In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss why self-editing is so much more than a spellcheck, and how it develops not just the manuscript, but the writer.
Scroll down for audio, video, and a full transcript, or find the podcast on Apple Podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/gracewriters-podcast/id1519376330
In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, accredited editor with quals in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author, former early childhood teacher and mother of 4 adult children
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- Practical ideas for self-editing.
- Ninja tips to try.
- The Christian ethics of self-editing.
The online self-editing course Belinda mentions can be found at https://usefulwritingtips.teachable.com/p/self-editing-for-writers-1-foundations
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Connect with us at gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Self-editing for Writers. I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books, blogs and courses at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Young. I’m a romance writer and I live in Brisbane in Queensland and you can find all my information under my pen-name alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. I’m a writer, a preacher, a creative writing teacher and a blogger. You can find out all about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Our topic today, Self-editing for Writers. We’re dividing it into three subtopics: some practical tips for self-editing our own writing, a few ninja tips that you might not have heard before, just slightly different ways of looking at it, and the ethics of our self-editing as Christians writers.
Alison you’ve been doing a bit of research for us and the various information out there to help us figure out how to self-edit our own writing. What have you found? What did you like? What sort of things do you like to use yourself?
Alison Joy: Well, at the outset I just want to say that when we’re talking self-editing, we’re talking about editing that we do ourselves before we send it to a professional editor, not self-editing and skipping that next part altogether. Yes, so we’re actually going through our own work before we send it on to a professional.
So, I think the biggest thing I can say is we need to take a break. We need to walk away from our writing and give it some space and let it sit for a while. And when you come back to it you will have fresh eyes and you will be able to see so many things. You get working on something and you get so close to it you just can’t see the woods for the trees, so to speak.
Let it sit for a while and then come back. It will help you get more clarity, maybe see what holds or things where you’ve gone wrong. But I think that’s probably the biggest takeaway. Or one of the biggest ones is to let it sit and give it some space.
I think when you’re coming back to start your proofreading you need to try and clear your mind and avoid distractions and maybe even try proofreading it at different times of the day. Now, one of the reasons this is a good idea is because we tend to get into habits and do things at the same time.
Sometimes our brain, sort of, autocorrects so when you do it you should print it out. Print your manuscript out or whatever you’re doing. Print it out and even change the orientation. So, if you’re printing it out in portrait, go to landscape.
So, you’re trying to trick your brain into seeing things differently because you get too close to it and you see it the same all the time and as I said your brain autocorrects, so you miss stuff. Okay.
So, you should also read it out and you should also use your ruler to go through and maybe check for a sentence at a time or a line at a time. So, I think those four things: taking a break, printing it out, reading it out and then using a ruler are probably the four main things that you should do.
And then you get into the more detailed or the more nitty gritty. So, you should be looking at the style guide for your genre to see how to format it. What conventions are used. You should try and avoid clichés where we all do it, but unless you’ve got a really good spin on it you can try and avoid using those.
Check for punctuation. Now, I have to share this little thing. I saw a writer by the name of Blake Atwood came up with this thing, that checking for punctuation. He said, “Are you a comma chameleon or does your manuscript need a semicolonoscopy?” It was very funny!
And me, I’m a dash demon, that’s my thing. That I always use dashes all the time and I need to pare it back and take them out. So, that’s another thing.
You might have words that you use all the time, and you find that they’re your favourite words and you keep using them over and over again. And there will also be words that you probably misspell regularly, and you should probably make a list of your crutch words and the words that you commonly tend to misspell.
Now, funnily enough, one of the things I misspell – and it’s not because I don’t know how to spell it. Every time I write ‘from’ in a manuscript, I always type ‘form’. I don’t know why. My fingers just work in the wrong order and I always have to go back and fix it. That’s one I know that I have to be aware of because for some reason I type it around the wrong way.
Belinda Pollard: Absolutely, and a good way to pick up on that is to then do a search for ‘form’ and step through it one by one and convert the ones that need to be ‘from’ into ‘from’. Don’t do a Change All, because that will disappoint you!
Alison Joy: Yes, it will! Just a little! I’ve found that out the hard way. Just a little.
And you should also use a spellchecker. You would think that would go without saying but maybe, yes. And then do your proofreading at the end and before you send it on to somebody else.
Belinda Pollard: Yes.
Alison Joy: I think you need to try and make it the best it can be. The best in your ability before you send it. And it’s just so frustrating, Donita will back me up on this, but when you’re trying to edit somebody else’s work. For me it was my kid’s assignments and you’re going, “You actually have read this? Maybe you should read it out loud before you gave it to me!”
Donita Bundy: Yes.
Belinda Pollard: Yes, as an editor I have, in the past – and this was when I was working for a publishing house so none of my clients need to think that I’m saying this about them. But I did sometimes see stuff that would come in where it had clearly not been read, even once, by the author of that piece. It might have been one particular paper in a group of papers in a book. I could get all snarky about that and say, “Oh, they should know better,” but I think one of the things is that until we’ve done this stuff, we actually don’t know what the process is to do ‘a thing’. None of us know.
I don’t know what an engineer has got to do when they get into their desk in the morning. If you’re a first-time writer sometimes you don’t know that when you get to the end and type, The End, on your first draft that is not actually the end, that’s pretty much the beginning. So, it’s when you start all over again! So, yes.
Those were excellent tips, Alison. Thank you for that. And one of the things, I’ve actually just been doing a proofreading job myself at the moment, and a bit similar to your idea with the ruler, to take the ruler down. Another possibility is to use a sheet of paper and just run it down the line.
But one of the things I like to do, because I edit with a red pen, I’ll have one finger on the left margin of the line I’m on and that pen is running along, and it just helps to break my mind out of the autocorrect that operates in your brain where you read what you think is there instead of what really is.
And another little tip for when you’re proofreading the fine details of your work particularly, look out for groups of little words like ‘it is an’ or something like that, because they’re the ones where often there will be a rogue word in there. When you read it quickly you don’t see it.
Now, those were great. Did you have any thoughts about any of those, Donita?
Donita Bundy: One of the things I always get my students and my peers at the writing group to do is read your work out loud, like Alison said. But another thing which is a little bit more frightening is having somebody read your work back to you! Because they will read what is on the page and you get to hear it. When those commas are there or those full stops, they will read according to the punctuation. And so, if they’re not there or it’s not sounding right, you will hear that jarring. It’s the best way for you to pick up on those words that you always go back to. You mentioned those, Alison.
But for me, for example, in blogging, mine is ‘however’. I’m always using ‘however, however’, so I do a word search for that. But having somebody read your work back to you, you will hear those words jump out. That’s one of the scariest but most effective ways, I think, for self-editing is to have someone read your work to you.
Belinda Pollard: You can also get most computers, these days, will also read aloud to you. So, if you don’t have another human that you can subject that to, you might be able to get your computer to read it to you. It might be that the tone will not be quite right but that’s actually good. Because it jolts you out of how you’re reading it in your head, and you hear it a little bit differently. So, just some more ideas about that.
And probably just also to raise that general idea of why this matters so much. Why we do so much work on our manuscript after we’ve finished it. There’s obviously the clear outcomes, for instance, we might be more likely to get a publisher. It might cost us less to hire a professional editor, because let me assure you, people, editors do look at the standard of the work that you’ve supplied them, and they quote accordingly. So, if your work needs lots and lots of fixing up of simple little things that you could have done yourself, it will cost you more to have it edited. That’s the way the system works. So, do be aware of that.
But I think the most important thing is that when we really work on this self-editing, we grow as writers. We really grow in our understanding of our own work. In the development of our own voice as a writer and in our technical skills as writers. So, it’s fantastic for that.
And you’ve probably picked up from all that you’ve heard from Alison already that we’re talking about a lot more than a spellcheck here. We’re talking about really confronting our work and asking ourselves, what can I do? How can this be better?
A few of my ninja tips. Now, I teach a whole course on Self-editing for Writers, but these are just a few of my favourite tips to pull out from there.
I talk about three levels of zoom – like when you’re using a camera with a big lens. So you have the wide angle where you’re seeing the whole manuscript before you, where you might be looking at big issues like the number of characters or where it’s set, for fiction. For non-fiction you might be looking at the broad sweep of your arguments and how they build on one another across the course of the book.
And then you move into the sort of portrait view of the zoom where you’re looking at your sentence and paragraph level of your work. Looking at ways that you can enrich the flow and even the poetry of your work because there can be poetry. Even in a non-fiction book there can be poetry in the way that we express ourselves.
And then there’s that really close one which is the one where you’re using the ruler to go down the lines. That’s your proofreading at the end where you’re looking for typos and spelling, grammar, punctuation, all of those issues.
So, as a general rule the wide angle is what you do earlier in your self-editing/rewriting phase and then you gradually move in closer until you’re doing that proofreading phase right at the end before you submit to your publisher or your editor or your agent, or start submitting to seek an agent for your work.
It doesn’t have to be rigidly that you only do big picture stuff at the beginning and you do detail at the end. It’s an organic process. Everybody works differently. Some people might find that they want to write one scene or chapter and then edit that chapter. I know I’ve seen people say, “Don’t do anything until you’ve finished the first draft.” But we’re all different. Find what works for you. So, that’s one of my ways of looking at it.
Another interesting thing for us to be aware of is that if you are writing memoir or writing narrative fiction a lot of the same rules apply. So, if you’re trying to work out how to enrich your memoir you can always look at all the stuff, all the advice out there, to do with writing fiction. And a lot of those things you can cross-apply to your own work, because memoir has characters and plot and theme and setting. So, you can borrow all of those things from fiction self-editing.
One of my ninja tips for self-editing your non-fiction manuscript is to take your structure and make a dot point list of all the things that are in each chapter or section, depending on the length of the piece that you’re writing. And you might have begun with one of those. Sometimes with non-fiction we have quite a detailed structure – plan of action – beforehand. Although sometimes that changes as you work through it and sometimes you might have a simpler plan before you write.
But if you go through and just dot point your whole manuscript you can then see it. Print it out and put that across on a flat table. You can see the movement. You can work out the structure of your book and places where, perhaps, you might want to move that chapter back to here. You might want to move this segment to that chapter. And it’s much more easy to see, through that.
And also, if you work out what your theme for your book is. Condense it into one sentence. Print that out and stick it on your wall while you’re working through your self-editing process. It can really help you to evaluate. Particularly if you’re over on your word count, you can be saying, “Okay, this piece that I’ve got here, while fabulous, does not actually build on my theme. So I will take it out of this manuscript, and I will store it over here and put it in another manuscript in the future.”
Another thing to really be careful about is when we’re ‘polishing rubbish’ and there are less pleasant ways that people put that term but, basically, we all do it. I’ve certainly done it. I’m sitting there carefully rewording, tweaking words, moving commas in a paragraph that doesn’t actually belong in my book. So, I need to be thinking, “Hang on. Hang on. Does this really belong here?”
So that leads me on to my next thing, which is to interrogate our manuscripts. Like we’re in the police station with the bright light shining on them, okay, and every paragraph and every sentence has to justify its reason to stay in the manuscript. And yes, even if you have not got a high enough word count, you still need to do this. They need to be justifying why they are there. I think of it as like boiling down a sauce, where you intensify the flavours the more that you reduce and reduce and reduce.
Now, I overwrite. I always have about 10 or 15,000 words more than I need when I’ve finished a manuscript, so that’s good for me that I can then reduce those down. But I tell you what, I sometimes even need to take stuff out beyond that. So do we, if we underwrite, where we have a lower word count and we need to build it out.
If you do have that lower word count, when you go through and you’re thinking about expanding it because you need to increase your word count, don’t focus on the word count. Focus on the story or what it is that you’re building. And one of the simplest tips for that is to think about the senses: sight, hearing, sound, smell. Particularly smell can be surprisingly evocative in writing.
And this actually works for all genres. Particularly for the creative narrative genres like fiction and memoir, but it still also does work for nonfiction as well. So, maybe even just close your eyes and go into the scene and think about how you can expand how the character or you as the writer, the senses are being interacted with.
And when you want to expand something, look for the most important moments to expand. Not just filling in waffle or what I’ve heard called ‘shoe leather’ which is like, “She stood up. She picked up her handbag. She walked to the door. She put her hand on the door handle. She turned the door handle. She opened the door.” When you just need, “She left the room.” And the reader can fill in all of that.
But look for those things that are the most important moments and expand those out.
Also, one of the really common questions that I get when I teach self-editing is, “If I’m not an experienced writer, how can I know how to improve it? How can I tell if it’s better or not?” And it’s a great question. It’s a really good question.
But can I tell you – okay now brace yourselves here this is important: trust the process, lean into it, learn as much as you can, and you will become the writer who can improve your own writing.
This is so big to me it makes me get emotional, which is crazy, but it does. Don’t
let people tell you that you are not good enough. We are all works in progress. We are all growing as writers. You will become that writer who can improve your writing.
Okay. Donita, ethics, what are some thoughts? How can you get us started, please? I’m thinking about the ethics for us as Christians writers, as Gracewriters, for self-editing our work.
Donita Bundy: Thanks, Belinda. I think this has three arms which self-editing sits in. The first arm, I believe, comes from Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord not a human master.” Would you be happy handing over a sloppy, half-hearted piece of work to God saying, “I want to glorify you with this. It’s not the best I can do but, hey, it’s good enough.” No. We do our best. Like you said Belinda, and Alison you’ve said as well, we don’t come into this as experts.
We don’t come in knowing everything. It’s a learning process. Each step of the way we do the best we can as long as we are doing the best we can. Always, we need to remember who we represent. When we may not be the best wordsmith, but we can all be diligent and do the best of our ability.
The second arm I think this sits in, is stewardship from Genesis 2:15. We’ve been put here to work and take care of things that we’ve been given. Whether that’s the earth, each other, ministry, gifts and talents. We need to work at and care for those things that we’ve been given. And if we feel we’ve been given writing as a task, gracenotes in mainstream writing or Christian writing, we need to do the best to care for that.
And the third arm this sits in, I think, is worship. Again, we come back to that Romans 12:1. We don’t just offer our bodies as a true and pleasing act of worship. We offer ourselves and all that we do. And we don’t just offer part of ourselves or part of our lives or part of the work of our hands to God. We offer it all. Sometimes we might feel like that’s the widow’s mite. We might not feel like we have a lot to offer. Only a little bit, but we offer it nonetheless with all our heart, and the best we can do.
If we’re writing in any way to glorify God, either, as I said, through the gracenotes, through mainstream writing, or whether it’s a blatant Christian message to a Christian audience, we work at it with the best we can, and have that as our act of worship, because we remember who we are representing. We bear the name of Christ. Let us be known for quality work to reflect who we are and whose name we bear. And as we’ve heard from Alison and Belinda, the more we strive to do our best the better we will become. The better we become the more we will define our voice. And the more intriguing our voice the larger our audience will be that will hear the message within the words we’ve crafted.
So, to be perfectly blunt, I think laziness and sloppiness are just not okay in the Christian life. We all have slumps. We all have days off. We all have moments when we are not well and we’re not doing our best and that is completely okay and normal. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that. But it should never be our work ethic or reputation because, as I just said, we are working for the Lord. We represent our God and we bear His name.
Writing might be a solo effort, but we belong to a community. We belong to the body with one Lord, one Spirit, one heart, one goal of just to glorify God. We don’t only let our brother and sister Christians down when we do sloppy work and don’t care, we let our Lord down. So, we may or may not agree, but for me, I think that this issue of self-editing sits within those three arms of doing the best we can, stewardship and worship.
Belinda Pollard: That’s fantastic, Donita. Thank you for that. Did you have any thoughts about that at all, Alison, or any other issues you wanted to just mention?
Alison Joy: No, I just agree with what Donita said. You’ve just got to do the best you can because it’s for God, so you’ve just got to keep at it and keep trying and the more you do it the better you’ll get.
Donita Bundy: Absolutely.
Belinda Pollard: Fantastic. Yes, and Donita any last thoughts that you wanted to add, as well?
Donita Bundy: Just as you said, Belinda, the more we do the better we get. And the better we get the more we glorify God. That’s our goal.
Belinda Pollard: And we, as individuals, are the writer that God wants us to be for the thing that he wants us to write. No matter what we think about how good someone else is or what we’re up against. It’s us that He has chosen to do it and He will equip us, and we don’t have to be perfect right from the start, but He will equip us and we will grow.
How about I pray for the Gracewriters before we finish.
Heavenly Father, we just thank you so much that we can meet together around your throne as your people. As your writers we are weak and human and yet we also bear your image, and we are indwelt by your Holy Spirit. It’s a complicated thing and sometimes we struggle with it, but we just thank you so much that you are with us. That you give us really useful and important things to do. We pray that you will lead and guide us and strengthen and sustain us all through these projects. Help us to connect and encourage and support one another and to bring glory to your name through the things that we do. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Alison Joy and Donita Bundy, thank you so much for being here on the Gracewriters Podcast today. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time.
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