Self-Editing 101

  1. Spelling – Even the best spellers make mistakes. Use a software program like Grammarly or WordWeb (both of which have free versions.) Both may catch other errors in word usage – like affect vs. effect – and both do offer a thesaurus so you can find a better word or correct one that’s overused.
  2. One of the first things they may or may not tell you in writing classes or seminars is that in a novel it’s all about action. It’s about doing things. Show don’t tell. People don’t ‘begin’ to do things, they don’t ‘start’ to do things, they DO them. For example – ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to begin nibbling at her hair again’ vs. ‘Smoke waited until they were distracted to nibble at her hair again.’ Which sounds better? (Smoke is a horse, by the way…) Don’t have your characters begin or start to do anything unless it’s the first in a series of actions. Do a search for begin and start.
  3. Ditto feel and felt. Which sounds better – When he kissed her it felt like she tingled all over -or- When he kissed her she tingled all over? For #2 and #3, a professional editor will often scribble “SDT”. This is not a disease, it means “Show Don’t Tell”. “The best “show don’t tell advice” came from Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  4. Very or Really. They’re not very happy or really happy, they’re ecstatic or delighted. Use a better, more descriptive word. If nothing comes to mind get a thesaurus.
  5. Search for contractions. For some reason, many writers don’t write in contractions. Especially with ‘had’. He had, she had, rather than he’d or she’d. Be very careful not to do a universal search and replace to correct this or you’ll hate yourself in the morning because once it’s saved you have no other choice but to search the entire document for the awkward mess you made of things. (Always start a new copy when editing, just in case. It’s a lot easier to start over that way.) For example, a universal search and replace for ‘had not’ to ‘hadn’t’ will also change ‘had noticed’ to ‘hadn’ticed’. (This is a personal choice, in a more casual voice like dialogue in fiction, it works, but in more formal writing, it may not.)
  6. ‘There was’. Sometimes it’s justified. Look at each sentence to see if you can rephrase it to make the sentence clearer.
  7. Speaking of there – their (possessive), there (in that direction), and they’re (they are).
  8. *aargh* The dreaded ‘that’. That she, that he, that they… In most cases, the use of the word ‘that’ is completely unnecessary, but we use it in speech so it can sound correct when you write it.
  9. Try not to use that when you mean who. “The man that…” should be “the man who… “
  10. Just and only. Always make sure you really need to use them and that they’re next to the word you want to modify. For example – only costs vs. costs only or it just costs or costs just… Do you really need either?
  11. Was. Jim was shaking his head. Jim shook his head. Always watch for those ‘ing’ words. If you see a lot of them in your writing in conjunction with was, you need to change that sentence to a more active voice. Active voice describes a sentence where the subject performs the action stated by the verb. In passive voice sentences, the subject is acted upon by the verb.
  12. As if/like. Make sure you know which of them you really mean. Do a search for like, and in each place see if ‘as if’ doesn’t sound better.
  13. Watch for split infinitives. Not all of them are bad – to boldly go where no man has gone before, where boldly splits to and go – is generally accepted. “I decided to not go” sounds awkward.
  14. Of…. is another sneaky little beggar. ‘Inside’ works as well as ‘inside of it’ in most cases.
  15. ‘Then’ and ‘and then’ are telling words, don’t use them. For instance: Then he went to sit down. Just say: He sat down. Or…. And then she set a bowl on the table. Just say: She set a bowl on the table. Using then or and then is like a narrator in your book telling us a story, it slows it down. Show, don’t tell.
  16. Do not use really, very, or like. He’s either hot or he’s not. He’s not really hot, or very hot, he’s roasting, burning up, or he’s gorgeous, sexy, etc. She’s not ‘like’ that, she IS that.
  17. Commas. If you have more than two it might be a good idea to look at the sentence and decide if it would work better as two separate sentences. This is DEFINITELY true if you have more than three. For more information on commas and their proper use –
  18. Singular and plural pronouns. When speaking about an individual, the pronoun should be singular, when speaking about a group, it’s plural. Ex. It brought him to their feet. Wrong.
  19. (Although this is primarily a grammar document, it is about writing and this has been seen too often to go unremarked.) Don’t ‘Slug a Nun’, as a well-known writer once said. In other words, when opening a chapter, any chapter, get to the point. Don’t say “Mikey slugged a nun” and then take ten pages, eight of which explain the history of the Catholic Church before you explain WHY Mikey slugged the nun.
  20. Another very common mistake – Her eyes wandered. Please put them back in her head, that’s disgusting. Her gaze might wander, but not her eyes. She might glance at him, their gazes may meet, or lock, etc., or they might stare at each other, but his eyes will never wander over her breasts unless it’s a zombie movie and they’ve gained legs. Some editors might let this go, but you should be able to find a better way to say it.
  21. Watch for sentences that start with the same word or the same type of beginning. He did this, he did that. Change it up so the reader doesn’t get bored.
  22. Too much use of “it” as a subject can make writing weak. Delete the vague pronoun and identify ‘it’ with a solid noun. Not – It felt good to dress up. Try – She enjoyed dressing up.
  23. Do not mix dialogue of one character in the same paragraph as another. Ever. Even if, or especially if, you’re using omniscient point of view. And always identify the person speaking or thinking.
  24. Action and reaction. Sentences need to relay information about the cause before the effect or result. Not – She jumped as the door slammed shut. Try – The door slammed, making her jump.
  25. Eliminate unnecessary words. In the above example – few doors slam open, so it must have slammed shut or closed. So, the door slammed.
  26. Try to avoid prepositional phrases (to her, at him, for her, etc.) that can be implied. Not – Seeing him proved what a distraction he was to her. Try – Seeing him proved what a distraction he was.
  27. Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Try to evaluate each adverb (words that end in -ly), especially in conjunction with speaking tags. Replace with stronger words. Not – He leaned close and spoke softly. Try – He leaned close and whispered.
  28. Repeated words: There’s a function in Word that shows words you overuse, but a beta reader or editor can be a better choice. Sometimes it’s justified – a character tic.
  29. How often do you use ‘look’? Try variations like glanced, gazed, stared, their eyes met, saw.
  30. Said, but don’t get too caught up it. Studies have shown that said is a word that readers eyes pass over, registering only who is speaking.
  31. Starting a sentence with But when you could use However.
  32. Starting a sentence with And. Can you rework it? It’s acceptable, but too much or too often is a bad thing.
  33. Redundant actions: stood up. How else would you stand? Sat down – try sat. Nodded his head – just use nodded, if he’s nodding anything else it’s just weird.
Also, consider picking up The Elements of Style. It’s a small, thin book, perfect to keep beside your laptop or desktop computer. It answers some of those pesky grammar questions.
For style suggestions, try Hemingway Editor, a software program that highlights lengthy, complex sentences, common errors, and passive voice. Always be careful taking the advice it or other programs offer – you don’t want to sound too mechanical or lose your authors ‘voice’.
One last little hint. By not doing a read-through sentence by sentence but using search instead, it forces you to look at each sentence individually, in isolation. It makes it much easier to spot errors you might otherwise have missed or to question the wording of the sentence. Try reading it aloud, or use text to voice to read it back, that may help you pick up errors in flow.


Submitting to a traditional/legacy publisher made simple

I was asked by a writer recently how they would go about submitting to a traditional publisher, so I created this (very) basic primer.

  1. Finish/edit the novel. You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this step. Skip it at your peril – an unedited novel is instant death. (Even if they’ll still edit it themselves. ) Some editors will be forgiving and request a revise/resubmit. Only some will be forgiving, there’s no guarantee which one you’ll get. (Most editors are great people.)
  2. Determine genre and category – – this is important when choosing a publisher. Many have preferences for certain genres and/or categories. Make sure the one you choose is one they publish and that they’re still accepting submissions in that genre. ex. historical fiction or middle-grade fantasy
  3. Find the appropriate agent/publisher. There are a number of sites available to help you – or Take a look at their website to see if books similar to yours are listed. Find the agents/editors that will best suit your work. Some writers recommend choosing the newest agent/editor listed, because they’re still trying to build their listings.
  4. Write a good query letter – Picture yourself and a hundred other authors. Each of you has thirty seconds to speak to your chosen publishers before moving to the next. How can you make that agent/editor fall in love with your story and request more? The first impression you leave will be a professional query letter that clearly follows their requirements. A typical query letter usually consists of: 1st and 2nd paragraph – typewriterIntroduction to the book. Don’t be shy or cryptic in your synopsis. Share the vibrancy of your characters and plotline, and don’t leave out the ending. Then, close your eyes and envision who is reading your book. Share that image with us. We don’t expect you to be a marketing expert, but you should be able to tell us who your readers are and why they want to read your book. Last paragraph – about the book and writer. (Title is 100,000 words, the first of a completed three part trilogy. It’s my first novel.) For examples of good and bad query letters see
  5. Wait. Many agents/editors have dozens if not hundreds of queries they’ll consider. It can take three to six months before they respond. Usually they’ll give their possible response time. At the end of that time, if you haven’t heard from them, you can send a letter asking if it was received. Be polite, not demanding. Most will have sent a standard rejection. DO NOT demand more information. That standard rejection letter is to keep from hurting anyone’s feelings.
  6. They request a revise and resubmit. Follow the instructions. Get it back to them as soon as possible. Do not make major changes, you sold them on the novel. Not only do they want their revisions, they may also want to see if you follow instructions.

Eclectic Collective – What’s a collective

So, what exactly is a collective? It may or may not be the next big new thing among Indie writers.

Essentially a collective is a group of writers who band together for one or any number of purposes.Oneof the primary reasons many form a collective is to declare a certain level of quality for their work, given the reputation that many indie writers have. Collectives can be created for certain genres, like a fantasy writers collective, or a collective of thriller writers. (Would that be a murderofwriters, like a murder of crows?) Continue reading

Should You Quit the Day Job?

Have desk, will write

Image by Bright Meadow via Flickr

Ummm… I hate to disappoint you, but… probably not.
Before you make that decision, though, you have to ask yourself a lot of questions. Once you’ve made that decision you’ll have to live with it, which may be harder than you think. Take it from someone who has been there, and knows.
Can you really do without your income in this economy? No job is truly secure anymore and the unexpected is almost guaranteed to show up once you’ve made that decision – illness, unforeseen expenses, layoffs, etc.
Do you have enough work in the pipeline to support your decision and is it truly viable? When I left my day job I had the second of a proposed three book series submitted to my publisher, plus another book I was certain they would like. Feeling reasonably secure, I quit my day job. Both ‘sure things’ fell through and suddenly I had no income at all. Even with Indie publishing, it will take about three months before you start generating any income and that’s usually pretty small at first. Very few Indie writers become best sellers overnight. As painful as it is, keeping that day job may be more useful than you know, for reasons you don’t expect. Freedom from the day job can take away the pressure to write. Knowing you’ve got time allows you to get distracted by things like FB and Twitter. If you’re not disciplined, you should start practicing now. Set a schedule but don’t jinx yourself by not allowing yourself some latitude. Stifle the muse too often and getting her back to work can be difficult. (and terrifying).
If you do decide to quit:
Designate a place to work. Whether fiction or non-fiction, you need a place that everyone in the family understands that when you go there, you’re working. (For men this doesn’t tend to be as much of a problem. If you doubt me, just consider that no one talks about woman-caves. Apparently women have no need for private space.) Be prepared for knocks on the door JUST as you go into the flow.
On a similar subject – Even though you’ve discussed it with them and you think your spouse is prepared, understand that quitting will change the family dynamic. Since you’re ‘home’ you’ll still be expected to have everything done during the day that you used to do at night in between everything else. And they will expect you’ll also be more available since now you can write during the day – even if the muse happens to hit you at night.
Your income, too, or lack thereof, will be the invisible elephant in the room. Until you are actually earning what you did in your day job – offset by health and car insurance costs, etc. – there will be an unconscious shift of power in the direction of the earning spouse.
By the way, don’t worry about how much free time you might have. Now that you’re a ‘professional’ writer, when you aren’t writing you’ll be editing your manuscripts and marketing. Believe me, there isn’t enough time in a day to get it all done, you’ll have to balance that all out as well.
Once the schedule has been set and the details worked out, the biggest mistake most new writers make is to over-commit themselves and burn out. Learn how to say no to yourself. Yes, in the beginning you have to do interviews, post blogs, and find advertising venues – but schedule that for the dreariest time of day, like three in the afternoon. Leave your most productive time for writing. If the muse is with you, write. That’s what you love, that’s what you do.
A little advice – change things up now and then, go to the library, Starbucks, Panera Bread, anyplace they have wifi, and work from there. It’ll help keep things fresh.
If all of this seems a bit much, or puts you into anxiety mode, then I’d suggest not quitting the day job yet. Not until you can at least feel comfortable that the income you are generating is enough to at least offset your expenses – like paying for editors, cover art, advertising, hair cuts, gas/petrol, etc.

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