Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Self-Editing Isn't Hard--But It's Not Easy, Either

"She said, She thought, She heard, She felt, She knew...Noooooo!"
Writing a new manuscript is exciting. By the time I reach the end, though, I'm usually a little weary of the story. It's easy to think, "Whew! I'm glad that's finished!" But no...I'm not.

Even though I write for an Independent Publisher, my manuscript still needs editing. However, with an Independent Publisher, she nor her staff changes my story. It's as though I am self-publishing, but not doing all the technical work.

We are required, though, to do the basic formatting and editing. In addition, each of us is to have a reader to help find those nasty, elusive writing errors. And finally, an author/editor will help clean it up.

Before I get to that step, I use a set of Self-Editing Guidelines I've had for several years. These are easy ways to pinpoint common mistakes.
For now, we'll look at only one but very important error. Highlight your manuscript to find them and rewrite the sentence.

SEARCH AND HIGHLIGHT "Telling phrases" that indicate Passive Writing:

Wrong: She saw the waiter carry a tray of drinks past her.
Right: The waiter carried a tray of drinks past her.

Wrong: He watched her brush out her hair.
Right: She brushed out her hair.

Other words that also can be changed are:

What exactly is Passive Writing? In easy terms, Passive Writing uses weak verbs, and in this case, "telling phrases." This is another way to describe "Show...Don't tell."

Everything the character hears, smells, sees, touches, and thinks is reflected through POV.

If the author writes, "She saw him grab the money," the writing is telling...and also becomes passive. The writer is telling the reader what is happening.

Instead, the writer should allow the character's POV to explain the action.

(Wrong) She saw him grab the money.
(Right) "He grabbed the money," Mary whispered to Susan.

Even though I believe my writing is clean of such errors, I check anyway. To my surprise, I always find too many instances.

In the manuscript I'm working on now, I first highlighted "saw." Guess what? The word "saw" was highlighted 16 times in a 66,000 word novel.

Each must be reviewed, because all of them may not be an error. Using "saw" in narrative is almost always weak, but using "saw" in dialogue might be correct.

Example I:
Looking toward the west, she saw two riders approaching.
Change to:
Emilie looked to the west. Two riders approached.

Example II:
I'll keep this sentence as is, because it's dialogue:
"Some of the men kept their gazes on Lee, but a couple looked out across the pasture and saw the shooter mount his horse, turn, and ride away over a slight rise."

Example III:
She saw that Lee and Tex kept their horses at a lope.
Change to:
Lee and Tex kept their horses at a lope.

Other highlighted passive words in my manuscript:
watched-23 times
heard-30 times
knew-64 times.

I'm not surprised by these numbers, because it's a common way to write. You might try this test on a manuscript you're working on, if you don't already do so.
I write the same as I talk, and in speaking, I use these words often. But this fact doesn't make it right.

Years ago, a contest judge sent the document about self-editing. She said my story was good but filled with weak or passive writing. I've been forever grateful that she took the time to explain.

I printed the six pages for reference, and now the corners and edges are frayed. The pages have been read many, many times.

As a reader, too, I might find a novel that's too passive, but the story is interesting anyway. In that case, I overlook the errors and read on.
The main idea is to write an exciting or emotional book.

Thank you for reading.


  1. Very helpful post. I have words I search for too. Weak words. Was plus -ing words. For my last book, I added an editing step using a computer program to look for these types of construction. I found it helpful to identify my troublesome words, especially starting narrative sentences with "It" or "There", but I found that all the changes I made did something to the cadence of my words.

    I took a lesson from that. Some changes are good some are not. The best way to edit is to be aware of my mistakes, even search them out, but evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

    And on another note, an author friend recently shared with me that she ferrets out her passive sentences by adding this phrase at the end of those lines "by zombies". If the amended sentence makes sense, then its passive writing.

  2. Maggie--Yes, my post first had three hints, and one was about using "It" as the subject. Then I decided that was too much in one post.
    I study mine, also, on an individual basis.
    I had to laugh about your friend's method of finding passive writing!
    Thanks for commenting. I always value your opinion.

  3. Celia:
    You make good points about how to strengthen one's writing, but I have always been told the examples you listed of the wrong way to do it are examples of filtering rather than passive voice. I was always taught that passive voice is when the object of the action is made to be the subject of the sentence, such as "The ball was hit by the boy." instead of the active "The boy hit the ball."
    I know a lot of people believe that using the word "was" indicates passive voice, but it isn't necessarily true. Saying "I was happy." only indicates the past tense of a state of being and doesn't mean it is a passive voice. At least that is the way it has always been explained to me by English professors I had in college. Feel free, anyone, to smack me down if I am wrong about this as I am not an English major by any means.

  4. JD--Lands, I'm not going to smack you down! The examples you gave seem right to me.
    But if you say, "He was drinking the water," it's passive, that is the author did not use an action verb. So, it should be He drank the water."

    Is this correct? I admit and agree some sentences using "was" are correct--I think I said that.
    Remember, I said that we should make changes on a one-on-one basis.
    The sentence "I was happy" is correct. Yes.
    But the example you gave--"The ball was hit by the boy", should be "The boy hit the ball."--is correct.
    So, I think we're on the same page.
    Case by case decision.

    "Was" in itself is not a bad word. It depends on how it is used.
    Thanks so much for your comment--you make such good points and I look forward to them.

  5. Good post, Celia. I'm planning to sue your suggestions on my WIP when I get back to it.

  6. Thanks, Linda. I really don't mind self-editing...other editors are generally okay, too. Some aren't.
    But I like to clean up a ms.
    Now, get back to your WIP.

  7. No matter how careful I am about these passive writing problems, I still fall in to the quagmire of passive voice. It's great to have a Beta reader who is familiar with good writing techniques and an editor to catch these little critters. Thanks for the reminder and the helpful pointers, Celia.

  8. Sarah--you're welcome. But I think you're a much better proper writer than I am. You do have a good sense of passive vs. active. I have to work at it.
    Anyway, it's always good to reminds ourselves even though we do know quite a lot.

  9. Interesting post, Celia, but I would contend that, as with most things, there are exceptions to the 'rules'. There are times when you need to use the filter words (saw, heard, felt, etc) either for clarification, or to avoid a sentence becoming too contrived. Also, as Maggie has said, making some changes based on the 'rules' can change the cadence of your writing. I think the important thing here is to reduce these filter words, rather than try change them all!

  10. Paula--exactly. That's what I say is true, for sure. You study each instance on a one-on-one basis. No way can you just eliminate all of them.
    Some of these words must stay. But to use them indiscriminately and across the board does not work. That's a given.