One of my readers asked what I consider the most important things to look for when self-editing. Some of these you learned in school and others are pertinent only to fiction writing.
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
Always run spellcheck and Grammar check. They help, but they’re not perfect. You may find they confuse some words – usually the ones that confuse us anyway, like lie and lay or to/too/two. The software won’t let me write He talked to himself; it wants me to say, He talked to him, which is not quite the same thing.
When spellcheck seems incorrect, check a dictionary or online. (The program told me the previous sentence is a fragment, which it isn’t.)
Look for the following in punctuation and fix them:
Missing quotation marks
Quotation marks come in sets, one at each end of a quotation.
Overused or misused exclamation marks
Merriam-Webster defines an exclamation as “A sharp or sudden utterance; a vehement expression or complaint.” Therefore, a character should speak an exclamation (exclaim). It doesn’t belong in narrative, but I believe the definition could be stretched to include internal monologue (thought.) Some examples of exclamations are Fire! Get outta here! Look out! Don’t shoot! Help me! Anything short, said with passion would qualify, including most swearwords. Caution When there are too many exclamations in a story, they lose their ‘punch’ and become a distraction.
Overused or misused ellipses and em-dashes.
There are differing opinions on the use of ellipses. Some sources say there should be four periods when an ellipsis ends a sentence, but others maintain (as I do) that a full sentence should end with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The ellipsis denotes a trailing off, an incomplete sentence. Some sources tell us to treat it as a three-letter word with a space on each side of the dots. Others want the three dots attached to the last word of the sentence. Overuse of the ellipsis creates a hard-to-read story littered with dots that break up sentence flow. The em-dash, or long dash (--) has the same effect.
In fiction, the semicolon joins two, short and related sentences, preferably in narrative, not in dialogue. Keep in mind they must be two complete sentences, each having a subject and predicate. Like the exclamation point, ellipsis, and em-dash, the semicolon stands out if used repeatedly. The story should stand out, not its punctuation.
Have you said what you intended to say, or would it be clearer put another way? It’s a good idea to read the sentence backwards to locate places with missing words, because the eyes and brain will often fill in the blanks. Reading the work aloud can help.
“Pet” Phrases and Repeated Words
Most of us have certain phrases that we tend to repeat, often in the form of unnecessary and/or repetitive character actions. Search for them and eliminate or make changes as appropriate.
Here are a few pet phrases: nod/nodded/nodding, grin/grinned/grinning, shook his head, shrugged her shoulders, bit her lips, laughed/chuckled/giggled, and pursed her lips. There are others. Learn what you tend to repeat.
The most frequently repeated words are character names and pronouns. Count the number of times the hero’s name appears. It can sneak in with dialogue tags (John said), when people speak to him (Listen, John…), and when he does something. Pay particular attention to character names or pronouns that begin consecutive paragraphs. Consider changing.
“Ly” Adverbs and Dialogue Tags
An occasional adverb ending in “ly” is fine, but when they are attached to a dialogue tag as a modifier, a writer may inadvertently create a swifty, i.e., a phrase in which a quoted sentence is linked to a pun. Examples: “It’s freezing,” Tom said icily or “I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked. Swifties were cute in their day, which ended about 1921.
The most common and best dialogue tags are said/asked, because they’re almost invisible to the reader, but there’s nothing wrong with an occasional shouted, yelled, whispered, muttered, etc. For the most part, dialogue tags don’t need adverbial modifiers.
Was, Were, Had Been
I want to go on record that there is nothing inherently wrong with these forms of the verb “To Be” IF you’re careful. Usually there is a more descriptive way to paint a word picture. For example, if I say, “He was running,” it just isn’t enough. Was he jogging, sprinting, or racing?
Look for a stronger verb and get rid of was. Was and were lead to telling instead of showing. Had and had been refer to something that’s already happened. When used repetitively, they can bore the reader, who is interested in what's happening now and what happens next.
A cliché is a phrase that’s been around so long it’s instantly recognizable. They sneak into narrative and may create an effect the writer doesn’t want. In dialogue or thought, they’re OK in moderation. In fact, if a character says, “Patience is not one of my virtues,” the cliché tells the reader something about him.
Learn to recognize clichés, and keep them where they belong or cut them. There are literally hundreds like these: It was a dark and stormy night; hotter than a bucket of red ants; plain as the nose on your face, and every which way but loose.
And while we’re on the subject, be sure you say Loose when you mean something that’s not tight. It can sneak in where it isn’t wanted as a bad spelling of lose.
Backstory and description
What happened to the characters before the current tale and descriptions of people and places are best kept brief and brought in a little at a time. With backstory in particular, consider whether the reader needs the information at all. Often, they don’t.
Avoid heavy paragraphs of either, particularly in opening scenes. Use the opening to “hook” the reader and bond him/her with the main character through the story situation and that character’s action.
I hope this short essay will be useful as you edit your work. Please feel free to use anything I’ve said to create an editing check-off list or to revise an existing one.
ABOUT NORMA HOWELL