On Writing #5 Editing Your Own Work



(so your editor doesn’t have to do it for you)

Many writers, when they reach a stage where they are ready to edit or put a final polish on their work, often don’t know where to begin. There are so many little things to look for: passive voice, too many adverbs, too many info dumps, veil words … and on and on. This post covers some of the larger issues that may arise, which are also useful things to keep in mind at earlier stages when revising.

Style Is the style consistent? Does it start out poetic in the first chapter and become plain and terse for the rest of the book? Does it flip back and forth between one style and another? Is the writing uneven? Do you include sensory details and visceral reactions? Do you get your characters — and through them the readers — into their bodies and into their environments?)

When you use figurative language (similes, metaphors, personification) is it apt, or are you trying too hard to come up with comparisons that are original? That is, when readers come across these do they subconsciously think “Yes, those two things really are similar in that way.” Or do they think, “Huh?” And have to reread to figure out what you are getting at? Are these in language and images that your viewpoint character would actually be using? Are they appropriate to the tone and atmosphere of a scene, or do they work against it? “The sun was a lemon popsicle in a blueberry sky,” when you are trying to build an atmosphere of dread. “The rain was like a drizzle of blood dripping from an open wound” in a scene you intend to be whimsical and happy.

Dialogue. Is the dialogue important in more than one way (drives the plot, reveals character, gives important information)? Is it to the point or does it ramble needlessly? Do all the characters sound too much alike? If the setting is “historical” do you manage to avoid modern slang and modern ideas, and also avoiding the common traps of trying to imitate a style of speech you aren’t really familiar with (torturing the syntax, misusing words)? Do the characters sound interesting? (Even if a character is supposed to sound boring to the other characters, they should not be tedious to your readers. This can be a very difficult balance to achieve.) Is it consistent with the personality of the character speaking? A middle-aged professor of philosophy should not sound like a ditsy teenager just because you think that would result in more “natural” dialogue — if it isn’t natural for the character, then it’s not natural! Dialogue is not meant to precisely imitate what is natural, but is meant to sound convincingly natural. Do your characters come across as disembodied voices during long conversations, or do you include body language and “stage business” so that readers can better visualize the characters as they speak?

Worldbuilding. (This, of course, is of importance to SFF writers, though parts of it apply to anything you may write in an unfamiliar setting.) Is the worldbuilding consistent and plausible? Do the different parts fit together like the pieces of a puzzle? Do you give readers enough details that they can imagine the big picture without the need for extensive infodumps? If you invent plants, animals, jewels, etc. that do not exist in our world do you end up using one or two of them for everything and to the point of tedium for your readers? (Everyone in your world wears clothes and shoes made from the woven fibers of the Garblewood plant, drinks tea made from Garblewood root, heals wounds with Garblewood leaves, eats Garblewood berries in season, furnishes their houses with Garblewood chairs and tables, shelters during a journey beneath the spreading branches of a conveniently located Garblewood tree, etc.)

Characters. Are the motivations of your characters consistent with their personalities and their circumstances (motivations may not be what they appear to be, but until readers learn differently they need to be plausible), or do your characters act like puppets manipulated by the author to create situations you have planned out in advance? Do your characters generally behave in ways that are consistent with their own self-interest, goals, or beliefs, or do they suddenly change direction whenever it suits you?

Plot. Does the plot depend too much on supposedly intelligent people doing patently stupid things? Do you write backwards (things happen early in the book because of what you have decided will happen later, rather than the other way around)? Do things happen because they would be “cool” whether or not they arise out of what has already happened or if they serve to drive the plot?


While this is not a complete list of the things you should be looking at when you are editing or revising, nor is it intended to be, if you get them right you may be surprised by how many other things unexpected fall into place.

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