Self-Editing: Back to Basics, Part II – Guest post from Karin Cox, Editor

We wrap up our series on self-editing today with part two of Karin Cox’s guest post on self-editing basics and the common mistakes writers make.

On Monday, we kicked off the series with a post from UK author and editor Harry Bingham (The Writers’ Workshop), who underlined the importance of editing, and how developing your own self-editing skills can greatly reduce the amount you need to spend on professional help (and lead to a better book). If you missed it, that’s here.

On Wednesday, my editor, Karin Cox, gave some practical tips on how to avoid some of the more common errors she sees in writers’ manuscripts, such as unnecessarily florid verbiage, wandering commas, and modifiers gone mad. That post is here.

If you have digested all that, Karin is back with more to wrap things up:

Self-editing: back to basics, part II

Following on from my last post on Wednesday, I thought I would elaborate on two more issues I regularly see in manuscripts submitted by novice authors.

Of course, there is a lot more to successful self-editing than picking up these errors, but they are at least a good start for new writers looking to finetune their work before they send it out to beta readers or (hopefully) to a professional editor.

Remember, the more you polish your own work, the less a professional editor will have to do, which will save them time and save you money.

Dialogue Dilemmas

Dialogue and action scenes are the make-or-break elements of any story. Writing evocative prose is great, but without action and dialogue to drive the plot forward and make the reader feel invested in your tale (and your characters) all you will have is pretty words on a page. Get dialogue right, and your characters’ voices will ring in your readers’ heads; get it wrong, and your characters will seem flat and, frankly, fictional. All too often new authors get it wrong.

There are a lot of ways to go wrong when it comes to dialogue. The first is to hardly include any at all! Without dialogue you will likely have an awful lot of “telling” and very little “showing.” I often see narrative passages that tell me how the characters have been interacting. For example:

When Joe called Nathan into the conference room and told him that Wordsmith Industries could no longer afford to keep him on, Nathan, understandably upset, called him a bastard. Nathan had worked for Joe for fifteen years and angrily told his boss that the company had taken the best years of his life in exchange for a meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions. Joe, affronted by his employee’s response, immediately told him to get out. As a final indignity, he gestured to Nathan’s uniform and explained that he would need that back, too: it belonged to the company. Nathan stripped off and tossed the clothes on the floor, then called Joe a bastard again, and a coward. (117 words)

In rare cases, a few brief sentences of this type of exposition can summarise an earlier, “off-screen” conversation (especially if you already have a lot of dialogue, or if it would make for a short, choppy scene). However, it is usually far more interesting to show the reader using dialogue and action, even if it requires more words. E.g.

“Have a seat.” Joe gestured towards the conference table.

Nathan, looking worried, took the seat closest to the door.

“I’m afraid it is bad news,” Joe said, sitting at the opposite end of the table. “As you know, Wordsmith Industries has had some financial difficulties this year.” He cleared his throat and smoothed down his greasy comb-over. “You see, we’re going to have to let you go.”

“You bastard! I’ve given fifteen years to this company—fifteen of my best working years—and all for what? A meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions?”

Affronted, Joe stood. “I was going to suggest you stay on a week to clear things up. But if that’s how you feel, I think you should just get out. Now!” He pointed a trembling index finger toward the door.

Nathan raked the chair back from the table and leaped to his feet.

“One more thing.” Joe pointed to the uniform Nathan wore. “You’ll need to leave that here: it’s company property.”

Scowling, Nathan dropped his trousers and wrenched off his shirt. A button pinged off the conference table, hitting the wall just below the framed print of a mountain peak with the word “Courage” printed underneath. “You really are a bastard!” Nathan spat. “And a coward.” Then he turned and strode out. (214 words. But note that this actually tells us a lot more about both characters than the original “telling” narrative did).

Expository Dialogue

Another dialogue no-no is expository dialogue. Expository dialogue uses the characters as mouthpieces to relay essential elements of the plot, or information about other characters, which the author wants the reader to know but didn’t want to write as exposition. Let’s use Joe and his wife Gloria as an example.

“Joe, you know that our company Wordsmith Industries is in financial trouble and if we don’t get rid of some employees we’re not going to be able to make the repayment this month and the bank will foreclose on us,” Gloria said as she filled the sink with hot water and squirted in a stream of detergent. “I think you should sack Nathan.”

“Yes, my wife,” Joe answered, “but it’s only because of my gambling problem. If I hadn’t bet that ten grand on that stupid horse named Expository Dialogue we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Exactly!” Gloria pulled on rubber gloves and began scrubbing furiously at a saucepan. “And your brother Tim, who lives in London and has four children, should never have asked you for that loan to add on another bedroom. Now look where it has got us.” She pushed a frizzy curl out of her face and huffed in consternation.

Joe sighed.

“And tell Nathan that he needs to leave his green and white uniform, because we paid for it and had it embroidered with the company slogan “We do it better” in yellow cotton thread last year when we sent it out to Carol Bigby’s seamstress services in Castlemaine.”

Of course, there are other issues with this passage, including wordiness and Gloria’s tendency to divulge inconsequential information. But my point is that there is no need for Gloria to tell Joe things he already knows, such as that their business is in trouble (he would know that), or that his brother lives in London and has four kids (he would know that also). There is no need for her to tell him that the uniform is green and white and embroidered with the company slogan in yellow cotton. There is even no need for Joe to use “my wife” in talking to Gloria, or to tell her about his gambling problem—no doubt poor Gloria already knows about that, too. What is happening here is that the author thinks she is cleverly slipping in description or backstory without passages of exposition. However, this is equally as expository, and it reeks of authorial interference. It also makes the characters seem contrived and the dialogue seem pointless. For more about expository characters, check out this page on TV Tropes, but I warn you in advance that clicking on links can result in you being trapped in this very addictive site for hours on end!

Um, Err, How’s the Weather

Sometimes, writers do their dialogue a disservice by trying to be too realistic. Wait! Did you say “too realistic”? Why wouldn’t we want our dialogue to be realistic? I can imagine some of you thinking. The answer is that you do want a level of realism. But rather than making dialogue slavishly realistic by adding all of the ifs, ums, wells, buts, hellos, how are yous and trivial social pleasantries that pepper real conversation, the aim is to create an illusion of realism.

In real life, we chat about the weather, or work, or how we’re doing, before launching into the nitty gritty of a conversation, but in a book, all of that is filler. Omit filler wherever possible; your readers will thank you for it. They won’t sit there thinking, Gee it was rude that Cassandra didn’t ask Ben how his weekend was first thing on a Monday morning before she blurted out that Sarah was having an affair; at least, they won’t if you “hook” them on your story by writing gripping, authentic dialogue and making your characters credible.

Throw the “Said Book” at Them

We spoke about adverbs in Part I. One of the biggest problems with adverbs is that they can hinder dialogue, especially if used a lot. I’m all for adverbs in moderation, or where they add meaning while keeping writing concise. But try to avoid using adverbs after every dialogue tag. “Said Bookisms” can also make for amateurish dialogue. Some editors and authors insist that writers should only ever use “said” when attributing dialogue; I don’t. However, I do suggest removing extraneous tags and attributions in the first place. If you feel the need to use growled, whispered, screamed, goaded, taunted, muttered, or mumbled on occasion, I say go right ahead, but remember that less is more. If your character is mumbling, muttering, shouting, exclaiming, querying or propounding all of the time, chances are he or she is not distinct or dimensional enough.

When you have just two people involved in a conversation, you can usually get away with just letting them speak, using only their actions to remind the reader which character is speaking. E.g.

“What are you doing?” Cassandra leaned over Ben for a closer look. 

“Deactivating the power source.” Ben flipped the switch on the control panel and slipped the back off the unit.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” He frowned as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first.”

“From the grid? Now why would I want to do that?” Ben said sarcastically.

If you have a lot of characters involved in a conversation, I’d recommend using actions or “said” in at least 75% of cases, but using other appropriate tags when—and only when—they add meaning and make sense. Also, do avoid some of the more inane Said Bookisms, e.g.

“What are you doing?” he ejaculated.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” she snorted.

“Let’s go,” she propositioned.

Name Dropping

There is rarely a need to have your characters use other characters’ names in dialogue, but authors often do this purely to remind the reader who is speaking to whom. In conversation, especially in person, we rarely use each other’s names (although we might in some cases, such as if we are angry, emotional or frustrated). When characters are on the telephone, addressing each other by name, at least to begin with, is standard, but using names constantly in face-to-face dialogue is distracting for the reader and unrealistic.

All of the Above

An example of some flawed dialogue that incorporates all of these no-nos might be:

“What are you doing, Ben?” Cassandra queried curiously, leaning over Ben for a closer look.

“I’m deactivating the power source, Cassandra,” Ben expounded patiently.

“Why, Ben?” Cassandra questioned.

“Why do you think, Cassandra,” Ben grimaced, as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires. “If I don’t, it might go off and blow us all to smithereens. But it’s okay. You and I both know I’ve done this before during the Gulf War, although I am colour blind.”

“Ben, I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” said Cassandra patronisingly.

“From the grid, Cassandra?” Ben ejaculated forcefully. [Yes, I know! Bad, huh?]

See how artificial and stilted this dialogue has become? There is way too much padding around it, which bogs the reader down. If you recognise some of this padding in your dialogue, it is time to revise.

For action sequences or fast-paced sections of your tale, try to streamline your dialogue as much as possible, keeping tags, attributions and actions to a minimum. Writing edgy, minimalist dialogue in small chunks—with brief descriptive or action elements in between to avoid dialogue going on for pages without referencing the setting (which is known as writing “talking heads”)—will pick up the pace and keep your readers invested in the action.

Whoops, wrong word

It is very easy to overlook a homonym used incorrectly or even a word that is similar to another but has a different meaning. Some of the most common mix-ups I encounter are:

Adverse (hostile or unfavourable) Averse (reluctant)

Affect (verb: to influence) Effect (mostly used as a noun, meaning a result or consequence, e.g. a side effect or a special effect. When used as a verb, it means to result in, e.g. to effect an escape.)

A lot (many or often) Alot (no such word!)

Allusion (an indirect reference) Illusion (a false impression or perception of reality)

Altogether (total) All together (many things close together)

Assure (promise) Ensure (make certain) Insure (take out an insurance premium on)

Breath (noun: inhalation or exhalation) Breathe (verb: the act of inhaling or exhaling)

Continual (recurring constantly) Continuous (never-ending or unceasing)

Dam (a manmade body of water) Damn (profanity)

Discrete (separate/distinct) Discreet (tactful or modest)

Every day (every day) Everyday (adjective: occurring every day or mundane, e.g. everyday clothes)

Fewer (refers to individual objects that can be counted) Less (refers to quantities, e.g.  Fewer people will mean less mess)

Imply (to signify, an action performed by a speaker or writer) Infer (to reason or conclude, an action performed by the listener or reader)

Its (pronoun: belonging to it) It’s (contraction of it is)

Lay (to place something somewhere) Lie (to recline or to fib)

Libel (written form of defamation) Liable (obligated)

Literally (100% true) Figuratively (involving a figure of speech such as a metaphor)

Loath (reluctant) Loathe (detest)

Loose (adjective or adverb: not tight) Lose (verb: misplace) I see this one used incorrectly a lot!

Stationary (adjective: not moving, still) Stationery (noun: writing paper)

Their (pronoun: belonging to them) They’re (contraction of they are) There (adverb: location)

On to (e.g. before I move on to the next point) Onto (preposition: we climbed onto the table)

Passed (past tense verb of pass: to have moved) Past (adjective: relating to a former time or place)

Principle (belief) Principal (adjective: most important; noun, authoritative person)

That (for defining clauses, e.g. words that cannot be omitted in a sentence) Which (for non-defining clauses that provide additional information)

Who (subject of a sentence, e.g. The boy who lived) Whom (object of a sentence, e.g. To whom should I direct my enquiry?)

Whose (interrogative pronoun, e.g. Whose book is that?) Who’s (contraction of who is)

For a more complete list, check out Alan Cooper’s list.

As I mentioned in Part I, these are basic errors and are easily fixed. Issues with plot, plausibility, pacing, and characterisation are more time-consuming to correct.

I hope you have found my guest posts useful as a quick introduction to some of the errors to watch out for when you self-edit. Going through your manuscript several times to check each of these things in isolation will help, as will reading your work aloud, using text-to-speech to listen to the computer read it back to you, reading passages backwards, and deconstructing sentences that sound a little “off” to your ear.

For more on self-editing and on identifying and correcting errors in grammar, punctuation, usage and structure, keep an eye on my blog. Thanks for reading and commenting, and many thanks to Dave for hosting me.

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Karin Cox is an Australian editor, poet and author and, like many women, is doing her best to be a modern Wonder Woman (minus the cape and the gold lasso). Trained as a professional editor, and with more than fourteen years in the trade publishing industry under her belt, she edits and writes in her “spare time” while being a fulltime mum to her infant daughter and to a black cat with the improbable name of “Ping Pong.”

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And a big thank you to Karin for this excellent two-parter. If you are interested in checking out her work, she has self-published two titles. Cage Life is a collection of shorts available from Amazon USAmazon UKBarnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and Growth – a poetry collection – is also available from Amazon USAmazon UKBarnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Karin also has a string of trade published titles (too many to list), and you can get more details on those here.

Out of all the things Karin covered – apart from loath/loathe which I can never get to stick, and a worrying tendency towards unintended double entendres which I seem to slip in (oops) to my MS – I think the most common error I make from the above is “talking heads” dialogue.

I’m quite averse to overly descriptive writing, and have quite a spare style, but each successive draft needs a little more setting and detail (as I tend to go too far with it, especially on my first run). I write dialogue much quicker than narrative, and, as I have the whole scene pictured in my head, I rarely notice when I fail to include the necessary minimum of detail/setting to “anchor” the conversation for the reader, and Karin’s red pen gets busy.

What about you? What’s your most common flub?

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.