how do I get better at self-editing prose?

There’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do in a revision, whether you’re making large developmental changes or smaller in-line ones. Personally, I still struggle with the big stuff; it’s just hard for me to spot where something is flagging in my own plot or world without a lot of effort. But something I tend to feel really confident on is prose revision, aka, making your individual sentences and paragraphs shine.

Take a look at how you begin sentences. Do you shake things up every now and again? Or are you starting a lot of sentences the same way?

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. He dried the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates. He leaned on the counter. He was the only housemate awake before noon. He was so tired.

Subject-verb-object. It’s repetitive and while there’s nothing technically wrong with it, it’s also just kind of boring. We recognize the pattern here. Instead, let’s try rewriting it just by shaking up the order:

Brad unloaded the dishwasher. Drying the forks, then the spoons, and then the plates, he leaned on the counter. Once again, he was the only housemate awake before noon. And he was so tired.

It’s not a lot that changes, but it does make the paragraph feel a little fresher.

Seek and destroy. What words do you lean on more than others? Are characters always tentatively doing things? Does everyone sigh? How many things get described as impossible or immeasurable?

Especially if the word is more uncommon (like milieu, for example), your reader will notice if it comes up multiple times in close succession. Therefore, head that problem off at the pass by doing a quick search for your most common crutch words in your manuscript. Even if it’s just making sure that the two times you use “ethereal” aren’t in the same chapter of your book, it makes a difference.

This is also something that builds and you get better at the more you know what words you default to when writing.

Calm down the wild punctuation. Or, at least, challenge yourself to use less of it if you find yourself popping ellipses in every other line. My personal weakness is dashes. I will interrupt myself or other characters or just like, whatever, throw them in for spice when a normal period will do.

Challenge yourself to see if you can pull off the same effects without overloading on nonstandard punctuation. That’s not to say never use it, but notice how much you’re breaking the rules and, if it’s happening pretty frequently, ask yourself if it’s really that needed.

Like, if you find yourself trailing off and dot-dot-dotting every other page, then see if you can pare it down to once per chapter. Again, you don’t have to never use it, but try to make it more like a treat versus like a regular weeknight meal, if that makes sense.

Change the font or print it out and read pages out of order. I realize this might drive some people up a wall, but I personally really like this.

Change the font, then do a random number generator, go to that page, and read through it. Obviously, you should also read through and edit in order so that you get the emotional weight of the book, but this is fun and helps spice things up when you’re tired as heck of editing sometimes.

Plus, if you’re finding that you have pages that just…aren’t very interesting or are just plain boring to read, it’s an opportunity for you to ask “what could I do to make this part more fun?”

Because, let’s face it, you can’t have dinosaurs exploding on every page. But there are other ways to make things fun for the reader– maybe someone does a pun! Maybe there’s a really well-crafted line of dialogue or a beautiful succinct description. It doesn’t have to be a big, grand thing to still have an impact.

Can you identify speakers without dialogue tags? To cover my butt here: yes, you definitely still need and should include dialogue tags! We run a pro-dialogue tag establishment here. What I’m saying is that characters have a way of speaking. And it’s not just giving everyone weird accents or misspelling words on purpose to denote that it’s just ~that one character’s way of speaking~, it’s more that there are some word choices that jive with who characters are.

For example, your ragamuffin street urchin isn’t likely to talk about “the secret adoration of the night sky” but your poetic courtier might. Who uses slang and who doesn’t? Is one character more likely to contract words than others (“do not hit me with that again, you knave” versus “don’t hit me again, idiot”)?

Make your descriptions earn it. Whenever we slow down for a description, we’re doing exactly that– we’re taking a breather from the action to spend time looking at something. If the description is just telling us the same thing over and over in different words, then we’re going to get bored and wish we were back when the story was moving, versus hanging out and looking at a wall or whatever.

I’ve probably repeated this trick in other places, but the system I use for this is the three-point-touchstone rule: if I’m doing a description, I’ll maybe limit myself to talking about three or four important things about the object and then that’s it, show’s over. The other part of this is to make sure that each piece of description you add tells the reader something new and isn’t just the same information rephrased for beauty points.

Like, if you’re describing a love interest, don’t blow two of your description points on the eyes (unless, I dunno, they have really bananas glowy eyes or something deeply nonstandard)– tell us about how they move, the pitch of their voice, their scent, the little crinkle by the side of their mouth just before they unleash the punchline of a joke. Bonus points if you’re using the other four senses besides the just visual to perceive them.

And that’s that! Give it a try, and see what stands out to you the next time you’re polishing up your prose.

Any favorite tricks for making prose tighter before sending your work off? Let me know in the comments! I love learning new things.

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