Brush Away the Sand

The writing group to which I belong, the Hunter Story Creators presented a session at the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival.  The session was titled ‘How to Make Your Writing Pop’.  My part of the presentation offered an approach to self-editing your work.  My writing mentor, Karen Whitelaw cites someone who calls self-editing, Brushing Away the Sand. My approach to brushing away the sand includes eight (8) steps that I personally include in the self-editing process. I’m happy to share them in the hope that you may find them helpful.

I go through my story and look for the following:

  1.  Changes in tense.  It is easy to unwittingly change tense in a short story.  For instance, you may be writing in present tense: She lifts the lid off the saucepan and stirs the soup.  Bill comes into the kitchen and asks, ‘What’s for dinner?’  She wiped her sweaty brown and glared at him.  Watch for tense changes particularly following dialogue.
  2. Dialogue tags.  During dialogue it needs to be clear to the reader which character is speaking.  Often we include, ‘he said…’, ‘she asked…’ etcetera.  But this isn’t always necessary because the reader can often determine who is speaking without having to be told, especially if there are only two characters involved.  I delete any unnecessary tags because they can interrupt the flow or pace of the story.
  3. Habitual words.  Like most, I’m a creature of habit.  I use certain words out of habit when I speak and also when I write.  Words such as ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘really’, and ‘so’.  C. S. Lakin, an author and blogger refers to these words as ‘weasel words’.  I sometimes unconsciously start sentences or phrases with weasel words as well.  For example:  ‘It started to …’ or ‘He began to …’, ‘It seemed as though …’, or ‘It appeared as if …’.  I delete these habitual words and phrases wherever it is possible to do so without changing the intended meaning.
  4. ‘-ing’ words.  Every story will make use of present participles.  They are those ‘doing words’ that end in ‘-ing’.  But over-liberal use of them can weaken a piece of writing.  Take the sentence, ‘Noticing the floral box sitting on the table, Vera kept glancing at it all through the presentation.’  Compare it with the following: ‘Vera noticed the floral box on the table and glanced at it throughout the presentation.’ Easier flow. Solid verbs in place of ‘-ing’ words can strengthen a sentence, allow it to flow better and increase the pace.
  5. Qualifiers and modifiers.  If I wish to describe a box, for instance, I might write:  ‘This is a rectangular, pin, green and cream floral box.’  The noun in this sentence is ‘box’ and the qualifiers, or adjectives are ‘rectangular’, ‘pink’, ‘green’, ‘cream’ and ‘floral’.  The adjectives describe some qualities of the box – in this case its shape and colour.  But are all those descriptive words necessary?  Unless for some reason it’s vital for the reader to know the shape and colour of the box, I would delete some, if not all of the adjectives, leaving simply, ‘This is a box’.  Now, if I wish my character to interact with the box, I might write: ‘The woman suspiciously and carefully opened the lid of the box.‘  The character’s interaction with the box is shown by the verb ‘removed’.  The modifiers, or adverbs tell us how the character ‘removed’ the lid – in this case, ‘suspiciously; and ‘carefully’.  Because as writers we are always exhorted to ‘show don’t tell’, I would prefer to show the character’s carefulness and suspicion.  Perhaps then, I might write, ‘The woman’s eyes clouded with suspicion as she lifted one corner of the lid and peeped into the box.’  When self-editing, some writers delete every adverb and adjective and then replace only those that are essential to impart the intended meaning.  Otherwise, strong nouns and verbs can serve the purpose.
  6. Passive sentences.  Take the sentence: ‘There were heaps of people ahead of her in the queue’.  This sentence is passive because the character isn’t taking any action.  The author simply tells us she’s there in a queue.  Compare the passive sentence with: ‘She joined the end of the long queue.’  Here the sentence is active because the character is doing something active.  I try to avoid starting sentences with ‘There was …’, ‘It is …,’ etcetera.  When I self-edit, I restructure passive sentences to make them active.
  7. Awkward and wordy sentences.  Before self-editing, my stories are always several hundred words over the limits set in writing competitions.  To submit a story that’s over the word limit invites the judges to bin it.  Therefore I have to rely heavily on my self-editing techniques to avoid this.  Taking out unnecessary tags, habitual words, ‘-ing’ words, adverbs and adjectives goes some way to getting closer to the limit, but seldom far enough in my case.  One effective way of paring back words is to reword or restructure sentences.  For example, ‘Bernice felt the wedding ceremony tugged at her heartstrings because it was spiritually uplifting.’  Awkward.  Compare with, ‘The wedding ceremony was spiritually uplifting and tugged at Bernice’s heartstrings.’  Three words less in version two.  And the ideas in the sentence occur chronologically or in a linear sequence.  Bernice feels her heartstrings are tugged as a consequence of the uplifting ceremony.  Also, when paring back consider whether a single word can replace a phrase of several words.  For instance, ‘He heard a loud explosion’ versus ‘Boom’.
  8. Punctuation.  One of my stories was accepted for publication in last year’s Grieve anthology.  Authors were asked to self-edit their stories prior to publication and in particular to consider use of commas.  In a short 500-word piece, I was able to delete 11 commas without affecting concepts or meaning.  It is recommended colons, semi-colons, dashes, ellipses and especially exclamation marks be used sparingly.  Therefore, as a final step, I go through and delete excessive forms of punctuation.

    And now my story is tighter, flows at an easier pace and fits the word limit.  The ‘sand is brushed away’.  And hopefully my writing pops.