In some form or another, we all know how to edit. Maybe you're like me and there is some information in the back of your mind still hanging around from the 3rd grade grammar lessons. We all know subj-verb-obj, I before E except after C, etc. But when it comes to editing literature there are some more particular aspects of language that one should keep in mind in order to improve your story flow.
1. Complicated Vocabulary
2. Cliché v Collocation
3. Reading Out Loud
5. Getting Distance
6. Seeking Out Critique
7. Grammar Help
8. How to Use the Passive Voice and Why
9. Fixing Content Errors Before They Start
1. Least Complicated
A lot of times people get into trouble with their writing because they are either trying to emulate a certain style or because they're trying to 'sound smart', and it's not usually necessary. Yes, there are certain times that the bigger word will sound better and more appropriate, especially in period context, but most of the time it simply doesn't sound natural.
- What sounds better to you?: "My dad kicked me out of the house," or, "My dad expulsed me from the house."
So check yourself. Would you actually say that in normal speech? If you wouldn't, chances are your character wouldn't either.
2. Cliché v. Collocation
Collocation (n): a grouping together of things in a certain order, as of the words in a sentence. (dictionary.com)
Everyone knows not to use the same, tired clichés, but that doesn't mean that every time you write a sentence you need to reinvent the wheel. Be aware of collocation as something that exists. Collocations are not clichés necessarily, but are groups of words that simply always go together. They happen in every language. e.g.: "dead tired" is a collocation. You cannot substitute either of the words for a synonym such as "dead sleepy" or "exanimate tired". They both sound wrong. (NOTE that some collocations may actually vary between countries or even regions, but many are universal).
Say you write the sentence "He committed the crime," and you think oh but everyone always says that stop. Think about it. Why does everyone always say that? Because "commit" almost always goes with "crime". You don't perform a crime or do a crime or make a crime, you commit one. So it's alright and not cliché to use the sentence as it is intended to be used. As linguist Scott Thornbury says, "Words hunt in packs" so let them run together.
Now, about clichés
Cliché (n): a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse, as sadder but wiser, or strong as an ox. (dictionary.com)
- (in art, literature, drama, etc.) a trite or hackneyed plot, character development, use of color, musical expression, etc.
Clichés are normally repetition of ideas or idioms which are not the same as collocations. These are created ideas that don't have to go together but have become popular together. Because of this they have become so overused as images or plot bases that they no longer have an effect. e.g.: "The lone warrior stood in the field stained crimson with blood" or "He was strong as an ox". In the first case we have a cliché of a lone warrior in a field long overused in fantasy, the idea of a sole survivor/badass of a massacre of apparently epic proportions, as well as the word cliché of something being stained crimson with blood. While the image is appropriate to be sure, it's over used, much like someone having eyes that are "limpid pools of blue" or "raven tresses". They're accurate, just done before.
In the second case we have an idiom which is also appropriate but has lost impact from long overuse. These are the kinds of things you probably want to avoid. It's pretty true that there's nothing new under the sun, but you can always clothe an unoriginal idea in original prose and make it sparkle.
3. Say it Loud
So, how do we avoid 1&2? My personal advice is to read your work out loud. This is why I'm convinced that anyone can write: we all know how to speak! If you sit down and read your work to a friend/your dog/a table you will find yourself catching much more than you would by staying silent, because you can hear when something doesn't sound natural, or when the sentence goes on too long. You will also catch more spelling errors and wrong words because you will see that the letters in front of you don't match up to the sounds your mouth wants to form as you go along. This I think is the most important part of editing because it requires your full focus on the text and forces you to take your time examining it.
4. Use a Spellchecker
Not everyone has MS word but I guarantee all word processors have a spellcheck function. Even email has it. But, remember that dA does not. If you want to post anything on the internet, use a spellchecker first. Remember that posting things on the internet or on dA specifically is public. Whatever you post here is like yelling it across a crowded room; everyone can hear you. If you want people to take your writing seriously you need to make sure that the very first thing they see is correct spelling and grammar. Your reception might not be as warm as you'd hoped if you don't.
5. Sleep on It.
Generally speaking I think it's a very good idea to wait a day and sleep on it before even trying to edit. Yes, you can probably do cursory edits while you're still zoned into your piece, but to actually be able to step back and look at it with an objective set of eyes, you need a little bit of distance. Whenever I finish a short story I put it aside before I touch it for real editing. Novels I set aside for a few months. When we get deeply involved in something we often don't see problems, grammatical or stylistic, so it's important to give yourself space and time to relax and forget about the story a little bit before you attack it with a red pen. (NOTE this is different for everyone, but I find it a good general rule.)
6. Make Friends, Get Crits
Have someone else crit your work. Don't be afraid. Do it. Don't take the criticism personally. I know this shows up in every single editing guide ever written but that's because it's so important. Other people catch word blunders that we don't see, and sometimes that MS Word doesn't either. Ever notice how the 'h' and 'b' key are right next to each other and some of those 'he' words you typed wound up as 'be'? It's hard for us to see those because we already know what the word should be, and MS Word doesn't catch those! But your friend probably will.
7. Do not ignore grammar.
It might be boring but it's necessary. You simply can't write well if you don't understand the basic foundation of the language. Your point as a writer is to communicate, so you want to do that as clearly as possible. That means keeping your prose clean, your adjectives in the right place, and your punctuation correct to make your story easy to follow.
There are a few things that I constantly see happening in fiction both published and unpublished, and these things mostly deal with grammar. They are, in no particular order:
- Use of Tense
The majority of fiction I see is written in the simple past. This is fine, clear, easy to read, but then the dialogue will be in the present. Ok, we're fine on that. The problem comes in with when and how to use the perfect tenses.
If your story is written in past but you want to talk about something that happened before a certain point in the past, you use the past perfect. e.g.: "Before I ate breakfast that morning I had had a good night's sleep.
When dialogue or even the story is in present tense and you want to talk about something that happened very recently and is new information, something happening for the first time using 'ever' or 'never', or an action that started in the past and has not yet completed, use the present perfect.
e.g. "Ow! I've cut my finger."
"This is the first time I've played tennis."
"She has eaten five times today (so far)."
- Adverbs: yes or no?
The simple answer: Use sparingly. The complicated answer: depends on what you're doing. Most people don't like adverbs because most of the time they are unnecessary. That being said, my personal opinion is that if an adverb is unnecessary but not confusing, you can keep it. If it puts too many syllables into a sentence, clutters it up, or makes it too long when you read it out loud (see section 3), strike it.
But how do you tell if you should strike it? Well, does it complement or repeat the verb you used?
Complement: "He said quietly. Said is not specific so now we know how he said it.
Repeated: "He ran quickly." There's no way to really run slowly. That's jogging. So run implies quick, quick is not necessary.
Commas are one of the hardest things for me personally, but they are really very necessary in speech and in writing. You need to have a natural rise and fall to the inner reader's voice, so you have to give them pauses in the proper places so they can take that half second rest. There are three main comma deficiencies I notice (but believe me there is a huge list of rules for it):
- Commas come before the word 'too' at the end of sentences. E.g.: "Hey, I like that, too!"
- Commas come after names in the beginning of sentences and before them at the end, if someone is being addressed. E.g.: "Jen, I really like your editing tutorial." "I really like your editing tutorial, Jen."
- Commas come before conjunctions if a new subject is being introduced in the second clause. " I love to paint and really enjoy posting things on dA." "I love to paint, and Jen really enjoys posting things on dA."
There are many others, but these are the big three. Now on to
the Passive Voice dun dun DUUUN.
8. Passive Aggressive
Most tutorials will tell you that the passive voice should be avoided at all times. That is not strictly true. What is true, as noted in section 7, is that you should, when you are starting out, be careful not to fall into a pattern of using it all the time. Passive sentences slow your flow so to speak, and they can make things more complicated if you need to use a tense that is not straight past or present simple.
But let's begin with a quick tutorial: What is the passive voice?
The passive voice is a construction that makes the object of the normal sentence the subject of the passive sentence. The formula is Subj(previously the obj) + verb + past participle. e.g.:
The supermarket was built in 1948. is a passive sentence.
The active counterpart would be: Somebody built the supermarket in 1948.
Now, in the active sentence we have the subject (somebody) who performed an action (built) which results in/affects an object (the supermarket). (The rest of the sentence in this case is superfluous, so we can ignore it.) That happens in the passive switch is that well, we don't care who built the supermarket, only that it was built. So the object flips and becomes the subject. Get it?
Another example in present tense: "This room is cleaned every day.", and it sounds much better than "Somebody cleans this room every day."
So now that we know what it is, the question becomes, when is it appropriate to use it? Well, in the situations above the passive is more appropriate because our main concern is not with who or what is doing the verb, but what the result is. Passive voice is used when we are concerned with the result of an action, or its recipient, not its performer.
Passive is also used to diffuse situations, to keep from sounding aggressive, so think if whether or not your character might speak this way to keep from sounding confrontational. e.g.:
"This work needs to be done."
It's less aggressive than "You need to do this work. The first example does not specify that anyone particular is responsible for it, only that it needs doing.
In fiction generally its better to use a higher frequency of active sentences than passive ones, simply because as stated above, passive can make things slower when used in conjunction with more complicated tenses. But sometimes also it gets tiresome to read the same pattern of sentences, and its hard to attach to a subject that is literally not being mentioned in the sentence.
Summation: It's ok for you to use it, just be judicious.
9. Know What You Write
It's ok to not write what you know. If we always stuck to writing what we've lived through, there wouldn't be all that much variety in books. But it is important to know what you're writing about.
I highly recommend research months prior to starting any real piece of work, because if you wind up doing the research after you're going to have to do content edits. What I hate more than grammar edits are content edits, because they take a long time and they can mess up your plot if you need to delete or change something. Sometimes this is unavoidable since you don't know what you're writing until you write it, but often researching beforehand can do you a lot of good and spare you some agony during edit.
Even if you're doing a modern day setting or doing a fantasy setting, research is important. Chances are you're going to put something into your story that you haven't directly encountered or have only encountered in passing. Since we live in the fabulous internet age, this is easy to remedy most times with a quick google search. But if you have to do more than that, my recommendation is to get as much of it as you can out of the way before writing. This will probably make the words come out of you faster because you'll be on such a sure footing with your world and what's happening in it.
Likewise with fantasy and sci-fi it's even more important to research ahead of time names of places, geography, types of governments, recent historical events, religions, cultures, etc all have to be laid out in a world of your creation. Doing this ahead of time will save you from re-writing over and over and over again.
Remember that anything can become 'what you know'.
Also, know your story. Outlines are very helpful, especially with novel projects. I know that with both of my novels I often forget where things are in the text, because the books are very long. So when you're finished and ready to edit, give the book a straight read-through and write down an outline of what happens so you have a handy one page sheet with all your major events in a line, and put the page numbers. That way if you want to move a scene, you've got it indexed and you know where it is and where it's going to.
ProTips for Word Use: Cheatsheet
- Affect is a verb. Effect is the noun result.
- You compose things of other things: He composed his speech from many research notes. A group comprises smaller parts: The advisory board comprises six members.
- Definitely does not have an A in it.
- Who is a subject, Whom is a direct object: Who loves you? Why, I do! But whom do I love? Well you, of course.
- It's is a contraction of it+is or it+has. Its is possessive. It's raining! But its mine.
- Remember that transitive verbs take an object: I like it! And intransitive ones don't: I sleep.
- You compliment someone for being so pretty. But blue and orange complement each other as they're complementary colors
Do you have a question that wasn't answered? Ask me in a comment or note, I'll do my best.