Writer's Workbook: Three Self-Editing Tips You Can Use Right Now

July 27, 2016

From Wikimedia Commons.

 I am lucky to work with some of the best editors in the business. In the last two years, I've learned more about writing from my editors than I have from any college class or workshop.

Writing is a cerebral activity, but taking an axe to a wordy passage or flabby subplot is hands-on work, requiring technical finesse and a stomach for blood and gore. The heart of strong writing is editing. Writing is conjuring. Editing is craft.

That said, I strive to turn in clean copy to my editors, not only because I want to make their jobs as easy as possible, but because I'm a professional, dangnabbit. No matter what bad news slides down the pipeline about the publishing industry or indie publishing, I will always have control over one thing: the story. I'm going to make it as strong as I can.

My latest project is the second book in my Kings of California series, Hollywood Honkytonk. The sequel to last November's Deep Down, this newest novel is about an up-and-coming actor and a down-on-her-luck country songwriter who reunite in the big city after ten years apart. It's full of music and goofy characters set against a backdrop I know and love, Los Angeles.

For this particular manuscript, here's what my editor instructed me to fix. I hope these tips help you in your own writing.

P.S. If any of this is unclear, feel free to comment, email me, or message me on Facebook. Let's riff.

Three Self-Editing Tips You Can Use Right Now

1. Fewer POV switches per chapter. 

I prefer to write in limited third-person POV, meaning I use "he" and "she" and alternate between the hero and heroine's points of view throughout the story.

Problem? Originally, I had too many switches in my early chapters, which resulted in the reader not being able to spend enough time in the head of either character to develop a strong bond with him or her.

Solution? Stay in one character's head longer. For example, my protagonists' names are Riley and Jack. I took a couple of short scenes, combined them under Riley's point of view, and added her observations of Jack during their conversations, including her private emotional and physical reactions to him.

Result? More time for the reader to fall in love with Riley. The writing entered the state of "deep POV," in which the reader has a chance to "become" Riley--feel what she feels--instead of just watching her do things within the story. (Read more about deep POV here.)

2. Remove as many examples of was/wasn't/were/weren't as possible,
particularly when accompanied by an -ing verb. 

This revision took me a few days to complete. Hollywood Honkytonk is approximately 87,000 words and I swear half of them were the words above.

Problem? These are all "to be" verbs. Overuse of "to be" verbs signals a failure to use stronger, more specific verbs. Here's a chart of what to avoid.

Image from St. Louis Community College.

Solution? Replace as many "to be" verbs as possible with stronger, more specific verbs.

A screenshot of my markup.

Result? Prose that reads with more immediacy and punch. (Read more about "to be" verbs here.)

3. Lose the double dialogue tags.
Remove all adverbs and don't combine the tags with action.

Hollywood Honkytonk was my very first novel, written in 2013. It's light, goofy, and full of dewy naïveté. Much less charmingly, for my editor in particular, it's also full of newbie author mistakes. One of them is overloading dialog tags with too much foofaraw.

For example...

"Morning, handsome," Harlow said quietly, her voice still cottony with sleep.

Problem? You can attribute dialogue using a tag or a small beat of action. Using both is unwieldy and often repetitive.

Solution? Dialog tags should be as unobtrusive as possible, meant only to help the reader keep track of who's speaking, and even then only when absolutely necessary. He said or she said or Martha said should stand alone. When not using these, you can break up dialogue with a small beat of action. Also, avoid repetition: quietly and cottony convey the same idea, so choose one. Previously, I established that Jack and Harlow are in bed and it's morning; the reader can imply Harlow was just asleep so I don't need to explicitly say she was.

Result? Trimming up the dialogue tag creates a cleaner, more active line.
"Morning, handsome." Harlow's cottony voice grated on Jack's ears.

These are just three things I had to edit on my latest project. For more tips on how to edit your own writing, try Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, one of my favorite writing resources. You can order it here. For more information on the full-length novels in my Kings of California series starring the scorching hot Lamonts, please click here

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