Tips for copy editing your own work
I hope you had a restful and wonderful holiday season, and a great start to the new year. (I also hope you didn't have as dramatic an end to 2018 as I did, with both my laptops crashing mere days apart!)
In my last post of 2018 I promised a list of things you should look out for as you copy edit your own work, and here it is: a list of 30 things you need to consider as you prepare your work for outside eyes.
Disclaimer: self-editing your own work does not replace the need for a professional editor. You still need experienced and objective feedback and proof reading before you publish! Self-editing your work is merely one revision step in the process before you submit your book to an editor or agent (or even a beta reader or critique partner) because you want them to see your best possible work.
Copy or line editing is a very different thing from developmental / structural editing. Copy editing is most effective if you are concentrating at sentence level, and not also trying to fix character development / story at the same time. When you copy edit, you need to look at each sentence on its own, as well as part of a whole.
My 30 tips for copy editing your own work:
Take a break before line editing your book. If you are too close to your work, you will miss many of the errors as you are so used to seeing them there! Do not try to do developmental and line edits at the same time.
Spell check! This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many writers don't set a language preference, so their Word program doesn't automatically use a spell checker.
Equally obvious - read your work and look for easily overlooked mistakes that a spellchecker won't pick up. eg. 'sue' instead of 'use', 'their' instead of 'they're', or 'write' instead of 'right'.
Use correct punctuation. You learned how to use punctuation in school, right? If you can't remember that far back, then do a refresher. Full stops (periods) end sentences. Avoid run-on sentences. Use commas correctly. Ensure you close quotation marks at the end of dialogue.
Check that your sentences are complete, with at least one noun and one verb. Use fragmentary sentences only occasionally, for effect rather than as a default setting.
Ensure that your tenses are consistent. Do not wander from past into present tense and back again.
Use stronger verbs. Replace weak action words with stronger, more active verbs. For exampe, 'he crossed the room' is stronger than 'he walked across the room'.
Avoid adverbs and '-ly' words. Adverbs are words that describe verbs or action. eg. 'She ran quickly'. Look for words that end in '-ly' and find a stronger way to rewrite the sentence eliminating the adverb. eg. 'She sprinted' is much stronger and more direct.
Search for passive sentences and re-write them more actively. Passive: She was invited to the party by her neighbour. Active: Her neighbour invited her to the party. The words is, was and were are clues to passive voice.
Avoid 'ing- words. 'He was walking to the restaurant' is weaker than 'He walked to the restaurant.'. Wherever possible, rewrite 'was -ing' sentence contruction to be more direct and active.
Avoid 'started to' followed by the action. Writing 'He started to walk to the restaurant' makes your sentence wordy and slows reading pace, while 'He walked to the restaurant' is pacier and more direct.
People are referred to as 'who' not 'that'.
Avoid long, wordy sentences. Shorter, punchier sentences not only increase reading pace (a good thing!) but also prevent readers getting lost and confused trying to figure out long, meandering sentences. Cut long sentences in two.
Vary how you start your sentences. Too many sentences starting in the same way creates a rhythm that draws attention to itself. You don't want your writing to draw the reader's attention - you want them to be so focussed on the story that they barely notice the actual words!
Vary the lengths of your sentences. Too many sentences of a similar length will again draw attention to the writing, and become monotonous for the reader.
Read all dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural or stilted? Is it hard to say out loud? Then rewrite it to sound more like a real person would speak.
Start each new character's dialogue on a new line. Do not mix one character's actions in the same paragraph as another character's dialogue, as this will cause reader confusion.
Avoid dialogue tags that draw attention to themselves. Words like 'exclaimed, protested, yelled, whispered, declared, stated, responded, queried, sighed, chortled, advised, retorted' should be used sparingly - not more than once in every fifty thousand words! If you absolutely have to use a dialogue tag, then stick with the less visible 'said'.
Replace dialogue tags with action tags. An action tag which explains the speaker's emotions is ten times stronger than a dialogue tag. 'You're not listening to me.' She slammed her coffee mug down on the table. is a lot more effective than 'You're not listening to me,' she said angrily.
Use contractions - especially in dialogue. 21st century readers are accustomed to contractions. Avoiding them will make your style seem formal and alienating, and in dialogue will make your characters come across as unrealistic and old fashioned.
Eliminate chit-chat. While you want dialogue to feel natural, delete all non-essential dialogue that doesn't move the story forward. In stories, unlike in real life, characters need to cut to the chase, or you risk boring your reader.
Hunt for clichés. Clichés are considered lazy writing. If you find a well-worn cliché in your writing, try to rewrite the sentence in a more original way.
Replace fancy words that need a dictionary to be understood with commonly understood words (unless you're writing literary fiction in order to impress readers rather than to tell a story - in which case, why are you even reading this blog?) You don't need to dumb down for your reader, but using the word 'discombobulated' instead of 'confused' will make you seem pretentious rather than clever.
Reduce back story and description. Search out long paragraphs containing back story or description and cut these by half. Both back story and description should never be more than 2-3 lines at a time. A single sentence here or there is far more effective.
Resist the urge to explain to readers. Don't patronise readers. Seriously, most people who read are not stupid. Example of unnecessary explanation: Emily felt tired after being awake all through the night. She flopped down on the sofa and sighed. "I'm exhausted." (That's 3 sentences in a row telling us the same thing!) It's enough to say: Emily flopped down on the sofa. "I'm never going to pull another all-nighter like that again."
Be specific. 'It was a beautiful day' does not pack as much punch as 'The sun beat down from a cloudless sky.' Using very specific nouns also strengthens your writing, for example 'She bent to pat the cocker spaniel' says so much more than 'she bent to pat the dog'.
Ensure that it is always clear to the reader who is speaking or doing an action. If you have a scene with more than two characters of the same sex in the same room, then is it clear which character is doing the action or speaking the dialogue?
Is the sentence written in a Showing or a Telling style? This is a massive subject, and worthy of its own blog post, so watch this space for a post dedicated entirely to how to make your writing more Showing.
Correct formatting: remove double spaces between sentences (why? because it's outdated and can cause odd spacing on pages), and start new chapters using a page break, not multiple returns (again, because it can cause odd spacing on different devices). Double-spacing and wide margins make for easier reading. Use a standard font - it's best to use Times New Roman, black, regular, 12 point size.
Fact check your content.
Almost all of the above tips are there to make your writing as clear and direct as possible, in order to prevent reader confusion. Readers don't get confused because they're stupid, but because the writing was unclear. Making your writing easy to read doesn't mean you need to 'dumb down' your writing! In fact, 'easy to read' writing takes a lot of hard work!