Some Things to Keep in Mind When Self Editing

This blog post is based off a recent workshop I took at Context. The shop was presented by author Gary A. Braunbeck. I found his class  gave some really great advice, so I thought I’d pass it along for others who might find it useful too. The following is an accumulation of handouts, and notes I took. His advice covered everything from dialogue tags to punctuation. Enjoy.

  • First Rule of Editing. ALL editing should be left to second draft and beyond. A first draft should not be edited until it is completed.
  • Had. Avoid using the word “had” anywhere but in dialogue; when this happens, you will be telling the reader something instead, not showing. Consider the word to be a warning bell if you see it in the body of your narrative.
  • Character Names in Dialogue. Avoid having characters use each others name too much when in conversation; shift the focus by using a simple physical action.

Example:

Sarah looked up from the remote and toward the television screen. “What’s wrong with the sound?”

Ted poked his head from behind the flat-screen. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out, if you haven’t noticed.”

“No reason to get snippy.”

“That was not snippy. That was snarky. There is a difference.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Dolby Surround- Sound expert.”

Ted disappeared behind the television. “That’s snippy.”

(Question: how many words can you prune from this mini-scene?”)

  • Keep Dialogue Moving. Visual focus shifting technique (like in the above example) ties into the physical action of dialogue. This helps with 3 or more people in a conversation and helps eliminate speech tags.
  • Character and Dialogue. Unless absolutely necessary, never have more than 3 characters speaking during a single scene; if this cannot be avoided, then employ the visual focus shifting technique, or ensure that each character has a unique and recognizable speech pattern.
  • Speech Tags. The same rule can be applied to speech tags; use them as sparingly as possible.
  • More on Speech Tags. Unless absolutely necessary, never use a speech tag other than “said,” “whispered,” “muttered,” or “shouted.” Anything else is melodramatic and draws too much attention to your intent as the writer.
  • Question Marks and Speech Tags. Don’t use speech tags after a question mark and most certainly do not use ask. It’s redundant.
  • Natural Dialogue. Make conversation as natural as possible. For an exercise try transcribing everyday conversation and see how real people talk.
  • Don’t Use… The fact that- is the most useless phrase in the English language. Don’t use it.
  • All Caps. Never use ALL CAPS when trying to indicate screaming.
  • Exclamation Marks. Do not use exclamation marks in narrative and very sparingly in dialogue. If the scene has been portrayed correctly this sort of punctuation is unnecessary.
  • Character Delineation. Make sure to establish recognizable speech sentences (or words and patterns) for each character. 

Example:

A character has the tendency to use a word over and over and/or a character has a dialect (but dialect should be used sparingly see Grammar Girl’s post on Writing Accents and Dialects).

  • Info-Dumps. If you need to relay background information in a story, in a first draft always do so through dialogue, but make sure that the character to whom the information is being relayed A) doesn’t already know it and B) needs to know it. If later you find that some of that information can be worked into the narrative, move it around then; but for the initial draft, use dialogue- it keeps the momentum going and puts the reader into the position of identifying with the character who’s getting this information.
  • More on Info Dumps. Restrict yourself to 3 sentences of info dump if there is no other way to get the information to the reader.
  • Profanity. Always remember that profanity can be a powerful tool if employed properly; it is simple violence without physical action in the moment. It either replaces violence or foreshadows it. Any other use is simply superfluous and comes off as a cheap element used for shock value.
  • Paragraph Dialogue. Simple rule here: action always remains with the speaker. If another character is doing something after the other person is speaking, that sentence or section of writing needs to go into a different paragraph.
  • Story Mood. First establish mood before putting in description.
  • Description. When describing something try using how the description makes the character feels and add a few actual details to flesh out the description.
  • Don’t Be Wordy. If you have something simple and direct to say, say it simply and directly. Don’t write around something or pad it with unnecessary words.
  • Clarity. Know exactly what you are trying to convey before starting a scene.
  • Start with Action. Get right in the middle of a story, show don’t tell.
  • Character Name. Using the first name (full name) of a character is acceptable at the beginning of the story, but no more than that, unless another character has a reason to address said person by full name.
  • The ly Rule. Any time you use an ly word,  use it sparingly and make sure it doesn’t modify a word.
  • Word and Phrase Repetition. The repetition of a word or phrase can be done deliberately and well. It can create a very intense emphasis to words or phrases.
  • Do not edit as you go along. One of the things that can quickly cripple the momentum of a story is a writer’s tendency to go back and struggle with the sentence or paragraph she or he has just finished writing. It’s deadly for numerous of reasons, but none more so than this: it drains energy not only from you, the writer, but also from the pace and intensity of the story, as well. If you feel you absolutely have to go back and fix something, wait until you have finished the scene that you are currently working on and do it then. I personally (Braunbeck) try to get the whole story (4k or less) done in one sitting, start to finish, not stopping to check spelling, grammar, dialogue, whether or not there are crumbs in the bottom of the toaster, nothing. One thing that cannot be added or repaired in the editing phase is the organic momentum– that comes with the first draft and only with the first draft.
  • Writing Weaknesses. Recognize your weaknesses as a writer, and then accept them, and know when you have no choice but to confront them.
  • Never Forget… No single narrative element in a story is irreplaceable- there is no sentence that cannot be shortened, no paragraph that cannot be streamlined, no character who can’t be made to either speak up or shut up at any given time, no throwaway idea that cannot be expanded upon, no central conceit that cannot be altered, and no description that cannot be toned down or cut out altogether… There is nothing holy in a story after the first draft.
  • And most certainly… Remember you serve the needs of the story, the story does not serve your needs as a writer.

I hope you found this helpful. I know I have. And if you ever get a chance to take a writing workshop from Gary A. Braunbeck, go for it. He is has a complete understanding of writing and makes learning about writing exciting. 

What things do you look for while editing? Feel free to post comments below.

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9 thoughts on “Some Things to Keep in Mind When Self Editing

  1. Thank you Awesome Dawn for the information and rules. I think I’ll bookmark this site for future reference! You made a lot of really good points here.

  2. I love the points here, but I heavily disagree with the note on profanity. Unless your characters are in a “polite” or formal setting, profanity is often necessary in dialogue if you’re portraying how real people talk- especially if you’re dealing with characters who are relaxed around each other. True, there are some people who don’t use it, but if your characters are in either a seedy or relaxed work environment, or a bar, etc. you’re going to have to use it.

    • That’s a good point. And this was brought up to Gary during the workshop. Profanity is fine to use in dialogue as along as it serves a point. Does it describe the character? Does it make the reader feel a certain way? Does it do something to move the story forward. I recently wrote a story where having one of my characters use profanity was essential to the story. He used it in almost every other word. I did this because I wanted the reader to have a strong dislike of this character and to show his rough personality compared to his meeker sister. So yes, profanity has its uses. But as Gary said in the workshop, “Make sure there’s a reason for it. Don’t just use profanity for the sake of using profanity.”

      • What does using profanity for the sake of using profanity mean, though? I’m always a little lost when people say that. I’d guess it means don’t use it unless the story calls for it, but whether or not the story calls for it really depends on what type of story the author is trying to tell. It seems to me that all of this fuss over “curse words” is another way of people saying “don’t offend me,” which is a form of censorship I don’t think belongs in artistic expression. What if the purpose of the story is to shock in order to get people thinking about something? Who determines if that was a misuse of profanity? No one says “don’t misuse adjectives for the sake of misusing adjectives,” do they? And if you do, you’ve just written a bad story, not crossed some big line. How is this different?

      • The subject of whether to use profanity or not can easily be misinterpreted as censorship, but it isn’t, at least not in the way I took Gary to talk about it (and I agree with his assessment). I don’t mind profanity in a story as long as it serves a purpose. If the purpose is to shock, then shock. Go for it. But use profanity in a way that truly shocks at the right moment and in the right way (often less is more, but that is not always the case, each story is different). Profanity then has a purpose for being. But if a writer decides to use it just because he or she can, it pushes the reader away. It’s a negative aspect that sends echoes of that negatively throughout the entire story, and unless the writer wants it there, then it does more damage that good. I’ve read stories with heavy profanity from all the characters and there was no real reason for it. It left a bad taste in my mouth and I never picked up another book from that author. I don’t do that sort of thing lightly, but if I end a book feeling negative without the author explaining (either directly or indirectly) why I should be feeling this way, it makes me mad. Ergo the writing “rule” that one shouldn’t use profanity for the sake of using profanity. I say “rule” because as Gary and many authors have told me, “All rules in writing can be broken, if you know what rule you’re breaking and why.”

  3. Reblogged this on Jill Marcotte and commented:
    This is a blog post from the indomitable Cynthia D. Griffin (a.k.a. Awesome Dawn). As I am somewhat in this mode lately (at least while not NaNo-ing), I found this post to be exceedingly helpful. I went through City of the Dead with these points in mind and feel like I made good progress in cleaning it up. (A side not for those of you interested, I did send out a few query letters October 31st- and it was pretty scary. A partial request and a few passes so far, as well as one full request. So I’m feeling cautiously optimistic!)

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