A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked via Twitter: “Mrs. @mbweston, what’s your writing process?” To answer his question, I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about how I go about my personal writing process. So far, we’ve covered:
- The Writing Process: Part 1 – Getting Your Inspiration
- The Writing Process: Part 2 – The Conflict
- The Writing Process: Part 3 – Plot: Your Story’s Skeleton
- The Writing Process: Part 4 – The “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Example of a “Pre-Draft”
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (A)
- The Writing Process: Part 5 – The First Draft (B) Description
- The Writing Process: Part 6 – Cutting Your Darlings
Note: I recognize that every topic I’ve mentioned in this series deserves more intense discussion. I hate rushing through these items, and I guarantee you I will be covering them in more detail later.
Also Note: My next writing process post discusses using advance readers. To save time, you may opt to get your manuscript to your advance readers before the “editing for grammar and style” step—especially if you’re on deadline. On one hand, if you end up needing massive re-writes, you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time editing. On the other hand, however, you don’t want your advance readers finding all your grammar mistakes instead of looking for important storyline issues.
Editing your final draft for grammar and style is like polishing a fresh-cut diamond. At this stage, you should have completed the structural changes in your manuscript. Like the diamond, your story only needs the final polish to make it sparkle. In this stage, you will concentrate on revving up your weak verbs, increasing your manuscript’s vocabulary, and fixing your remaining grammar mistakes.
- Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. It’s the only grammar book you will need, and it’s really short. Buy it, read it, refer back to it.
- At least one thesaurus. You can never have too many thesauruses. I use four. If you use Microsoft Word, you’ve got 1) a thesaurus built into the software. (Right-click on a word and choose synonyms.) I also use 2) www.thesaurus.com [http://thesaurus.com/], 3) a thesaurus app on my iPad and iPhone, and 4) my handy-dandy, old-fashioned, hard-copy Webster’s thesaurus.
- A good dose of perfectionism. Channel the picky person who annoys you the most. Remember, that person is probably the editor deciding whether or not to buy your manuscript.
- Patience. Good editing takes longer than you expect. If you’ve written a novel, it will probably take you a week. Expecting the editing to take a while when you begin will keep you hammering on even after you become sick of your manuscript—if you aren’t sick of it already.
Grab your red pen and a caffeinated beverage of your choice. Tell your family and friends to leave you alone for a while, and hunker down.
What you’re looking for:
- Grammar mistakes. This requires basic grammar knowledge. If you don’t feel comfortable with your grammar skills, start reading some books on grammar.
- Do a find/replace search on your common grammar issues. Do you use there instead of their or you’re instead of your? Use Word’s find/replace tool. Find your which’s and that’s, and to, too, and two. You know your weaknesses. Seek them out.
- Improve your manuscript’s vocabulary. Make your nouns and adjectives as specific as possible. Don’t say, “It smelled delicious.” Say, “It smelled like cinnamon and raisins.” Don’t tell everyone the car was red. Make it scarlet, candy-apple, or hot-rod red. Use your thesaurus/es to help you find better, more descriptive words. The words you choose and their connotations help the reader form a picture of your story in her head. Make them good.
- Eliminate words used twice or in a section—within reasonable limits of course. Some words you just can’t change. But if you find yourself using computer five times in a few paragraphs, try using monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. Trust me, your advance readers and your editor will be asking you to change it so you may as well do it now.
- Use strong verbs. The verb is the most important part of a sentence within a work of fiction. We read fiction to find out what will to happen next. Happening implies a verb. Get rid of your being verbs (is/are/was/were/been/being) and other blah verbs when possible. Don’t say, “The dark tower was tall.” Say, “The tower loomed above them, casting shadows across their path.” Your characters shouldn’t walk. Walk is boring and implies fifteen different ways of walking. Be specific. Your characters should saunter, trudge, skip, or stroll. Make your verbs paint pictures in your reader’s mind the same way your adjectives and adverbs should.
- Try to eliminate those adverbs. An adverb modifies a verb. If your verb needs modifying, you can probably choose a more specific verb and eliminate the adverb.
- Eliminate passive voice. Do a find/replace search on there, is/are/was/were/been/being, and by: the key words in most passive voice sentences.
- Minimize your characters’ common gestures. An advance reader of mine counted the instances where my character, Davian, crossed his arms. The tally: once every three pages in a 400 page manuscript. Your characters may not cross their arms as much as Davian, but they probably smile, frown, and laugh once every page. Change it up.
Added bonus: The longer you practice finding these mistakes, the less you will use them when you are writing future manuscripts.
What can ruin your editing time:
- Exhaustion. If you’re exhausted, you simply won’t catch the incorrect there, their, or they’re, nor will you worry about changing blue to cobalt. I once stayed up for over 48 hours to write a 6,000 word short story. I turned it in, thinking I had done a great job of editing. When reread the story in a well-rested state, I found several grammatical problems. Get sleep.
- Getting too “into your story.” If you catch yourself playing your manuscript’s scenes in your head as though it were a movie, hooray for you! You’ve written a story that keeps even you, the author who has read it over three hundred times and knows the ending, captivated. You’ve got a problem, however. You can’t catch editing mistakes if you are enjoying your plot. Do whatever it takes to stay outside the story. Take breaks; turn on dissonant music; do pushups if you don’t catch any errors for three pages. If you have to read the story backwards do it.
- Getting lazy. Edit your last page with the same intensity as you edited your first.
Enjoy your editing, and may you always be blessed with a pen full of red ink!
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.