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DIY Edit: 12 Voice Intrusions

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

12 Voice Intrusions

The fiction you consume influences what you write. Not just in terms of content, but in how you write and in the words you use to express your ideas. This is often a subconscious element of writing that appears during drafting, when another author’s syntax and diction might sneak into your draft. Don’t let that stop your forward progress—or turn you off reading!—accidental intrusions are normal for any author. The work of identifying those intrusions and correcting them comes in revision.

It’s important to be aware of what’s your voice and what’s someone else’s. Absorbing other authors’ craft is a great way to develop your own writing and allow it to evolve. But it’s important to absorb and internalize that craft so it becomes a natural part of your voice and not a glaring error. Revision is the time to smooth out those bumps, find those intrusions, and craft something that truly sounds like you.

  • Does the dappled, wind-swept meadow fit in among your descriptions or does it stand out? Do you have lots of long, flowing descriptions of the settings and characters, or have you been reading Tolkein?
  • Is that a ten-cent word one you’d normally use—and are there more of them—or is it there because you were reading David Foster Wallace?
  • Are short sentences really your thing, or have you been reading too much Hemingway?

Pay attention when you or your readers identify something that sounds out of place within the rest of the manuscript. While you want to have sentences and descriptions that sing, it’s important to maintain consistency in your voice. Word choice and syntax are the foundations of an author’s voice, so pay attention to both while you craft your writing and make sure that your story sounds like it came from you.

 

Hiatus! DIY Edit will be going on hiatus for a few months. Expect it back in early 2019.

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DIY Edit: 11 Rhythm & Pacing: Dialogue Tags

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

11 Rhythm & Pacing: Dialogue Tags

The rhythm of a sentence can affect readability, understanding, and emphasis. A clunky sentence can cause confusion, while a well crafted one rolls off the tongue and right into a reader’s brain. Good sentences seem effortless, but they require a lot of attention from the writer during revision.

Dialogue tags, or attributions, are primarily a functional element in writing. They efficiently identify who is speaking, but, even when using a simple construction like “he said” or “she said,” attributions can be used to guide the rhythm of sentences and scenes.

A dialogue tag can go before, after, or in the middle of a line of dialogue, which means it can affect the sentence rhythm in a number of ways. Consider the different rhythms of these three attribution placements:

(1) “The heart isn’t the problem,” Jacob said.

(2) Jacob said, “The heart isn’t the problem.”

(3) “The heart,” Jacob said, “isn’t the problem.”

The first example is the most utilitarian. It’s the construction most often seen in modern literature with the dialogue followed by the attribution. It’s perfect if this is just another sentence in a fast-paced conversation.

The second example is an inversion of the most common construction, beginning with the attribution and ending with the dialogue. This places more emphasis on the speaker. It’s easy to imagine this construction is used because Jacob is interrupting other characters arguing about the problem.

The third example uses the attribution to break the dialogue. This slows the delivery of the sentence, leading to a dramatic effect. (It can also be used to show how a character is speaking, taking a big pause after “heart.”) It affects the rhythm of the sentence, placing greater emphasis on “the heart,” by separating it from the rest of the sentence. This is useful if the dialogue is a major reveal, for example if Jacob is going to bridge the conversation into what is the problem (it’s not the heart, it’s the brain).

Varying the placement of dialogue tags and using them to control the flow of sentences, or to emphasize specific sections of dialogue, can be a good first step to crafting the right rhythm and pacing for your sentences and scenes.

 

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DIY Edit: 10 Read Aloud

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

10 Read Aloud

If you feel like grammar and syntax aren’t your strength, try reading your work out loud. Reading your work aloud is a great way to catch awkward phrases and rhythms, run-on sentences, and repeated or missing words.

Reading out loud engages a different center in your brain than when we read silently, and it’s easier to find repeated or missing words since you’ve moved from comprehension (which can rely on scanning and interpreting) to performing. The performance aspect is part of what can help you catch errors since you’re now trying to translate those written words into spoken words.

Run-on sentences can be easier to catch when spoken because you physically start running out of breath. If you find yourself taking an awkward gasp in the middle of a sentence, highlight it for further review. Sometimes it’s just a long sentence, which there’s nothing wrong with, but it could mean that you need to use the punctuation more effectively to help the reader navigate the sentence. Good punctuation helps group ideas and show how ideas are related in a sentence, thus showing a reader how to read the sentence. If you’re losing your breath on every sentence, evaluate if there are any you can shorten. A variety of sentence lengths engages the reader and makes your writing more exciting.

If you’re tripping over phrases as you read them aloud, that may be a sign that you should rework the syntax or review the diction. (Honestly, sometimes it means you wrote a tongue twister, so you don’t necessarily have to change everything that trips you up.) Some things don’t sound awkward until they’re read aloud, so taking a pass to read your manuscript—to an empty room or to a friend—can be a crucial step in cleaning it up.

 

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DIY Edit: 09 Long Dialogue Tags

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

09 Long Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, or dialogue attributions, are meant to identify the speaker for clarity but fade into the background of the narrative. That is why the simple “Joe said” is so celebrated, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself and distract from the dialogue. Even though I’m aware of this, often—especially in first drafts—I wind up with long dialogue tags in which there are multiple actions or descriptions. Having an action or description isn’t a bad thing, but coupling several with the dialogue tag can be confusing and distracting.

To simplify dialogue tags, first you have to identify what is “too long” for a dialogue tag.

  • Winded One way I identify long tags is by reading the dialogue and dialogue tag aloud. If I get winded reading the sentence, or if I have to pause and reframe my tone (because I was expecting the sentence to end earlier), the tag is probably too long.
  • And And And Another method is to look at the construction of the dialogue attribution. Most attributions are in a similar format—”character said, [continued sentence].” If the continued sentence has an “and” in it, or if it is longer than the dialogue that precedes it, it is likely too long.
  • Run On If the topic changes—for example, the dialogue is attributed to Elsie and then the continued sentence starts talking about Mike, or about something that is happening elsewhere—it is probably a run-on sentence. Remember, the dialogue attribution is still a sentence—it’s actually part of the sentence of the dialogue—and it needs to follow the basic rules of sentence construction.

Editing long dialogue tags is often as simple as inserting a period after the attribution and starting a new sentence. Sometimes the information in the sentence needs to be evaluated because it is extraneous or irrelevant (ah, the enthusiasm of the first draft). In any case, careful review of dialogue tags and keeping dialogue attribution brief can help keep the focus on the dialogue and let the attribution fade into the background where it belongs.

 

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DIY Edit: 08 Crutch Phrases

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

08 Crutch Phrases

Crutch phrases are the default phrases we use for descriptions, to move the story along, or to get ourselves back into the work. Because they are our personal defaults, they can appear over and over and over in our work without us consciously realizing that we’re being repetitive. The phrases themselves may not be examples of poor writing, but used in repetition they drag down the writing and clog the narrative.

Crutch phrases are one of the most difficult things to pick out of your own work. A friend or editor might notice your tendency to use the construction “Joe managed to [verb]” or that people are always looking over their shoulders to make observations, but since your crutch phrases are your go-to phrases, they are practically invisible to the author—until they’re pointed out. So how can you identify crutch phrases without getting a secondary reader?

A few of the strategies I use for identifying my own crutch phrases I’ve already addressed in DIY Edit. Anything related to creating distance is sure to help with crutch phrases because those strategies help you come back to the work with fresh eyes. You also might consider reading slowly and using a highlighter to mark the manuscript for phrases you think are familiar. One of the most effective strategies for identifying crutch phrases requires a little technology.

Free apps like Text Analyser and the Phrase Frequency Counter can analyze a story to find repeated phrases. In my personal search I discovered that an app like this was a good starting point. The app would identify that looking over shoulders was an overused gesture in my novel, and then, by searching for “shoulder” throughout the document, I could start finding all the permutations of the phrase, including hes, shes, and specific characters performing the action. It took a little organization, pattern analysis, and then creativity to assess whether or not to leave one of these crutch phrases or revise it, but overall this search helped to elevate my prose and the whole exercise made me more aware of my habits as a writer. Being aware of your crutch phrases is the best way to avoid them, or at least find them in the future.

 

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DIY Edit: 07 Tense Shift Triggers

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

07 Tense Shift Triggers

Aside from reading over my work very carefully, one way I can find tense shifts is by being aware of times when I’m most likely to have a tense shift.


Past to Present

When writing in past tense, I’m careful to check for tense shifts after long sections of dialogue or thought and after flashbacks or memories.

Dialogue can cause a tense shift because the dialogue is usually written in present tense. Fast-paced dialogue with few tags or lines of narration can get me out of the habit of writing past tense, so when I finally slip back to narration, there’s a tense shift from past tense to present tense. Thought (which is also often written in present tense) can be a trigger for a similar reason.

Using the past perfect tense to describe something that happened in the “further” past from the story timeline (something that had happened) is another warning sign for a potential tense shift. As I transition to the story present, my mind sometimes wants to switch to present tense instead of returning to simple past, so flashbacks and memories are another good time to carefully check tenses.


Present to Past

My biggest problem with switching from present tense to past tense is that I’m so familiar writing and reading in past tense, I’m often surprised to find that I was writing a story in present tense at all (and I usually check to see if it’s the result of a tense shift). But when I have discovered shifts in my present tense fiction they tend to be based around flashback and memories and around breaks in my writing schedule.

Because I’m so used to writing and reading in past tense, it feels awkward to use past tense to talk about events that happened “yesterday” in a present tense story. Often, I find that I switched to past perfect to describe the earlier events and then I slipped into past tense for the narrative, instead of going back to present tense. Oops.

I’ve also noticed that I make more tense shifts after taking a break from working on a story. When I get out of the story’s world, I tend to forget what tense I’m writing and assume it must be past tense. I’ve tried to train myself to confirm the tense before I get 500 or 1,000 words into a scene in the wrong tense, but it’s a tough thing to remember when I’m also trying to remember character and world details.

 

While these are triggers I’ve identified in my own work, they may not be your tense shift triggers. As you edit and revise your work, pay attention to when you catch tense shifts and see if you can find a pattern. Do they happen mostly after dialogue? At the start of new scenes? When you’re writing from a particular point of view? Analyzing the patterns of our mistakes is the path to finding and correcting them in the future.

 

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DIY Edit: 05 Change of Medium

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

05 Creating Distance: Change of Medium

Another way to create distance to achieve that elusive objectivity when editing your own work is to change the medium.

Printing out the story and editing a hard copy is one of the most effective methods for me. Marking with a pencil or pen helps shift my brain out of writer mode and into editor mode, since I am literally using different tools to edit the work than the tools I used to write the work. It also helps me feel a little bit like I’m reading someone else’s work, since I’m used to reading the printed work of others.

If you don’t have the resources to print your work (and let’s face it, that kills a lot of trees), try changing the font type, point size, or margins. When the line breaks fall differently from the ones I’ve been staring at for weeks, I catch more typos and missing words. I also read the sentences more carefully, since I’m seeing them in a new form, which allows me to find errors and awkward phrasings.

Changing the medium is just a trick to help you view your work with new eyes, but it’s one that has helped slow me down and allowed me to more carefully review and edit my own work.

If objectivity is one of your main obstacles to being your own best editor, keep an eye out for other tips on “Creating Distance.”

 

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DIY Edit: 04 Self-Referential Language

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

04 Narration: Self-Referential Language

One of my writing professors always marked our stories for what she called “self-referential language.” This syntax plagues first person and close third person point of view by calling attention to the fact that the reader is an observer of a character.

Phrases like “I watched…” or “She looked…” or “He heard…” shift the focus from the POV character’s observations (the purpose of first and close third narration) to the observation of the character.

Consider the difference in these sentences:

From the window I watched the valets pack the carriage.

Outside the window, the valets packed the carriage.

In the first sentence, the reader is focused on the character watching the valets through the window. If this image were in a movie, the screen would include the window frame and the character in front of the window, looking out on the valets.

In the second sentence, it’s still clear that the POV character is inside the house, but this version of the sentence focuses the reader on watching the valets through the eyes of the POV character. As a movie, what the character is watching fills the screen, and the reader is fully immersed in the point of view of the first person narrator.

Editing out self-referential language can make the point of view more immersive and bring the reader closer to the characters and action. It can also help eliminate weak and overused verbs. Here are some combinations to look out for when trying to strengthen your point of view narration:

I/he/she watched
I/he/she saw
I/he/she looked
I/he/she heard
I/he/she listened
I/he/she touched
I/he/she smelled
I/he/she tasted

Watch out for other verbs and sentence constructions that put the emphasis on the character observing rather than on what the character is observing.

 

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DIY Edit: 03 Blank Slate: Setting

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

03 Blank Slate: Setting

When an editor or a reader engages your manuscript, they are a blank slate regarding the details of your world. Even the best synopsis will still leave the reader without the full depth and scope of your character and setting. Putting yourself in the role of the blank slate is a great way to make sure the world you write is as vivid and detailed as the world you imagine.

Picture each setting using only what is described on the page. All other areas should be black in your mind. For example, when a character enters a room, pay attention to how much of the room is described. Do you have a sense of the space the character will be navigating? What about the obstacles the character will have to move around or interact with? Do you know what the room is used for? What does the room tell you about the owner (rich/poor, extravagant/practical, neat/messy)?

As you continue reading, think about what questions arise, and then make a list of what details you need to add. For example:

  • Your character winds around the whole room, but on initial introduction you never mentioned the furniture was crowded. Add that.
  • Your character shuts the drapes, casting the room into darkness. Add that the only light is from the window.
  • Your character notes several scenes later that a couch is just like the one in the last room they were in. Add the couch in the previous room.
  • Your character turns down the radio, but has been having a conversation throughout the scene. Add how loud the radio is at the start of the scene.

After you have built the mental picture of the space from what’s on the page, consider if there are any important details you see in your writer vision that are missing from the written version. Don’t forget to engage senses other than sight—what is the temperature of the room, what sounds are there, is there a smell drifting in? Building your written locations as though you’ve never seen them in your mind’s eye is a great way to figure out what other details you need to include.

 

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DIY Edit: 02 Creating Distance: Time

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.

 

One of the trickiest things when editing your own work is achieving objectivity. There are a number of ways you can go about creating objectivity in relation to your own work. Keep an eye out for tips on “Creating Distance” if objectivity is one of your main obstacles to being your own best editor.

02 Creating Distance: Time

Giving your story some time to rest before starting an editing pass is one of the best ways to distance yourself from your work. Time allows your writer memory to fade and helps make details hazy, giving yourself a fresh set of eyes. While you previously could recite all of chapter 12 from memory, after a month away, you may only be able to roughly recall the events and your favorite lines. For the purposes of self-editing, this is a good thing.

As you create distance from your work, it allows your editor brain to more easily identify when something is missing (from a plot hole to missing words in a sentence), and it makes it a little easier to catch unnecessary repetitions. From the plot and structure to the sentence construction, taking time away from your work allows your eyes to rest and you can start seeing your work from a new perspective.

For novels or novellas, my preference is to set aside the story for two months. For short stories two weeks is usually sufficient. Sometimes deadlines or other complications demand a shorter cooling-off period, so, if that is the case, I put the story down for as much time as I can allow. Waiting to edit helps me shift from being a writer to being an editor, and generally lets me gain a little perspective before acting as my own reviewer. Give it a try and see if it works for you.

 

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