and the closing. It’s just as important for scripts as for novels, maybe more so. You might read The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogel if you haven’t. You can find copies in many libraries or online.
And please, I beg you, stop the info-dumps. You know, pages and pages of explanations. YOU, the writer, need to know about the character’s background, but you don’t dump it on the reader until/unless it moves the story forward or is in some other way necessary to the story. Draw the reader into the story. Instead of telling that reader about something that’s happened, give him a ride inside the story.
Show the reader what’s going on. Don’t give the reader a running commentary on how the horse bucked Jimmy off. Let the reader see it. Write it so well the reader feels like he’s been on the back of that bucking horse himself.
There’s a big difference between:
Jimmy was bruised and thought a few ribs might be broken after he limped out of the corral. It was a bad day in a lot of ways and he didn’t want to talk about how much he hated that damned horse, Twitster, he was up to ride next.
Fresh from a bruising ride, Jimmy eyed Twister, his old nemesis, waiting for his call to mount when his cell phone rang in his pocket. Staring at the horse he answered absently.
“Jimmy? Jimmy, tell me you’re not riding Twister. Doug just called and told me you drew Twister. Tell me you’re not riding that devil horse!”
Sarah’s voice had a tremor in it.
“Gotta do it, Sarah, we need the money.”
“He broke your arm and two ribs last time, Jimmy. That horse is crazy, he’s gonna kill you!”
Maybe not the best example, but you get the idea. Give it life.
Now make the effort, take the time, clean it up and get your best work out there.
Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.