When Your Own Bad Writing Makes You Sick

Ever look back and read work you’ve done in the past to realize it sucks so bad you almost feel physically ill?

Yep, that happened to me in a big way Sunday. The previous week my son started school on Wednesday, so I started working on my new novel with gusto (I’d been waiting all summer to start!), but realized I had some background information and research that needed to be done first. Then I got the bright idea to read the half completed first draft of my second novel (Dark Territories) over the weekend. God, what a horrible, awful, terrible disappointment that turned out to be.

I couldn’t even get all the way through two chapters before I decided I’d had enough, because I was real close to vomiting. Yeah, it was that bad. And I can’t even pinpoint one specific thing that was terrible. There was a well balanced amount of terribleness from stiff and completely out of character dialogue to plot leaps that would make a mountain goat proud. There were tie-ins from one story arc to another that left me wondering exactly how much I had to drink that day. And please don’t even get me started on my long windedness. I could probably make a schooner set sail with all that blustering air moving about in each scene.

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The End is Here

The EndThe end. The most two satisfying words a writer can ever write. The end. Two words standing alone that means more than all other words put together. And as those two words are written and then stared at in shocked disbelief, a rush of emotions hit in one great punch. Ecstatic happy dancing commences… Swirling ribbons of sadness twist in the stomach at the realization that a great journey is finally over… But mostly a profound relief settles and solidifies as the truth finally hits home… after countless days of hard work, overcoming large bouts of self-doubt and writer’s block, constant rewrites and edits, and grueling self imposed hours The End finally came.

Yeah, that was me three weeks ago as I finished my novel Blood Feud.

Granted, I’m not completely done. I sent the last draft out to pre-readers to get some feedback. Once I hear back, I may make a few changes here or there, but for the most part it’s done. And even though I say that and have had three weeks to bask in my novels completion, I’m still somewhat in disbelief. I’ll be honest there were many days, weeks, and months when I never thought the novel would ever be completed despite my always optomistic behavior of “I will get to the end no matter what!”

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Guest Post: How to Accomplish Effective Self-Editing

Hey, writers. I’m Cheri, a co-admin over at OKPotato, (or cherikamei, my personal writing blog), and, thanks to Cynthia Griffin, I’m here to discuss the process of self-editing.

For anyone following either of my aforementioned blogs, you’ll have already seen multiple posts on my writing process and a myriad woes. A brief rundown for everyone else: Last year I completed my M.A. in English, Creative Writing, and am expanding on my thesis to finish a full novel. It is a sci-fi dystopia with a kick-ass group of POC women and their token male. (You can see more here. Publishers, feel free to contact.) (Not kidding.)

As a poor, part-time writer, I rely on self-editing for most of my works and a writing group composed of friends for the rest of my feedback. Whether you’re writing a poem, short story, novella, or novel, it is important for you to know how to edit your own work, both for technical writing errors and inconsistencies or problems with overall arcs and character development.


For one thing, the only way to get other people to take your work seriously is to present it as perfectly as possible. No one knows your writing as well as you do and so only you can reshape it with intentions that match your story or poem. The smallest rewording can often change the meaning of an entire sentence

While I certainly encourage writing groups and getting feedback from readers, you can save yourself at least some trouble down the line (when you’re looking to publish) by self-editing early. It may even help you figure out how you shape your story arcs as you go along.

I’ll be showing you my process, which seems to be working pretty well so far, and I’d love to hear about any of your processes in the comments!

Here we go. I call it: The Side-By-Side.

1. Open up your work on the left side of your screen.
2. Now, open a blank document on the right.
3. Start re-writing what’s on the left…on the right.


It sounds crazy. It looks crazy. But it works. Most people self-edit by re-reading their work and fixing the mistakes they catch as they go. It is a decent method, but one that can be hampered by your own superb knowledge of the writing at-hand. As the author, you already know what is coming in terms of wording, pacing, and grammar. This also means that it is easy for your eyes to skim ahead, jumping obvious mistakes, especially typos.

Rewriting as a form of editing helps you slow down and examine what you have actually written the first time. It will also help you find awkward wording as you go, as well as repetitive syntax (This Sentence Has Five Words Example).

The key is to pay attention as you rewrite. You will find the places that need expansion or clarification or the parts you should cut because it’s bogging down the pace of the scene or story. Approach it as both a writer and a reader and I guarantee that this new draft will come out much more polished. It also gets a significant rewrite out of the way, especially if you self-edit chapter by chapter for a longer piece.

Yes, it will take longer than a simple read-through for typos and misnomers, but it will also get you one step closer to a ready-to-publish piece, especially if you repeat this process several times.

Things to look for as you self-edit, besides basic spelling and grammar:

  • Repetitive sentence structures.
  • Repetitive wording: (“The castle was tall. Inside the castle was a cat. Looming above the fireplace in the castle was a portrait of the castle.”)
  • Reader confusion: Is it clear who the word “she” refers to in this sentence? Does an object start in a person’s hand and end up on table in the next paragraph without explanation? Do you mention that a character closes his eyes on page three and you notice now that he opens his eyes on page eight?
  • Lack of OR too much exposition. Don’t be afraid to cut if you notice your interest waning as you rewrite a part. Similarly, don’t be afraid to add if you feel a paragraph doesn’t have the right atmosphere or, as a reader, you find yourself wanting to know more about something (although, be reasonable. Not every character gets a long backstory and not every flower petal needs to be described in minutiae.)

The most important part of the self-editing process, though, is to know when to stop and to continue on with your writing (or, if you’re doing all the editing at the end, simply to let the piece be). At some point you will need fresh eyes to review your work, but, by then, you will be able to present them with a work you have carefully edited, and of which you can be proud.

Let Cynthia and I know how you do if you attempt the Side-by-Side process and how it works for you. Happy writing!


How Many Drafts Does it Take to Finish a Novel?

Now that’s a good question. I hear the “it takes three drafts” a lot, but really it depends on the writer and the writer’s experience. Though the more experience you have in writing, the less mistakes you tend to make the first time around and typically add more “correct” information in the first couple of rounds (because you have a stronger idea of what makes a good story).

Even still, there are many well-published authors who do a lot more than three drafts (check out Lisa Gail’s interview with authors as she asks How Many Drafts Does it Take to Get to the Query Stage?). It really boils down to writing style and an individual’s organizational mode. Every writer is different. Check out this interview with Earnest Hemingway…

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Gah! 39. Now that’s a lot! But he’s right, it’s about getting the words right even if it take 39 drafts or 390 drafts.

And then there are the super star writers who can do up a novel without much rewriting at all.

“It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence — no first draft.”— Dorothy Parker, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

And some people write drafts with certain issues they want to address in that particular draft.

Leslie Rose (from How Many Drafts Does it Take to Get to the Query Stage?) wrote:

Here are my drafts:
1 – vomit draft – let it fly baby
2- Story arc pass – main story subplots – overall structure
3- MC & supporting character arcs – including character development & embellishment
4- grammar/punctuation pass & bad habit pass (adverbs/tense/sentence variety/word choice)
7 – Hard copy read – make corrections
8 – Kindle read – make corrections
9 – Including Beta notes pass
10 – Holistic read – wearing my audience hat
11 – Corrections from Holistic read

Writing a novel doesn’t even really start until draft two and on (well, for most of us anyways). It’s the rewriting that shapes the story into what you actually want it to be. The first draft is just mental vomit.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

In my case, I found I didn’t even know what I wanted to say until my third draft (my novel will take a total of five drafts to be completed by the way). I have whole chapters from draft one and two that will never see the light of day (thank god!).

“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” — Helen Dunmore

And then there is the multiple rewrites that happen within a draft. You know, the tiny rewrites that happen over and over until you feel like you can bleed the words (though these rewrites and edits should happen in draft two and beyond).

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

Basically it’s up to you how many drafts you write (and don’t let anyone tell you different!). What matters is that the story progresses in a way that you want and gets the point across.

Here are some other posts on how many drafts it takes…

Karen Woodward’s How Many Drafts Does it Take to Write a Novel?

Joanna Penn’s Writing a Book: What Happens After the First Draft?

And check out this article on How Many Rewrites is too Much?

Sooooooo, how many drafts does it take (or will take) you to finish a novel?


Stages of Writing: Freestyle Writing vs. Rewriting vs. Editing

Writing-StagesThe first thing to learn in the writing journey is that not all writing is the same. There are several types or stages of writing, and each of them requires a certain mindset and set of skills to accomplish them. And just because you’re good at one type of writing, doesn’t make you good at the other types, and making the transitions to each can be difficult to accomplish or there might be difficulty in determining when to make the transition.

Freestyle Writing
This is the kind of writing most people assume writers do (but in reality it’s just the first step in a larger process). It’s the fun stuff. The part were you let everything just explode out of your head and onto the page. It’s an everything goes kind of thing where no idea is a bad idea and anything can happen. It can be a most uplifting experience, especially if you’ve done a lot of thinking about the story before ever placing pen to paper. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean. It’s where that thing called a writer’s high happens, and it’s a great place to be!

This writing stage doesn’t require a whole lot of special knowledge. Just an idea of what makes a good story, what makes compelling characters, and how to write a beginning, middle and end of a story. Much of this can be learned simply by being an avid reader, or taking some writing workshops on story structure and character development.

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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.

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A Review of the Basics: Grammar and Puncuation

We all have learned the tedious writing skills throughout grade school and some even in college, but can you really know all the rules all the time? I know most of the basics, but often find myself making mistakes in grammar, spelling and punctuation on a regular basis. Some of the mistakes are simply because I’m in too much of a rush to stop and correct, some I just overlook, and other mistakes are born out of ignorance. I recently went back to brush up on my grammar and punctuation rules and found a few areas that I was doing plain wrong, but assumed it was correct. It has made me realize that any who wish to pursue even a casual interest in writing should take a little time to review the basics.

There are an infinite number of books and websites available just for the purpose of teaching proper English grammar and punctuation but searching through all of them can be daunting, so I have listed the resources that I have used and found very helpful. If you want to brush up your skills take a look…

Alpha Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 HoursI purchased Alpha Teach Yourself Grammar and Style in 24 Hours and found the information well presented and the exercises helped me put the lessons into practice. Each lesson takes about an hour or less to go through it. Do a lesson or two a day, will make it easy to be refreshed in the English language within days.

I also found a few websites that I are helpful as well…

English Grammar Revolution is a website with a listing of all eight parts of speech and more detail about what they are and how they work. This website is a great tool for learning grammar. It also have a section dedicated to sentence diagramming. Click here to try out some exercises and learn how to diagram properly (they even have videos in each lesson), because the best way to learn is to put your knowledge to the test. Scroll down the page until you find the 10 chapters worth of exercises.

About.com: A Guide to Basic Punctuation Rules is a website that lists out the basic punctuations, how to use them, and gives a few examples to show them in a sentence. The rules listed on the site are the most common in practice for proper English, though the rules are only guidelines. You may find people who may use commas more than others, or use semi colons or dashes a lot. It really is all about the preference of the person writing. The important thing to remember is that punctuation works as a stop or pause, so if you feel like the sentence needs a break then you need to decide whether to throw in a comma or simply end the sentence.

It doesn’t matter whether you use the Internet or a hard copy of a book, either will give you  the information to help reduce the number of mistakes as you write, but don’t think those mistakes will all be done and over with. Let’s face it, the human error will always be King. That’s when it comes in handy to have a friend or college that you can send your writing to for them to look over.