Do You Make Your Words Sparkle?

Green-grass-with-raindropsPhoto/Bigstock Images

To Proof or Not to Proof
I’ve been looking over the last few posts I’ve made, wishing I’d done things a bit differently. They seem a little preach-y and, while I packed as much info into them as I could, they’re short on stuff an indie writer can actually use.

So, to get back in the groove, I thought I’d pass along some notes I made for myself about proofing and editing … that actually work.

Writers rarely like to revise their work (how well I know), but it’s a hard, cold reality of the writing process. It’s the most important thing you can do after the initial draft.

When you write, if you’re anything like me, you heave a big sigh (of accomplishment? relief?) as you put the period on that final sentence, sit back and look at what you’ve done. It actually feels pretty good for a few minutes.

Then the nit-picking begins.

OMG that’s awkward! What was I thinking? Jeez, why did I write it that way? That’s about as interesting as a margarine label!

Relax. It happens to most of us. That’s what editing is for. Here are five self-editing questions to ask as you begin to proofread your work:

1. Have You Applied the Second-Draft Rule?
Stephen King is one hell of a good writer, whether you like his subject matter or not. In his remarkable book On Writing, he shows a before-and-after example of how editing can improve a story.

The book is one of the best lessons on the craft of writing I’ve ever read. I suggest you get a copy and read it (it’s a memoir not a story, so don’t worry about demons or magic or spooky places).

His Second-Draft Rule is:

2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

As writers, we have a tendency to believe every word we write is precious – and have a natural reluctance to cut our material – (you do that too, don’t you?). After all, we remember how hard it was to get it down on paper.

However, editing is about making your prose lean and exciting, compelling the reader to turn the page. Try it, it’s worthwhile … but I warn you, it’s much harder than you think. It makes you weigh and measure every word.

2. Is That Adverb Necessary?
If you’re using a lot of adverbs in your fiction, chances are you’re violating a cardinal rule of good storytelling by simply telling the reader about the action … not showing them.

For instance, imagine one of your characters has just obtained some special, long-sought-after prize. Something anyone would recognize as a thrilling moment.

Instead of telling us he was “yelling joyfully,” why not have him jump up-and-down screaming and yelling, creating so much ruckus the family cat runs under the bed in terror?
rocky-img18       Photo/United Artists

Or maybe, like Rocky Balboa, he runs through the streets at dawn, climbs the park steps and throws his hands in the air to the rising sun, letting the world know he intends to claim his shot at immortality.

Both of those descriptions show you how the character reacts instead of telling you … and they’re certainly more descriptive and alive than the word “joyfully.”

3. Where Does the Story Really Begin?
Carefully re-read the first few pages of your story. Where does the action start? A major fault with many first drafts (mine included) is too much background material showing up before conflict is introduced and the characters take over the story.

In several first drafts, my stories didn’t really begin until halfway down page two … or later. So, I found I frequently re-wrote or cut significant portions of the draft’s first few pages.

If I thought any of the cut material was somehow essential for the reader, I had to find another way to get it back into the story, perhaps through dialogue.

Occasionally, the edited work was a bit longer than the original, but the action began sooner and the pace of the story actually got better.

4. Are Your Adjectives Doing Their Job?
Get rid of empty adjectives. Instead of relying on “amazing,” “exciting,” “fascinating,” “scary” and other similar boring descriptions, use sensory details that bring to life what you’re describing:

“The wind swirled dirt and debris across the fields, but it was the immense slab of stone, rising on that wind like a feather, that robbed my sight of everything else.”

or …

“Even in the bright midday sun, the shadow exuded the damp, earthy worm-laden smell of the grave and left a bitter taste in my mouth.”

Find ways to get all the readers’ senses to work. When you do, it means you’re making the story real for them.

5. Have You Read Your Story Out Loud?
Believe it or not, one of your best proofreading tools is the sound of your own voice.

Reading your story aloud to someone is a fabulous way to find inconsistencies or clumsy phrasing, because if you stumble and hesitate over something when you’re reading, it’s likely your reader will find it awkward, too.

However, you want your reader to suspend disbelief, stay in the story and not wander off wondering what the hell you were talking about. If you find that happening, that’s a part you need to rewrite.

Consider Revision a Reward
A lot of people look upon editing as a chore (OK, I confess … that’s MY hand up over here in the corner). It’s harder than writing, and as difficult as marketing. Well … almost.

But remember … if you’re revising and editing, it means you’ve finished the first draft of your project.

How exciting is that?

Let me know what you think.


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