You’re browsing for books on Amazon and hit the Look Inside button. How long do you give an sample before you move onto the next selection? Ten pages? Five? One?
In bygone days of traditional publishing, many authors thought it was downright unfair for an agent or editor to reject a submission after reading only five or ten pages. They didn’t realize most manuscripts are like digging in a dumpster—it rarely gets better as you go deeper.
Today, I suspect we’re lucky if a browser reads more than the first page. We must hook them in seconds. Given the choice between a great story that glides like ice cream over the tongue, or a great story with bits of nut shells to spit out, guess which one the reader will pick.
Here are ten self-editing tips so readers will glide through your prose straight to the Buy Now button:
1. Read the first few paragraphs of each new scene or chapter. Can a reader quickly determine:
If readers know these answers, they’re less likely to be distracted and pulled out of your story. You want to ground them firmly in the fictional world you’ve created and keep them there.
2. Do a global search for “junk” words that add little information and dilute the power of your prose. Delete the following words and phrases and watch your sentences grow stronger.
Editor Jessi Rita Hoffman identifies the examples below as “stammer verbs” that weaken the verb that follows:
Weak: Barbara began to race to escape the zombie.
Strong: Barbara raced to escape the zombie.
Stammer verb exception: when an action is interrupted or changed, e.g. Robert started to run, but tripped over the corpse.
Exception for colloquialisms: During a workshop I taught, a lady from Alabama brought up a wonderful Southern example: “fixin’ to.”
Mama was fixin’ to whup Junior upside the head.
Even though such expressions may not be grammatically correct, they add rich personality and culture to the prose.
3. Use strong active verbs. The late, great Montana mystery author James Crumley taught me how to “de-was.” Scan your work and highlight every form of the verb “to be.”
“Was” and its cousins (is, are, am, were, had been) often hang around with gerunds (ing) which indicate passive or weak construction.
4. Vary character names. Don’t have multiple characters whose names start with the same letter and/or same number of syllables, e.g. Michael, Millie, Mitchell. Instead of paying attention to the story, your reader is busy trying to remember if Michael is the father and Mitchell is the brother or is it the other way around? Choose distinctive names that vary in length, e.g. Sal, Renata, Agamemnon, Lucille.
Don’t unnecessarily confuse your readers with rhyming or similar-sounding names: Billy, Lily, Julie.
Save yourself a lot of aggravation by avoiding names that end with “S.” Then you don’t have to worry if you wrote Miles’s machine gun in one place and Miles’ gun moll in another.
5. Exploit all five senses. Writers most often use sight and hearing, and ignore the other senses that add texture and richness to the reader’s immersion in the story world.
Find places to employ the under-used senses of taste, touch, and smell.
For dramatic effect, deprive your characters of normal sensory input:
A blindfolded kidnap victim who cannot see where captors are taking her.
An explosion-deafened soldier who cannot hear the enemy stalking him.
6. The English language constantly challenges even experienced authors. In the eyes of editors, agents, and readers, improper usage of common words marks a writer as an amateur. Below are words that are often confused. Test yourself and find the answers at the end.
(a) It’s [or] its a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
(b) The bear retreated to its [or] it’s den as winter closed in.
(c) Hurricane Katrina effected [or] affected every home in New Orleans.
(d) The affect [or] effect of Hurricane Katrina continued long after the rains ended.
(e) After the lobotomy, McMurphy possessed a flat affect [or] effect.
(f) The farther [or] further the boat drifted from the shore, the harder Joe paddled.
(g) The further [or] farther you pursue this tangent, the more you lose credibility.
(h) The magician made an allusion [or] illusion to Houdini’s famous “vanishing elephant” illusion [or] allusion.
(i) Robert implied [or] inferred that Janet was a tramp.
(j) Since Janet had been convicted of prostitution, Robert inferred [or] implied she was a tramp.
(k) The witness that [or] who saw the assault ran away.
(l) Winston tastes good like [or] as a cigarette should. (Trick question for those of a certain age.)
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is my go-to source whenever I’m not sure of correct word usage. Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is the standard reference most editors use but it’s a fat doorstop of a book that’s difficult to navigate. Elements is under 100 pages yet I find answers to 98% of my questions in it.
7. Scan a chapter. How many times is the first word of a new paragraph the name of your character or a pronoun referring to that character (he or she)?
8. Point of View (POV) should stay consistently in the same character’s head for the entire scene. Switch points of view only when a scene changes or when a new chapter begins.
How many POV changes can you find in the following passage?
Silky sheets caressed Teresa’s naked skin, as her heartbeat quickened. She watched Zack, framed in the doorway, as he unbuttoned his shirt. Secret fantasies he’d harbored for months were about to come true. Teresa’s heavy-lidded eyes promised a welcome worth waiting for. She quivered inside with trepidation. Would he be disappointed or thrilled? With a sweep of his sinewy arm, Zack whipped back the sheet, stunned to discover Teresa was really Terrance.
Answer: Four. The paragraph starts in Teresa’s POV because she feels the sheets and her heartbeat. Then POV switches to Zack and his secret fantasies, which Teresa might guess, but can’t know about since they’re inside his head. Then back to Teresa, quivering inside. Then back to Zack being stunned.
If you struggle with POV, lock yourself inside the head and body of the POV character as if you have movie camera mounted on your shoulder. Everything that goes on in that scene must be within the eyesight, earshot, or touch of that character. That means the character might be able to look at his own feet but he can’t see the broccoli stuck in his teeth. Only another character can do that…and I certainly hope she tells him about it soon!
9. Is the action described in chronological order? Does cause lead to effect? Does action trigger reaction?
Is the choreography clear to the reader? Who is where doing what to whom?
How would you rewrite the following sentence?
George slashed Roger’s throat with the knife as he grabbed him from behind after he sneaked into the warehouse.
Better: Knife in hand, George sneaked into the warehouse, grabbed Roger from behind, and slashed his throat.
Just as messy but much clearer to the reader because events unfold in the order they happened.
10. Read your work out loud to catch repeated or missing words, awkward phrasing, and run-on sentences. For an even bigger challenge, have someone else read your work out loud. If he or she can read without stumbling, you’ve achieved what author Jim Thomsen calls “glide.”
“Glide” is like riding in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce as opposed to bucking and shuddering in a 1973 Pinto with bad spark plugs and a flat tire.
Fewer errors equal fewer distractions and a more engaged reader. Smooth, effortless, clear writing will cause your reader to glide straight to the Buy Now button.
Answers to 6:
(a) it’s, the contraction for it is
(b) its, the possessive form
(c) affected, verb meaning “to influence”
(d) effect, noun meaning “result”
(e) affect, noun indicating emotion or feeling
(f) farther, indicates distance
(g) further, indicates time or quantity
(h) allusion, means an indirect reference; illusion, means an unreal image
(i) implied, something is suggested
(j) inferred, something is deduced from evidence
(k) who, indicates a person; that indicates a thing or animal
(l) Despite the catchy slogan from the 1950s, correct use would be as. Back then, liquor couldn’t advertise on TV but cigarettes could. Now liquor ads are common but few people even remember commercials for cigarettes. How times change!
Debbie Burke’s thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and became an Amazon bestseller in women’s adventure. She’s a regular contributor to the award-winning crime writing blog The Kill Zone. Visit her at: debbieburkewriter.com
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.