Category Archives: Editing
A couple weeks ago I discussed the concept of overwriting, the use of needless words in your writing. Having known about overwriting for years, it seemed like basic stuff to me. So I was stunned by how many of you told me you’d never thought about it before. I was even more stunned when I asked Twitter what to blog about today and RedParrot told me she’d like me to talk more about overwriting.
My goal has always been to help you become better writers, and since there’s high demand for advice on this topic, I thought I’d discuss a few more examples of overwriting to give you a better feel for it.
Last time we discussed overwriting I gave you a handful of specific words/details that can be left out of your work. Today I’m going to show you how to cut overwriting by showing the editing process I’ve used on one of my own stories.
To do this, I’ve grabbed the first paragraph from one of my currently-in-editing stories, Brothers.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been allowed out of the city twice, both times with my parents and a hundred armed guards to attend a wedding. Of course they were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army, whose job is to kill the undead—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had some freedom. They could walk down the hall, even out of the castle, without anybody watching.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been outside Moon Spire twice, both times with my parents and their guards to attend a wedding. They were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had freedom. They could leave the castle without anybody watching.
You’ll notice that the original paragraph is five lines, whereas the edited paragraph is four. How did I achieve this? When I could turn two words into one–such as turning ‘out of’ into ‘outside’–I did so. By removing the word ‘some’ from the second last sentence, not only did I shorten the sentence, but I made it stronger. Too many words weakens the sentence and distracts the reader from the point you’re trying to make.
I also took out some of the details because they’re not important to the story. This story has little to do with the Slayers, so it’s not necessary for the reader to know that they battle undead. When Jacob says he was jealous of Slayers for their freedom, saying they could leave the castle without anybody watching is enough. We don’t need any more details to know how constricted Jacob feels within the life he’s been given as heir to the kingdom.
If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that not all my changes shorten the work. In the second sentence I traded “the city” in for “Moon Spire”, which is still two words. Why did I do this? Because “Moon Spire” is more specific. It gives you a better idea of where you are–a specific city rather than just any city–and doesn’t use any extra words. Being specific gives your readers a better feel for your setting and characters, and is more important than shortening your sentences.
Applying this to your own work
To eliminate overwriting from your manuscript, start by looking for places where two words can be shortened to one. This includes contractions, but it also includes things like changing ‘next to’ into ‘beside’.
Once you’ve found all the places where you can turn two words into one, start looking for extra words and phrases. Words like just, very, some, and most words that end in -ly can be cut from your manuscript to make it stronger. Remove these from your manuscript whenever possible. Keep them only when removing them alters the sentence beyond recognition.
Even after you’re familiar with the concept of overwriting and you’ve ruthlessly cut unnecessary words and phrases out of a dozen manuscript, you’ll find that you still end up overwriting. That’s fine. Everyone does it. No writer is perfect, and that’s why nobody should ever send out a first draft. Your job is not to make sure everything’s perfect–it’s to make sure that you only send out the best possible work.
Where have you found instances of overwriting in your work?
I don’t often discuss the technical side of writing in depth, but after reading the self-published works that inspired last Monday’s post, I’ve decided to discuss the biggest problem I’ve seen in these novels: overwriting.
What is overwriting? There are two ways authors overwrite: with excessive details, and with particularly wordy phrasing. Even a perfectly spelled piece with flawless grammar can be made frustrating if the author overwrites them. It makes a book frustrating to read and in today’s fast paced society, most readers will walk away. I’m particularly forgiving of this if the story captivates me, but enough of it will make even me gash my teeth.
So today I’d like to discuss some of the things that can–and should–be cut from your writing whenever possible to make it easy reading.
Let’s start with the details:
1. Characters brushing their teeth. Or combing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. These things should only be included if they’re used to add depth or move the story forward. For instance, if your character notices a giant bruise developing on their face while they’re brushing their teeth in the morning, that’s a good use of the scene. In fantasy settings, often the nobles have servants to dress them, and these scenes can be used for gossip with the servants to great effect. George R. R. Martin uses this technique often to pass information between characters.
2. Details of your setting that don’t matter to the plot. Festivals, events, street names and other details of your setting should only be mentioned if they’re important to your story. If you’ve spent hours creating your location or done months of research it can be tempting to include all the details, but that will bog the story down. Include only what is necessary to the plot. People don’t pick up a novel expecting a detailed tour of the city or town in question. They want a story, not a tourist guide. Some detail helps them enjoy the story. Too much irritates even the most patient reader.
3. Most flashbacks. There’s often a more efficient way to mention past events, and flashbacks should only be used when absolutely necessary. Unless you’re doing a story intentionally that starts at the end and shows you how the character got there, the best way to give readers a feel for the important parts of your character’s past is to mention them briefly and then expand on them bit by bit later. Make it a gradual thing rather than a flashback or a long winded explanation, and you’ll keep the reader’s interest more easily.
And some words that can almost always be left out:
1. Just. It seems like an innocent word, but while it doesn’t ruin your grammar, it’s often redundant. Think about these sentences:
He was just a little bit taller than me.
She lived just around the corner from the scene of the crime.
In both sentences just is grammatically correct, but does it need to be there? Consider these sentences:
He was a little bit taller than me.
She lived around the corner from the scene of the crime.
The sentences are now a little bit stronger and shorter without having changed meaning. Getting rid of ‘just’ might not seem like a big deal, but once they’re gone, you’ll see a big difference.
2. Then. This is one I’ve been ripping mercilessly from my manuscripts. Sure, there are occasions where it’s essential, but often it’s unnecessary, particularly when used after the word ‘and’. Consider these sentences:
And then she kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and then held it in front of her defensively.
Now look at these:
She kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and held it in front of her defensively.
Which sentences do you think are stronger? In the end, ‘then’ is just another word bogging down your work. Cut it whenever you can, especially when you see it after ‘and’.
3. Very. This is another unnecessary word. Take a look at these sentences:
The mansion was very big.
She was very angry.
Now consider these:
The mansion was massive.
She was furious.
By eliminating very and using stronger words, I’ve made these sentences shorter and more visual. Look for this word in your work and delete it whenever possible. Be ruthless. There’s almost always a better way to emphasize something than using the word ‘very’.
Exercise: Pull out a story/project you haven’t looked at a while and a highlighter. Highlight every excessive detail and every instance of just or very that you see within the first three pages. Count them, and then find ways to get rid of them. Remember that overwriting doesn’t make you a bad writer–almost all of us do it in our first few drafts. Editing may be painful, but it gives your work the best chance possible for success.
Just for fun, post how many instances of overwriting you found in your first three pages. For each reader who does, I’ll look through one of my old projects and count the instances of overwriting. Let’s compare numbers!
A couple weeks ago I experienced my first live critique session with the Toronto Street Writers. The Toronto Street Writers are a group of youth who get together each week and participate in workshops run by published authors. Each year the group produces a zine, and we’ve just started working on the pieces that will be in the zine. I only joined for the most recent year (the program runs October-June) and so far I’m pleased I did and wondering why it took me so long to find the group.
Today I am sharing the experience with you in the hopes that it will encourage you to go out and find your own real, living, breathing group of writers.
Not only was this my first live critique session, apparently it was run in a manner our program co-ordinator, Emily Pohl-Weary, had never tried before. The circle of chairs we usually sit in became five circles of chairs, each one surrounding a table with several copies of a participant’s writing. Writers who donated work to the first critique session of the year got to sit at the table where their work was posted, and everybody else was divided into five groups.
The five groups then made their way to each of the writers, stopping at each station for twenty minutes. The writer read one piece out loud, got comments from the group, then read the next and got comments from the group. Each participant got a copy of each piece of writing to mark up while standing at their station and a red pen. After marking it up, they left the piece with its writer and moved on to the next one.
This wasn’t really what I expected from my first live critique session, but it seemed to work really well.
Getting my first live critique was nerve-wracking but well worth it. The feedback I got from readers was mostly positive for both my pieces, and the readers were all gentle with my ego and my work. I managed not to get defensive or upset when people made suggestions. When I first signed up, I thought that I’d probably be even more sensitive to face-to-face critique than I am to online critique. Apparently I was wrong.
The overall feel of the workshop was great, too. It’s hard to organize a critique session with a large number of people so everyone gets the most out of it. Twenty minutes did feel awfully short to fully discuss a story or topic, but with the mini-group set up it was easier to get comments from each individual than it would be in a bigger circle. The set up also allows us to ensure that everyone gets a turn to be critiqued, since there are only so many weeks the program runs for.
Well, I don’t feel like my ego’s been bruised, I had great conversations about my work, and I’ve got a little more than a dozen copies of two pieces I wrote covered in red pen. Some people wrote all over my work, some people didn’t mark it up at all. There’s one person whose writing I’m still trying to decipher. I haven’t had a chance to edit the stories yet, but I already know the advice I got will come in useful. As an added bonus, I got to practice reading my work out loud, which is always fun.
The internet is a great place to find other writers and critique partners, but every writer should try to find a group of like-minded folks who they can meet up with and seek advice from face-to-face. Whether it is a critique group or a broader writing group, the face time is important, and you learn a lot when you sit in a room with twenty other writers and discuss craft every week for two hours.
Have you ever participated in a live critique session? How did it go?
Some of us are instinctively better with grammar than others, but none of us are perfect. We all have to edit our work to make it into something awesome. Every writer makes different mistakes, but individually, we tend to make the same ones over and over again.
This is why it’s a good idea to create an editing watch list. There are a few things that pretty much every writer does in the first draft that, while not necessarily wrong, don’t make the story better. Your editing watch list will contain words and punctuation that you use too often. We all have crutch words and behaviours, words and behaviours that we force on our novels and our characters because we can’t think of anything else and we know they need to do something.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to create an editing watch list. I’ve only just created mine, but I can already see that it will help me when I edit stories in the future. While you’re making big storyline changes to your novel, if you have this list sitting next to you, you can edit out crutch words and excessive exclamation marks. First edits, particularly of longer works, are generally done to work on story problems, not grammar, but if you can get ahead and easily fix some sentences while you work, what’s wrong with that?
You might be able to figure out some of the crutch words you use and when you cross the line into excessive punctuation on your own. For example, nobody needed to tell me that all of my characters sigh a lot. I know that, and as I go through a story, I try to cut a couple of the sighs out of the story. But the best way to discover your crutch words is to pay very close attention to your critiques.
Over the last year or two I’ve written a couple of short stories and a couple new drafts of novels. I’ve submitted bits and pieces of my writing for critique to a couple of different groups while trying to get settled with one in particular. One thing a lot of people told me in critiques is that in fiction, you really shouldn’t have too many semi-colons. In fiction it’s usually best to separate a semi-colon sentence into two. It builds excitement or helps readability or something like that.
I love semi-colons. I think they look cool and they’re immensely useful. It’s been a hard thing to cut out as many semi-colons as I could. It’s meant the deletion of some pretty phrases that just didn’t work as two sentences. I’ve been very reluctant to cut them out, but it’s just one of those sacrifices you have to make. Some pretty prose is acceptable, but when it is totally unrelated or it’s taking readers out of the story, it’s got to go.
Without critiquers, I would have kept on using a semi-colon every couple of sentences. A critiquer is also the one who pointed out to me that I use ‘and then’ a lot when it’s already implied. That advice has helped me to create my editing watch list.
Find a good critique group, online or offline–for online, check out Critique Circle or the International Writing Workshop–and listen to them. They will tell you which words you use way too many times. By really paying attention to what they say, putting these words on your editing watch list, and making sure to run through the manuscript quickly before sending it out, you can beat these words up and out of your story. So don’t forget to write up your own editing watch list before we go deep into the editing trenches.
Last night-or maybe early this morning, who’s paying attention?-I finished the current draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian at about 48, 000 words. I’ve decided to celebrate with a day of watching some interesting anime-a Japanese style of animation, for anyone who doesn’t know-and some chocolate.
Hopefully you’re done editing your work by now, too. If not, get yourself a treat and get back to work. Editing is hard work; you deserve to reward yourself every now and then.
Besides, what comes after the celebration? Why, more work, of course. Next week I’m going to work on editing the first in a series of short stories focused on a couple vampires while I research locations for the next few. I’m going to write as many of these stories as I can this month to help me reach my Camp Nanowrimo goal. I’m sitting at approximately 29K and confident that I’ll be able to hit 80, 000 words by the end of the month.
I’ll also be doing some dialogue and character development exercises both in relation to Moonshadow’s Guardian and here on the blog. Sometime during the month I’ll be adding a few scenes designed to round out some characters-scenes I already have starting in my mind-and once those are added, I’ll be ready to print it up and go through it again. This time I’m confident that most of the changes will be minor, adding and removing words, sentences and occasionally scenes rather than rewriting the whole thing.
Finishing a draft of a novel is a good reason to celebrate. It’s also a good time to stop and re-assess your goals, and make plans for your future. It’s not a good time to take a month off of writing; you have to keep in practice all the time.
Have you finished anything recently? Do you have writing plans for the rest of this summer?
This week I’m pretty sure I only did two chapters, but they were both long chapters. I also just finished writing what, in my opinion, is the best scene in the entire book, which wasn’t there before.
Although most of the plot involving Riana’s past is in the second book, I decided that I needed to spend some more time on it in the first. The scene that I just created showed Riana facing Eternia, a spirit who she worked with once upon a time who she failed. Eternia led her to find an antidote that she needed to heal her leg, and she promised Eternia that she would look after what had been Eternia’s land. It’s a really touching scene and I’m very proud of it.
I’m having a hard time not going back to edit what I’ve done in this draft, to save it until the draft is actually finished, but at least I already know what my next edit’s going to look like. All in all I’m pretty pleased.
I’ve also got about 14K for Camp Nanowrimo, including the chapters I wrote last week-I decided they were fair game. This is a short update, but I’m almost finished a book that I’m supposed to review (a long time ago) so that should be up on Wednesday, and in the last week or so my brain’s been full of ideas for blog posts, so sometime soon you can look forward to me returning to my regular post schedule. I should also be finished this draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian entirely within the next two or three weeks, so it’s going to be a pretty exciting time here.
Before I go, I’d like to make a shout out to Red Parrot, who’s sponsored me for my camp Nanowrimo goal. Nanowrimo means a lot to me, and the fact that somebody believes in me enough to donate on my behalf means a lot to me too. I’m confident that I can hit my goal and have fun doing it.
Have a good weekend everyone! I should be back on the block on Wednesday.
How’s your summer writing/editing going?
So this week I’ve edited three chapters, written one short story and published one lens on Squidoo. I’ve also signed up for Camp Nanowrimo, with a goal of 80, 000 words for the summer. What I thought would just be a severe edit has turned into a full rewrite, and to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to use any more chapters from the last draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian. This will allow me to reach a much higher word count.
Around the end of the school year I applied for a summer job program. I told myself that if I didn’t get in, I would spend my summer writing instead. I didn’t get in, probably because I had pretty much nothing to put on my application, but I did get a new laptop and I have been writing my butt off. In fact, I’ve been writing almost full time hours-from eleven or twelve until five or six, and yesterday from noon until eight.
Unfortunately writing doesn’t make a lot of money. This leaves me with a lot of inner conflict. I’m supposed to get money from the government and I’ve already been waiting for a month and a half. All the food I eat, the chocolate milk I drink (it’s always on sale in my area), the places I go, all of that is paid for by either my grandmother or my boyfriend. And while my grandmother agreed to be my caregiver and doesn’t fuss about it, and my boyfriend likes spending money on me when he has it, I feel very much like a parasite.
When summer started my biggest internal dilemma was telling myself that yes, I could take a break. That it’s okay to go out for a couple hours with some friends and have a bonfire, because I’ve got all summer, with all my days free, to get this work done. Now I’m in the process of convincing myself that it’s okay not to have a real job, as long as I focus on my goals and my dreams. Writing isn’t going to make me a 500 dollar or more pay check in two weeks. Someday it will be my career, and someday I might even be rich and famous-though I’m not holding my breath for that. I feel bad because right now I don’t have money to throw at the wonderful people in my life and I have no material wealth to share.
I’m seventeen years old, and as much as I always tell other people that not every kid needs a job in their high school years, sometimes I’m not so convinced of it myself. I need to remember that writing books and short stories and whatever else I might write isn’t about a pay check in two weeks, it’s about making money and enjoying life for the rest of my life. The time I spend writing is more of an investment in my future than a summer job.
For that reason, I keep writing on Squidoo for advertising royalties which will only go up from here, and I’ve started a fundraising page for Camp Nanowrimo, hoping that I’ll be able to raise $80, or $10 for every 10, 000 words I write. You can read my lenses here, and you can sponsor me for Camp Nanowrimo here.
In the meantime, I’m going to put on a brave face, tell myself that I’m awesome, and write a book.
This week so far has been one of my most productive weeks all year. It’s summer, which means I don’t have to think about school and all the fun stuff that comes with it, and so I spent my first two weeks mainly goofing off and am now getting down to some serious business.
So, this week I’ve edited two and a half chapters of Moonshadow’s Guardian, and I’ve got the first chapter up for critique in two places. I’m participating in an online writing workshop called the Writer’s Circuit, where a number of youth and one writer in residence compare work. I’ve still got to read one more story this week, but I have the rest of today and all of tomorrow to do so.
The third thing that I’ve been doing is revisiting my ancient Squidoo page and working on my lenses. I’ve completely redone my Writing: My Passion lens and created a new lens called What Makes Terry Pratchett so Great? The reason why I decided to actually work on the lenses that I have and to create new ones for Squidoo is because I returned to find that my account-which lay unused for two years-had collected me a whopping three dollars.
That might not seem like a big deal to you, but that’s a huge deal to me. Back in the day I put up two lenses and got halfway through creating a couple more-the one I’m most excited to finish is about how to win Nanowrimo with extra words-and then I abandoned the site for two years. To the point that when I went to update my bio, it still said I was fifteen. Heh. I didn’t expect to find any kind of money there. Maybe a dollar. But three whole dollars gives me the hope that if I work my butt off this summer finishing the lenses I’ve started and making new ones, I might actually have some sort of income from the site. Even if it’s just twenty bucks a month, that’s more than I had before.
Two days a week will be devoted to reading and to creating or updating Squidoo lenses. Three will be devoted to editing and short stories, which I hope to write four of this summer-one every two weeks. My weekends are my days to spend to myself… or, should I say, with my boyfriend. There’s some overlap from day to day and blog posts happen on a novel day-just to make sure my editing stats are up to date-but overall my system seems workable. Don’t quote me on it though, it’s only been a week.
All of that said, I’d like to talk briefly about one of the hardest parts of creating a (I don’t want to say how many) new draft, especially when you have parts of it up for critique. That hard part is not going back and fighting with all the newly written and edited chapters. I did cheat and I did go back to fix the next chapters I’m putting up for critique, but I’ve forced myself to stop, leaving them in an all right but imperfect condition. Those chapters are going to go up for critique even though I know I can make them better, and I’m going to keep plunging ahead, because if I don’t make myself finish this draft, I never will.
Tomorrow I might quickly go over the next chapter I’m putting up for critique just to make sure it makes sense, but I’m not going to let myself get caught up in it for hours on end. I need to push ahead until I reach the end of this new draft, which might I say I am very proud of.
This draft is turning the novella back into a novel, which is pretty exciting for me. And it’s working out in all sorts of ways I couldn’t have imagined, even though somewhere along the line I lost all my notes. (I do mean all my notes.) I guess that’s just one of the joys of working with a really familiar story-I only need so many of my notes.
How is your editing going? What other writing projects are you getting excited about this summer?
So this week I managed to finish my last essay for school and on top of that, I managed to edit three chapters of Moonshadow’s Guardian-though it seems most of the editing in recent chapters has actually been writing new scenes. I’m pretty pleased with my progress as I’m currently sitting at 51 pages of the new draft and 17, 000 or so words. I’m confident that I can have this draft finished in another three or four weeks.
The only frustrating thing about it is that I know I’m going to have to spend a lot of time editing all the new scenes that I’m writing. They’re well written, but there are always ways to make the work better, and stuff that’s already been looked over and edited once will read better than stuff that hasn’t.
Today I had to do some research on swamps in order to properly write one of my scenes. I discovered that although I have an idea what a swamp looks like, I didn’t really know anything else about them. So I took an hour out of my day and looked through various websites about various swamps. I ended up deciding on something close to the ecosystem of Florida Swamps. I haven’t used a lot of what I learned yet, but it did help a little with the scene I was working on and it will probably help more with the upcoming swamp scenes.
One interesting thing I learned today is that there’s a swamp creature called a Coypu or Nutria and that it’s a little rodent type deal. I’m not spending a lot of time in the swamp, but I’ll probably spend more time there in the next book, so this information will definitely come in useful.
It’s important that you take the time to research things you need to know-to learn about animals you’re not very familiar with, ecosystems, philosophies, ideas. Things you want to include in your book but that you don’t know much about. This is particularly true if you’re trying to mimic a culture or time period other than your own-never assume that you know enough. Always keep studying the world around you the same way you keep studying your craft.
Next week I plan to continue editing my book and to start a new short story. It’ll probably be a lot easier to hit my writing goals now that it’s summer; last summer and the summer before that I partied too much and didn’t write enough, but this summer I’m going to work my behind off-after all, I’m almost 18, a proper adult, and I need to act like it and take my dreams seriously.
How is your editing going? Have you stopped at any point to do research or background work?
Editing is probably the most dreaded part of writing for the majority of writers out there-submission being a whole different thing altogether. It’s all about taking apart your creation, this thing you love and have put your blood, sweat, and tears into, and tearing it apart. Once you’ve torn it apart you need to sew it back together, minus some of the prettier pieces and adding some less pretty but more functional parts. It’s hard work-harder than spitting out a first draft and even harder than spitting out an entirely new second draft.
Right now I’m editing my novella, Moonshadow’s Guardian, and I’ve reached a disheartening point. I’ve written new first chapters and now I’m actually editing things I’ve already written, which is always harder.
For this edit, my main goals are to spend more time on the subplot which will become the main plot of the second book-essentially throwing in political intrigue-to make Riana more compassionate, and to add more sounds and smells to the story. I’m hoping that along with a couple minor story changes, this will make the novella almost ready for submission.
With every edit you should have major goals. It’s hard to fix every problem with your story in one edit, and for most of us, it’s easier to do two or three edits, each one focusing on a couple of specific story issues. You should also have goals for each day of editing. Use these goals to help keep you motivated and to evaluate your progress.
Be careful not to overwhelm yourself. A lot of the time editing is much harder than writing, so you’ll need to allow more time for the edit than you did for the first draft. Only focus on editing a couple of scenes a day. Personally I like to do shorter chapters in one day and longer chapters in two. And don’t be afraid to take a day or two off once in a while-in fact I’d almost suggest taking the occasional day off to work on short fiction prompts or something similar-but don’t let yourself abandon it altogether for weeks on end.
I’ll admit, in spite of all this advice, I’m not the greatest at staying on track with my editing goals. There’s always too much to do, especially when you’ve got a big pile of homework. And you know you’ve hit writer’s block when you’re doing homework instead.
So, for all of you out there editing your projects, I’d like you to join a challenge with me. For myself, I plan to edit three chapters every week until Moonshadow’s Guardian has been edited completely. You get to pick your own amount-make sure that it’s enough to challenge you but not enough for you to get discouraged. The weeks are Friday to Friday, and each Friday I will make a post to let you know how my editing is going and to give some editing tips or links. I’m asking you to comment with your own progress and-if you’re comfortable with it-a sentence of your story.
How quickly do you think you can edit?