For the second post in the series on self-editing, click here.
For the third post in the series on self-editing, click here.
For the fourth post in the series on self-editing, click here.
For the fifth post in the series on self-editing, click here.
Is self-editing important? Let me answer that by telling you what happened last night.
I was washing my son’s kitchen floor (long story). I didn’t do such a great job because my granddaughter’s highchair was in the way, as were a drying rack and a basket of clean laundry.
Just as it’s easier to mop the floor when there’s nothing on it, it’s much easier for your editor – and cheaper for you, I might add – to receive a manuscript that’s already been gone over and corrected by the author. Here’s why.
If your editor has to sift through endless, verbose sentences that sound like you live in the 19th century and are going through a long Russian winter, he or she will be so busy untangling your prose that other writing issues will fall by the wayside. Unless you have your editor go over your article or book a second, or even third, time, it will not be possible for him or her to cover everything the first time around.
What’s more, if you hire a copy editor, who is supposed to look for grammar, punctuation, and other technical issues, it won’t be possible for them to do a good job if the prose is so unclear that it gets in the way of their job.
You have a much, much better chance of your work being accepted if it’s, well, comprehensible.
In my last post, we talked about common writing mistakes and misused words – both of which you need to look out for when going over your book (like, 2nd and 3rd drafts). In this and the next post I’m going to go over a bunch of unnecessary words and phrases that are bogging down your writing and obfuscating what you’re really trying to say. After that we’ll tackle the technical issues all writers should check before they hand in their manuscript.
Self-editing streamlines your prose
Before you write – even at the beginning of every section or paragraph – ask yourself: what am I trying to say? What’s my point? When you finish that passage, chapter, or article and are going over it, ask yourself: Did I say what I wanted to say? Are there any words, phrases, or sentences that are not carrying their weight?
I do this when I am editing clients’ books: Is this sentence relevant? Are there any extra words that mean nothing and can be cut?
If the prose is unintelligible, I ask myself: What is the author trying to say, and how can I say it so readers will understand – while keeping true to the author’s idea and voice? I then rework the troublesome passage, in plain English.
Below are 5 writing issues that might be getting in the way of your prose.
This is…that is
There is way too much use of that in the world, and I’m on a campaign to end this scourge. Take a look:
- This is the book that is generally read
- There are many food processors that are manufactured with their blades made of metal
- A food that is fully cooked
- An egg that has been beaten
- There are circumstances in which there is a student up for valedictorian, yet they may not be chosen for certain reasons.
- The reason for this is that
- There is the possibility that
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Here are some ideas for self-editing the above phrases – although there are many ways to skin a cat (but who would want to?), so you’ll probably be able to come up with a few ideas of your own:
- This book is generally read
- Many food processors come with metal blades
- A fully cooked food (notice there is no hyphen between fully and cooked)
- A beaten egg
- Sometimes a student is up for valedictorian, yet for certain reasons they are not chosen
- The reason is that… or This is because
- It’s possible that
In the first example, context might demand you use “this is the book,” but think carefully before you go for it. One scenario I can think of would be “This is the book I was telling you about.” However, you wouldn’t need to say “This is the book that I was telling you about.”
Simply put, the infinitive to be is not always necessary; it’s a big fluff phrase and a quick self-editing fix:
- How old do you have to be to be considered an adult?
- Start writing even if you don’t know what the conclusion of the story is going to be
- He is considered to be an exceptional and strange case
Nothing will happen if we delete the extra verbiage:
- At what age is one considered an adult?
- Start writing even if you don’t yet know the story’s conclusion
- He is considered an exceptional and strange case (and try not to say “considered as“)
Be able to
Generally, you will not need to tack this complex combination of words onto another verb. Many times you can use can instead. Alternatively, if you must use “be able to,” delete or simplify other verbs in the sentence. For instance:
1. It will only be able to be eaten when it’s cold.
Try “It can be eaten only when it’s cold” or “You can eat it only when it’s cold” or “You’ll be able to eat it when it’s cold.”
2. It’ll be months before she’ll be able to try to go back to school.
Way, way too many verbs here. First of all, I’d encourage the writer of this sentence to consider whether the subject of the sentence has to try to go back to school, or if they can just to go back. If they don’t have to try, then the writer could say: “It’ll be months before she’ll be able to go back to school.” Notice I’m using “be able to,” but I’ve just deleted an unnecessary verb so I’m giving myself a reward.
Now let’s try to take out “be able to.” The author could say: “It’ll be months before she can go back to school” or “It’ll be months before she can even attempt to return to school.” I don’t love this last sentence, but it does the job if the author insists that she needs to try to go back to school, and can’t merely return without trying.
Sometimes, using passive case when unnecessary sounds pompous – and sometimes it’s just plain confusing. Take this sentence: “A light cannot be left on to see in the dark.” It’s both incomprehensible and poor writing. Moreover, who or what is the subject of the sentence?
If I were editing this sentence, the first thing I’d do is determine its point. Furthermore, what does it mean to see in the dark – wouldn’t it be easier if you turned on a light?
Okay, let’s say we’ve figured out the author’s intention. We are now in a better position to either delete or rewrite. For argument’s sake, let’s rewrite:
“If you’re looking out your bedroom window in the dead of night, you won’t be able to see the stars if you leave a light on in your room.”
1. I used “be able to,” as here it works and doesn’t feel overly verbose.
2. I’ve also added a subject, i.e., you.
3. I’ve made the sentence active case.
4. I’ve chosen to lengthen the sentence for the sake of clarity, whereas in other examples in this post I’ve shortened the sentences for the same reason.
When you really need passive case
Sometimes you really do need passive case, for instance if you intentionally want to obscure the subject of the sentence. However, there’s passive case and there’s passive case. What’s easier to understand: “The parking rule was violated unintentionally” or “The parking violation was unintentional”? Both are passive case, but only one sounds good.
The use of/is used
Like “to be able to,” the verb use is over-used (ha ha). The following are real-life examples from my freelance editing projects – although I’ve changed nouns and verbs to protect my clients’ privacy:
- Employ the use of force
- This phrase is used to describe the event
Guys: just say it! Your words will be so much more powerful:
- Employ force
- Use force
- This phrase describes the event
To be continued…
In my next post I’ll be continuing with self-editing tips. And if you’d like to explore self-editing in depth and over the long term, be sure to get yourself on the waiting list for my beta course in self-editing here. (There is no obligation to join the course if you join the list.)
Let me know in the Comments if there are other self-editing issues you want to know about!