Now and then a discussion comes up on writer's boards about whether one should write for one's own pleasure and damn the consequences, or if one should write for the market. Those who opt for the former category refer to the latter as "hack writing." Those who opt for the latter sometimes refer to those in the former as "idealistic" and "unrealistic."
The truth is that most writers fall somewhere between the two camps, and shift positions with each and every project. One writer may pound out the novel that she's been carefully plotting for twenty years or more, pouring her heart and soul into the project, but the next day dash out a piece for a magazine or take on a work-for-hire project with no other objective than to pay the bills.
Question: Which is better?
Answer: Whichever suits your goals at the moment.
Better answer: Who cares?
Whether you write for your own fulfillment or whether you write solely for filthy lucre, your writing must shine if it is to get published. Those who write for their own spiritual needs but still want their work to be published need to accept the fact that editors will rip and tear their heart's work to pieces in order to whip it into shape for publication. Or, these days, the more likely scenario is that the editor or agent will expect the author to do the bloody deed herself. Editors have far less time to actually edit than they did a generation or so back.
Revising your own work involves a whole lot more than proofreading. It requires re-vision -- that is, seeing your work with fresh eyes. It may mean major surgery, moving one scene several chapters forward or back, eliminating extraneous characters, chopping away the back material in that lovingly constructed preface AND foreword, and simply starting with Gnormious the Barbarian hacking his way through the Imperial Guard, waiting until later to tell how he got there.
Books, books, and more books exist to help authors through the process of revising their work. I have several posted in the sidebar that I think are particularly helpful. In general, though, the process usually works by taking a broad view, then going down on a finer and finer level.
For fiction, is the story working? Are the characters realistic? Are there plotholes big enough to drive a coach-and-four and two footmen through, or have all the loose ends been tied up well before "The End"? Does the plot have a solid structure, or does it weave all over the place like a gigantic toddler? Looking at the broad view may require putting the manuscript aside for a few weeks. It may require finding helpful and objective people to read it through and comment on it (critique groups are a good place to turn -- friends and relatives may not have the objectivity you need, unless you've had book discussions with them before and you know they can do the old rip n' tear). Tell your critiquers specifically that you want to know if the plot is working, and ask them to point out parts where they became confused.
For nonfiction, is the organization working? Does one topic lead logically to the next, or are you bouncing between unrelated topics just because they sounded interesting at the time? Even nonfiction needs a storyline to hold it together. We are all storytellers, whether we're writing fiction, nonfiction, a scientific paper for an academic journal, or a recipe for the newspaper. Every bit of writing should have a running theme or storyline that holds it all together.
Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, topic by topic, whether fiction or nonfiction, the narrative needs to keep moving to keep the reader engaged. That doesn't mean that Gnormious needs to be chopping his way through the Imperial Guard on every other page. The time he spends reflecting on the Barbarian Way or pondering the charms of the lovely Ethelberta the Impaler can be as engaging as his swordplay -- or his swordplay can be as dull as a Farm Products Amalgamated Annual Report if your writing isn't keeping pace.
If you typed your manuscript on 5x7" cards, would there be something interesting and engaging on each card?
That's what you need to hold the reader's attention. In a small-size paperback books, each page should contain something interesting: action, a striking visual image, humor, a smouldering love scene, something. Not pages and pages of description that the reader will flip through. Not a discussion between Gnormious and his advisors that rivals the Council of Elrond in length. Something interesting or striking on every page.
And are you showing what's happening instead of just telling about it? This is a difficult distinction for many beginning writers to make. The "showing" voice is part of the traditional storyteller voice, and it shows up in many fairy tales and folktales: "
Once upon a time, there was an elderly couple who lived alone. They had no children, which made them very sad. The one day...To show this, one might begin a story thus:
Old Hannah stood by the well, her wrinkled hand hovering over her water jug, as she watched a plump young woman stroll by with five -- five -- children in tow. Hannah turned away, pressing a hand to her eyes, which had grown moist. "Five," she mumured. "Five. Some women have all the luck, while others..." She sighed, piked up her jug, and turned wearily back home, wondering what it must be like to hear a pair of small lips whisper, "Mama!"Yes, it does take much longer to show than to tell. Sometimes one must do a bit of telling to keep the pace of a story moving, so the rule "show, don't tell," is not a hard and fast one. But whenever possible, show. Showing involves the reader in the story. Telling forces the reader to only observe it from a distance.
Line by line
Only after you've hacked and slashed your way through the larger questions do you finally get down to the line editing. Here is where you get right to to word-by-word examination of your text, looking for:
- spelling errors: don't expect the spell checker to catch them all.
- misuse of words: know the difference between "cue" and "queue," between "peaked," "peeked," and "piqued," between "bear" and "bare" (it's "bear with me," not "bare with me," unless you're talking about a game of strip poker), between "affect" and "effect," (the first is usually a verb, the second usually a noun, the exceptions being mostly in academic writing), when to use "few" and when to use "less," and that the proper phrase is "I should have," not "I should of."
- Misplaced modifiers: "Twinkling in the blue-black sky, I gazed at the far-off stars." Wait -- who is twinkling in the blue-black sky? In this case, the narrator, not the stars.
- Piling on the adjectives: writing teachers who don't actually write themselves are prone to encouraging their students to pump their prose full of adjectives, resulting in travesties such as, "The small, brunette, adorable, perky, little girl skipped down the long, lumpy, cracked sidewalk," when "A tiny girl with chocolate-brown hair skipped down the sidewalk, heedless of the potholes" would do better. Use specific nouns instead of lists of adjectives. Why say, "The pretty, bright, red flower..." when you can say, "The red geranium..."
- Weak verbs: as with nouns and adjectives, avoid using adverbs too pump up weak verbs. Don't risk pulling a Tom Swiftie ("Get in the back of the boat," Tom said, sternly). Use strong verbs instead of trying to pump up a weak verb with an adverb.
- He said, she said: Using "said" is fine, unless it's overused. Don't comb your thesaurus trying to come up with synonyms for "said." You can have Tom whisper, Betty yelp, Che-Hao holler, Honoria command, Sita sigh, but don't overdo it. You can also replace a dialogue tag with an action: Tom pointed toward the boat. "Get in."
- Purple prose: "Tihn stepped boldly, recklessly, into a miasmic night as menacingly dark and wildly stormy as his pain-wracked memories of that lurid night in the tattered, shabby hovel..." -- yeah. You get the idea. Don't do it. Use style, yes, but also keep your writing clean so that you reader gets lost in the story. Drawing excessive attention to your writing puts a barrier between the reader and the story.
Read your work aloud to yourself, or have someone else attempt to read it to you. Mac users have a built-in computer voice that will read the words in a synthesized voice (In TextEdit, which comes with the machine, it's the "Speech" item under the Edit menu), and the near monotone is excellent, because the words must work without a reader reading in the excitement of Gnormious' battle scene. By hearing the words read aloud, you'll be able to spot any clunkers that just don't read well.
Put it through the typewriter again
In the old days of writing on typewriters, authors would type out a first draft, mark it up, then retype the whole thing. This was called "putting it through the typewriter again." Invariably, the writer finds on doing so that there are lots of things to touch up. This sentence could really be eliminated, this other one needs a stronger verb, this one really belongs elsewhere. As painful as retyping the whole 100,000+ words sounds, it's an extremely useful exercise.
This only touches on the basics of self-editing. For more ideas, get a good book on editing (such as the selections at the right), or see these articles:
- Self-Editing (from the Writing for Children Resource Site)
- Self-editing (by Lori Handeland)
- Self-editing Success (by Carole Moore)