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Self-Editing Tips, Part 3

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

While most of my previous editing tips (find part 1 and part 2 here) have been of a fairly generalized nature, today’s tips are getting into a handful of specific topics.

6) Learn to Spot Passive Voice! Passive voice is, quite simply, putting the object before the subject. Another way of explaining this is that you’re putting the thing that is acted upon before the person doing the acting. And since character-driven fiction is what most editors and readers are looking for, passive voice weakens the impact of your writing. Would you rather read “The wall was punched by Joe” or “Joe punched the wall”? The second of these, in the active voice, is much more dynamic. You know right away who is doing the thing, followed by what they are doing, and to what object. Unless that wall has been established as a REALLY interesting wall prior to this sentence, no one really cares that much about the wall. When you’ve got a sentence in which the person doing the thing isn’t clear, that can also be a case of passive voice. I see this a lot in historical writing, where in some cases, authors don’t want to say things like “The U.S. government removed Indigenous peoples from their land.” So instead, they say “The Indigenous peoples were removed from their land.” See, no actual “actor” doing the thing in that case.

So how do you spot passive voice in your writing? Some people will tell you to look for “was” and “were”, but those verbs in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad. You know what is bad? “By zombies.”

If you can add the two words “by zombies” to the end of your sentence, you’ve probably got some passive voice lurking. “The Indigenous peoples were removed from their land by zombies.” Highly unlikely. And also passive. “Elizabeth Bennet was asked to dance.” … by zombies. Probably not, but maybe inĀ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Probably it’s some other handsome chap. So tell us about him first! Unless you’ve got a good reason to conceal the actor(s), have them … you know, act!

7) Identify Overused and Crutch Words! Everybody’s got them. Those words that no matter how much you try, they still crop up in your writing. For me, it’s the word “that.” I did a search on a 40,000 word novella I’m finishing up, and there were 500 uses of the word “that.” Once I finished my editing pass for that specific word? About half as many. There are probably still more that could come out, but for right now, they’re still in there. Other words that are frequently overused are adverbs (I don’t advocate for the removal of all adverbs, but I sometimes wind up with three “likely”s in quick succession, which means I’m overusing adverbs) and sensory words (it’s not always necessary to say that someone heard or smelled or saw something with the appropriate phrasing). Other authors may have different crutch words.

An easy way to identify your crutch words is to have a computer read you a piece of your writing, but only listen for repetition. What are the words that come up frequently? Jot them down, and see if you can find ways to replace them with other words. Keep a list of those words, because odds are you’ll see them pop up in future pieces as well, until you finally train yourself out of their use. Or maybe you won’t ever get completely away from them, as my “that” example above illustrates. But knowing those words are present in your writing and to look for them when you’re editing can help your be smoother and less repetitive.

8) Figuring Out Punctuation! Punctuation is one of the most difficult parts of grammar, and different punctuation marks have varying levels of difficulty. The comma, for example, is THE single most difficult mark of punctuation to master. This is the sort of specialized training that editors have, and they can help you sort out your commas. But there are also easy to learn conventional uses of punctuation that authors should master. This can be things like how to punctuate dialogue correctly, or the difference between en dashes and em dashes. It’s the sort of thing that will take some reading and comprehending the details of how these things are used. But doing so will impress editors who are considering your work, so it’s useful to learn!

This website has an excellent chart of 15 punctuation marks and their difficulty to learn. (It also provides information on using and learning punctuation, but I would take some of those lessons with a grain of salt, based on at least one error that I stumbled across immediately, and go somewhere like Grammar Girl for better tips on punctuation use.)


So there you have it. Eight tips on editing your own writing to give yourself cleaner prose and (hopefully) a better chance of having it published!

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