Self Editing Tips: Line edits

As I said last week, self editing is no substitute for real editing. If you are self publishing and intend to charge for your work, you should hire a professional editor. I am well aware this can run to significant money, which most of us don’t have to spare. But a lot of the readers stumping up $5 a copy don’t have it to spare either, will resent spending it on a poorly edited or unsatisfactory read, and will be likely to review/make future buying decisions accordingly.

So it makes sense to reduce editorial costs by getting your MS into better shape before you send. I blogged previously on how to have a crack at your own development edits; now we move on to line edits. (Some of this stuff should probably have gone in the development edits blog post, but whatever, it’s here.)

Before we begin: An excellent general tip is to read your MS aloud. You will be amazed how much you’ll spot if you read it out loud–echoes, infelicities, typos, unclear sentences. It takes a while, and may require a solitary room/waiting till the kids’ bedtime, but it’s really worth it. Or, less good but still valuable, read it in a different format. Print it out, or send it to your ereader instead of reading on computer screen. That will defamiliarise the text and allow you to see things that your eyes are used to skimming over.

I have blogged on a lot of these issues before so rather than repeat myself I’ll just link where appropriate.

Speech tags

Small things, big problem. Blog post here. To summarise:

  • Don’t use thesaurus words (opined, declared, asseverated, proclaimed) when you mean ‘said’.
  • Don’t use dramatic speech verbs (snarled, snapped) if you haven’t written a snarly or snappy line. If you have, check you need the verb.
  • Don’t use non-speech verbs (nodded, hesitated, smiled) as speech verbs. I will hurt you. (Exception, as always: funny writing, eg ‘he oiled’ or ‘she oozed’. But do it consciously.)
  • Don’t overload with unnecessary speech verbs of any kind. You don’t need to tag every line and you can use action to vary the style.

‘Said’ is often called an invisible verb but it can still make its presence felt too strongly, and it is certainly worth taking out when it isn’t doing anything useful. Compare:

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon,” Stephen said, snuggling down into the bed.

“Well, I hope it’s not as boring as the last luncheon.” Stephen snuggled down into the bed.

‘Said’ is useless there. However, that does not mean you should mark all dialogue with action. That’s agonising.

“I mean, look at this.” The purple-haired editor reached for her pen.

The aspiring writer drummed her fingers on the table.“What do you want me to do, use ‘she nodded’?”

“So help me God, if I see ‘nod’ as a speech verb again…” The editor’s face betrayed her rage and pain.

The writer’s foot was going to sleep. “Is it me or is this conversation taking forever?”

While I’m at it: Please make sure you know how to punctuate speech. I am appalled how many writers get this consistently wrong. It’s time-consuming for an editor to tidy up, and that’s a pure waste of your money.

“My name is Jim.” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“My name is Jim,” the man said.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

And, by analogy:

“What’s your name?” The man picked up his cup.
=>   Two sentences. First sentence ends inside the quote marks.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.
=>  One sentence. Speech ends inside quotes, sentence goes on.

Pretty straightforward, but if I had a quid for every

“What’s your name?” the man picked up his cup.

“My name is Jim.” The man said.

that I’ve had to fix, I’d be writing this from a beach. Quite seriously, there are more valuable things you can pay a skilled editor to do than insert and remove capital letters.

Names and pronouns

This one is a bugbear of queer romance in particular: the Big Old Mess Of Pronouns.

pronouns

Don’t ask me for answers. Just look out for it. Remember that the reader will probably link any pronoun back to the previous noun, so if your viewpoint character is Jonah, but the last referent was Ben, Ben’s likely who the pronoun will be stuck to.

It’s tempting to use metonyms like ‘the smaller man’, ‘the blond’ etc in place of names, but this can become obvious and jarring. If doing this, make them earn their place. ‘The smaller man’ is pointless words, but if you frame it as ‘the evasive little bastard’ that gives us a flavour of the POV character’s thoughts. (Again: can easily be overdone.)

Sex scenes

People quite often seem to write these at white heat with a bottle at the elbow, resulting in heavy edits, and nobody likes getting them back full of red pen. Edit them yourself, in sobriety, or you’ll be cringing till your backbone snaps.

This is probably one for its own blog post since every scene has its own demands and every writer her own stylistic issues. Play it out in your head, though, remembering your characters’ relative height, weight and position, to double check that all the bits line up. If you’re using metaphors or euphemisms, keep them under control, and consider that if people actually want to read sex at all, they can probably cope with something a bit more plain-spoken than ‘her intimate dewy petals’.

(While I’m here, can I make a plea for physical plausibility? Limitless priaprism and receptivity in standard-issue humans is just silly, and unintentional silliness kills sexiness dead. As does the reader thinking words like ‘stinging’ and ‘tearing’ and ‘yeast infection’. Do you want your editor to leave comment boxes about this? No, I didn’t think so.)

Metaphors

Look at what your metaphors are doing and don’t pile up inconsistent ones. Thus: if you talk about a character moving with feline or snakelike grace, don’t give him ‘barked’ or ‘growled’ as a speech verb in the same paragraph. If a character has cutting wit in one line, don’t have him asking rapid-fire questions or hammering his point home in the next.

Point of view

If you are directly telling me what a character is feeling/seeing etc, you are in his POV. If you switch to another POV in the same paragraph/scene, you are head hopping, which is jarring for the reader and will cost you a lot of editorial time to fix.

pov

Never, ever, ever switch mid-para like the first example. Never.

Control switching, think about it, and preferably wait for a scene break before switching heads. This isn’t just style guide prescriptiveness. In a good scene of any kind, the reader should be immersed in the story via the POV character. When you switch POV, you jolt the reader out of the immersion, like a train switching tracks, and if you do it badly (so that the reader doesn’t realise you’ve switched heads for a few lines and the action makes no sense), that makes the transition even more distracting. It draws the reader’s attention to the fact that she’s reading a book–which is what you want her to forget.

So if you absolutely must switch POV mid-scene (think carefully about why you need to), at the very least put in a clear line break and do the switch at a significant mid-scene cliffhanger. Multiple switches in a single scene are a really bad idea. And I would be incredibly cautious about switching at all in any intense scene (sex, violence, deep dramatic emotion), when you need the reader totally immersed in the story.

More on POV here.

Repetition

A chronic problem and surprisingly hard to see until the book is published, at which point it might as well be in highlighter. Blog post here to avoid, uh, repeating myself.

Continuity

It is a very good idea to keep a list of your characters’ names, physical appearance and quirks, names of businesses/imaginary places, and all those other things. You can waste a lot of everyone’s time randoming whether your heroine’s cutesy business is the Donut Palace, the Doughnut Palace or The Doughnut Palace, or if her sister is Lucy or Lucie, and it’s always embarrassing to discover that you called two other minor characters Lucille and Lucian in the same book.

Pacing

Another one that I can’t summarise here. I will say this: if you find yourself skimming through a stretch of description or a conversation, I expect the reader will too. If your characters are wailing, “Do we have to go over this again?”, ditto. Take your own responses as a guide and see if you can trim or tighten.

Good habits

If you need to cut down editorial costs, sweat the small stuff. Get into the habit of doing things properly. Take, for example, the dash.

  • Train yourself to type an em dash/double hyphen instead of using a hyphen or spaced hyphen or whatever.
  • If you’re not sure about how to use em dashes, find a style guide, print out a list, and keep checking it till it’s second nature. Thus, part of yours might read:

Em dash for hesitation, no space “I think–regrettably–you’re right.”

Em dash with space if new sentence “I think– What’s that over there?”

Em dash outside quotes, no cap or full stop, if interrupting “I think”–he handed her a bun–“it’s teatime.”

I know this is tiresome–I’m currently training myself to use double quotes instead of my habitual single, and I resent it bitterly–but if you follow a style sheet and type things like em dashes correctly in the first place, rather than scattering inconsistently spaced hyphens around the text and needing all your broken speech tidied up, you will save editorial time, which is to say, your money.

***

This post just scratches the surface, and doesn’t go anywhere near what an edit should pick up about blocking, pace, length, unconscious prejudice (it happens), character consistency in speech and behaviour, etc etc. But if you want a professional product without breaking the bank, sorting out what you can yourself should cut down considerably on your editorial costs.

_______________________________________

KJ Charles is a freelance editor and Rainbow Award-winning romance writer who has made most of the above mistakes, so I know how you feel.

20 replies
  1. livrancourt
    livrancourt says:

    When I’m working on an all-boys scene, the pronouns just kill me, and if you ever do a blog post on writing sex scenes, I’d be so thrilled!

    Reply
  2. laneswift
    laneswift says:

    Great points. I write using Word and have set it to automatically change a double dash into an emdash. 🙂

    There are free punctuation guides on the internet. I think if you want to be a writer, there’s no excuse for not knowing how to punctuate speech etc. If you don’t know, look it up. You would be appalled if you had a gardener turn up telling you they didn’t know how to use a hedge trimmer.

    I think this small detail stuff is one of my strengths. I’ve had a couple of beta readers and editors tell me my MS’s are very clean (which is not to say there aren’t many other, larger problems). I probably have an eye for it, and it probably accounts for why I read slowly, but on the other hand, I do check my ‘final draft’ at least twice before I send it off, either on my e-reader, or printed out on paper. It’s amazing how much you can miss scrolling through a document on a computer. I used to cringe at my paper use, but like you say, cheaper than paying an editor, or publishing something riddled with mistakes.

    Reply
  3. J.J. Carroll
    J.J. Carroll says:

    Book saidisms — love ’em, not. I always think of James Blish and his essay on the subject, and start giggling. “Good morning,” he pole vaulted. Still one of my favourite lines.

    Thank you for an excellent, and helpful, article.

    Reply
  4. Jenny Alexander
    Jenny Alexander says:

    Double speech marks? I had to unlearn those when I started writing for publication twenty years ago and I didn’t realise they were back. I don’t think my singles have been changed in my next traditionally published book. So I might say, “I learnt double for speech and, my teacher said, ‘Single marks for speech within speech,’ which editors later reversed.”

    Reply
  5. Alex Gabriel
    Alex Gabriel says:

    This is a great overview over some extremely common issues. Thank you! 🙂

    Ah, the dash (en and/or em) and the question of spacing! A drama in five acts. I see you come down on the unspaced em dash side of the debate…?

    On m/m sex scenes, I would like to add one thing: People. Blood is not a lubricant. Seriously.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I am not dogmatic on dashes except that it has to be a dash not a hyphen, and it has to be *consistent*.

      On blood…just going to sit quietly over here with my eyes watering. Eeesh.

      Reply
  6. mmjustus
    mmjustus says:

    Is there any way to use em dashes/no spaces without having e-readers treat the whole “think–regrettably–you’re” as one word, which cuts the previous line off short and makes things look weird? Since the e-readers flow automatically, it’s not possible to manually place spaces in the right spots, but just leaving it looks awful, too.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Self Editing Tips: Line edits And the next post! Tips for when you get down to the nitty gritty. […]

  2. […] Self Editing Tips: Line edits The second article from KJ Charles, following on the one linked to above. This time the technical edits to look for: PoV, speech tags etc. […]

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