There are two things writers never seem to have enough of: time and feedback. I can’t help with time. But even if you don’t have a group of people willing to read your works in progress, there are ways to identify areas for improvement in your own writing without having to have it pointed out to you.
Some of these suggestions might seem hard. But your willingness to embrace them might be indicative of how determined you are to become your own editor and, in turn, a better writer.
Learn the English Language
This might come as a strange suggestion because most people writing in the English language probably think they already know the English language. However, most people never learned it properly in the first place. The quality of English education has for a long time been just so-so. My father spent a day at school with two of his grandchildren, my nephews, and after sitting in on a couple of classes, he assures me this hasn’t changed. One teacher didn’t understand the difference between quantifiable and unquantifiable measurements (number versus amount) and thus was teaching the children incorrectly.
I will be forever grateful that I spent three years learning English from Mr Cleary at Goornong Primary School. Mr Cleary was old as well as old school and taught us the parts of language, including nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, phrases, clauses, etc. I supplemented that learning later by studying editing for two years with Anne Calvert at Holmesglen TAFE where I learned about gerunds, misplaced and dangling modifiers, objects and subjects, verb tenses and agreement, and reinforced the basics such as the proper use of apostrophes (this is a massive problem these days).
These two reasons combined mean I am both a writer and an editor – professionally and personally. I can find grammatical, spelling and punctuation mistakes in my own work as well as any professional proofreader or copyeditor, saving myself the cost and immediately elevating my work above that of others who can’t edit their own writing.
You don’t need to spend two years studying. Everything I was taught and everything you need to know could easily be covered in an intensive one month period. Yes, it’s one month. One whole month. Out of the rest of your writing life. It’s worth the investment of time.
Have Reference Materials Within Easy Reach
And because you can’t remember it all no matter how much intensive or lengthy study you do, you should always have reference materials within easy reach when you are writing. This includes dictionaries and thesauruses (always more than one – I recommend the Reader’s Digest Reverse Dictionary, Reader’s Digest Word Finder and the Macquarie International English Dictionary), style guides and style manuals, baby name books and how-to guides.
Identify Style (and Lack of Style)
I received some feedback on a book last year that suggested I overused the words “maybe”, “perhaps”, “almost” and “sometimes”. When I went back and read the manuscript, I realised that it was absolutely true. I’d mistaken the overuse of these words as a stylistic choice to try to convey the uncertainness of the main character. I went back and took most of them out.
The ability to step back from your own work and see what it is rather than what you intended it to be is difficult. But keeping an eye out for the following may be a step in the right direction:
• Overuse throughout
• Concentrated repetition
• Awkward construction
• Unrealistic dialogue
• Lack of flow
• Telling and not showing
If it’s good enough for children, then it’s good enough for writers. And if it’s hard to say out loud, it will be hard to read on the page, too. So a strategy I use as part of being my own editor is to read sections of my writing aloud.
When I write articles, I read them out (usually to my cats) as if I’m speaking at a conference. When I write fiction, I read it out (again usually to my cats) as if I’m amongst a room full of people at a book reading.
Sometimes it’s not enough to just read it out. If it’s fiction, act out the dialogue. Dialogue can be acted out to elicit a feeling. That feeling should be evident on the page as well as when spoken aloud, and if it isn’t there, then something’s missing. Dialogue should roll off the tongue, I think. In real life, we stutter and stammer and um and ah and it takes us time to realise the perfect comeback. It’s so much more satisfying to read and watch characters who have complete control of their speech, who can parry and thrust verbally with the best of them (unless, of course, this is not part of their personality).
Compare the dialogue of one person from scene to scene to see if there is a consistency in their own particular voice, and then to make sure other characters don’t have the exact same voice, unless there is a very good reason for it. Different characters should have different speech patterns to reflect everything about them: the environment they grew up in, their education, their socio-economic status, their audience, their emotions, etc. So a character who likes to avoid confrontation will address their mother and a difficult customer in different ways, but at the same time will retain that part of their personality that dislikes confrontations.
Break It Down
Being able to break a piece of writing down into its elements can also be helpful sometimes. Find the big picture, find the big moments, find the act breaks, find the small moments, find the characters and isolate them all. Looking at them in isolation sometimes helps to pinpoint why they or parts of them aren’t working. And sometimes putting all these elements back together in a different way can be useful.
Print It Out
There is something about being able to turn the pages that helps me see things more easily than scrolling down a computer screen does.
Because novels are such long pieces of writing, it’s hard to remember them precisely, which I think is a good thing. So when I think I’m ready to move from writing to reviewing, I put it aside for a period of time (it can be as little as a couple of days or as much as several years). Then I go back to it and read it as a reader. Then I ask myself questions. Does it hold my interest? Does it flow? Do I have the same opinion of the work as I did when I wrote it? Are there moments where I wonder, “What was I thinking?”? Am I pleasantly surprised by the construction of some elements of the writing or is there nothing that excites me to think that I actually wrote this?
This is probably the hardest strategy of all. When I can recognise that a story isn’t working but I’m just not sure why, I will ditch the whole lot and purposely write the story again in a completely different way. The new way might not be better but going about it in a different way can help to identify what was wrong with the original. And, of course, I can incorporate elements of both the original and the rewrite and end up with a much better piece of writing. But I will admit that this is incredibly hard as well as being a lot of (sometimes redundant) work.
Read the first chapter of White Wash and the alternative first chapter of the same novel posted on this blog previously for an example of exactly what I’m talking about.
So hopefully you can use these steps to become your own editor and if that’s a step too far, hopefully you can use them to simply become a better writer.