Whether you’re dashing off a blog post or slaving over your first novel, you know your finished work has to be perfect, right?
If you’re going to wait for perfection, you’ll never publish much of anything.
We’ve all been there: agonizing over our headlines, rewriting our opening sentence or paragraph to create the perfect hook, or searching the thesaurus for exactly the right word. It’s maddening.
Here’s the cure:
Confidence beats perfection every time.
When you write, revise, edit, and proofread with speed and assurance, you’ll be able to press Publish sooner and more often.
Hang on! Let’s race through these tips and checklists for making your writing awesome, not “perfect!”
7 Tips for Getting Started
Does the way you approach your writing and editing matter?
You betcha it does.
While there are laws against distracted driving, writers work with distractions both internal and external all the time. For better results, give these seven tips a try.
- Think first — a lot — then write.
- Shut the door. Great writing is best done alone.
- Turn off the TV. Music is okay. “White noise” can help you concentrate.
- Pick a Style. Follow a recognized style guide to keep your writing consistent.
- Write it all. Whether you’re composing a blog post or a book chapter, write the whole thing before you start editing.
- Picture one person. While you’re writing, imagine speaking to your ideal audience of one.
- Wait for fancy. Hold off on formatting until later drafts.
If you try only one of those, go for #6 and see how much easier it is to find your “voice.”
7 Pointers for Fixing The Big Picture
“Big Picture” issues are potential results-killers. Maybe your approach is flawed, or your introduction lacks a strong hook, or your chapters need to be rearranged.
The key to any of these problems is collaboration. No writer is an island.
- Refine or refocus your outline (or storyboard) before you rewrite.
- Stick to one “voice” for shorter works, especially blog posts.
- For fiction: Apply extra attention to “show” versus “tell”. Telling is saying, “It was a lovely fall day.” Showing is done by sprinkling in key details, only as needed–the crisp, cold air or the crunch of brittle leaves underfoot.
- Resist using more than two ongoing points of view in novel-length manuscripts. (Example: Hero in first-person, villain in third-person)
- Recruit one or more beta readers. “Fresh eyes” make a huge difference.
- If you have more than one beta reader, save some readers for revised drafts later on (especially for novels and full-length non-fiction books).
- Send your drafts to beta readers in your intended final format, whether it be in digital or printed form.
Which of these seven is most important? Hands down, it’s #5.
5 “Rules” to Decide for Yourself, Since Not All Editors Agree
Writing isn’t really black and white. It is, after all, something of an “art”. If you aren’t sure about any of these 5, go with the prevailing wisdom at first.
- Proofread first, then revise, (OR)
- Revise first, then proofread. (Generally preferred)
- Employ a template-defined structure for blog posts.
- For bloggers: A good “story” beats a great List Post. (Definitely debatable!)
- In fiction, always avoid using prologues. (And yet, many authors use them…)
13 Tips for Revising Your Drafts
Each of these tips comes from someone who edits text for a living. Experienced editors approach their work methodically. You can, too.
Most important skill to develop is to focus on one aspect of editing at a time.
- Let your first draft sit and stew for at least an hour before revising.
- Let lengthy drafts sit for even longer interludes. Time improves your objectivity.
- Never settle for a single editing “once-over” — remember, Once is Not Enough.
- Understand the difference between “editing” and “revising.” Editing involves fixing problems with content. Revising includes making small and large structural changes.
- Concentrate on those “big picture” changes before minor revisions (or basic editing).
- Print out your digital files for better and easier editing. (Great for beta readers, too!)
- Read sections of your work aloud to discover phrasing and missing-word errors.
- Watch and listen for clichés. Use hackneyed phrases only for effect and in story dialogue — and even there, not often.
- Similar to #8, look out for mixed metaphors. Those happen easily when you’re writing quickly. Find them and fix them. (And never nip a problem in the butt, okay?)
- The Passive Voice is often boring. (See?) Find and deploy strong verbs in your writing.
- Edit ruthlessly, cutting out repetitive thoughts. Then do it again.
- Save your “deleted” thoughts for possible later use. (This actually encourages you to remove material more objectively, since you won’t view it as “gone forever.”)
- Remember that your spell-checking software is no substitute for editing.
Interestingly, tip #13 may be the most valuable for writers. Keep reading, and you’ll see why.
18 Tips for Polishing Structure and Grammar
We’ve covered the big picture writing trips. Most of the following sections of this post address smaller issues.
Of course, the little things add up, too. These are the points that Miss Middlebrook tried to drill into you back in Freshman English. They still matter.
- See #13, above. Grammar-checking software is only a stopgap measure.
- Divide overlong sentences into two or more sentences; do vary sentence length to improve readability.
- Make sure your bullet points match: verb-noun, or noun-adjective, for instance.
- Use contractions to carry a friendly, conversational tone.
- Kill the Lee family — slowly, ruthlessly, and shamelessly.
- At this time, we don’t recommend you use the word “currently.”
- In order to improve your writing, get rid of “in order to.”
- Determine the best verb for each sentence. Given that advice –
- There is no reason to use the phrase “there is” in good writing.
- Whenever you begin to use the phrase “start to” — stop.
- Careful with those sentence fragments. Just sayin’.
- If you do want to break some grammar rules, do so clearly and with obvious intent.
- To whom it may concern: Work to avoid the “whom trap”. While you’re at it –
- Watch for “who” versus “that.” People are “who.” Dogs and lamps are “that.”
- Be wary of “which” as well. “Our dog, which used to chew the lamp cord…” is correct.
- In dialogue, use “he[she] said” and “he[she] asked” — avoid all other fancy attributions.
- Whenever possible, isolate dialogue from surrounding prose. Your readers will love you for it, though they won’t know why. (This is also why we “pull quotes” in blog posts.)
- If you find a word-error once, use your Find tool to look for more of the same. (Or use the “always correct to …” setting, if available)
What matters most, in grammarly stuff? Read #12 again. It implies you already know the other 17.
10 Pointers for Fixing Problematic Punctuation
…with helpful and (possibly) humorous internal examples.
- Learn how to use commas correctly, or use more periods.
- Decide in advance whether or not you’ll use the Oxford comma in series. (This, that, and the other thing rather than this, that and the other thing.)
- For the most part, avoid the evil semi-colon; use a period instead.
- Important: Use the standard colon sparingly.
- Know the difference between the dash and the hyphen — the long and the short of it.
- Beware the ellipsis … it’s often used incorrectly … and you don’t need it.
- Stick with “double quotes” in most cases. Generally, use ‘single quotes’ only when quoting another speaker within dialogue.
- Don’t use double quotes for “emphasis.” That method actually suggests skepticism.
- Use fewer parenthetical asides (I mean it!).
- Go easy on the exclamation points!! (I need to write this on my monitor! In Sharpie!)
Punctuation causes endless consternation for writers. Use and trust your style guide to help ensure consistency in your writing. When in doubt — opt for period, new sentence.
10 “Filler” Words You Should Destroy Without Mercy
In most cases, you don’t need these–whether in blog posts, short fiction, or full-length works. Of course, you can use these words judiciously for emphasis or tone. Watch for repetition, most of all.
Some word-count or grammar-checking software includes a method to show you which words you’ve used most often. That’s a great way to find and destroy those ten words (and others).
And now, some words your spell-checker won’t catch.
16 Terrible Twosomes to Fool Your Eyes (Not “Ayes”)
One of the biggest proofreading problems for writers and editors is the mess created by homophones — words that sound the same but are spelled differently. Grammar-checking software tries to catch these, but often fails. Our eyes read write passed them. (See?)
- Its and it’s. It’s important. Its head hurts.
- Past and passed. I passed the baton as the runner raced past me.
- Very and vary. If you want to induce change, use vary. Notice that both have an “a.”
- Weather and whether. We get these mixed up only because we’re always talking about the first one. If it helps, imagine a haughty Englishman over-pronouncing the first “h,” as in “whether ’tis nobler…“
- Threw and through. I believe you know the difference. Also, “thru” is not a real word. And watch out for “thorough.”
- All and awl. There is no tool called an “all.” Never was.
- Insure and ensure. One of the most-often misused pairs. Ensure means “to make certain.” Notice the “e” in both ensure and certain.
- Hall and haul. Hey, could you help me haul this box down the hall?
- Oral and aural. Good oral hygiene has nothing to do with aural nerve pathways.
- But and butt. If it hurts or it’s funny or stinky, use butt. Enough said.
- Cord and chord. Music has chords. Amplifiers and woodlots have cords.
- Foul and fowl. It’s rare to hear barnyard fowl use foul language.
- Minor and miner. The 16 year-old coal miner couldn’t drink, since he was a minor.
- Pray and prey. Better pray the foxes don’t prey on your kittens.
- Plum and plumb. Both good words! Plum is always a noun or a color, never a verb.
- Vile and vial. The stuff in that glass vial smells vile!
Even Worse! 13 Threatening Threesomes Guaranteed to Trip You Up
In the English language, three really is a crowd. Homophonic triplets can be every bit as disturbing as that phrase sounds.
Most often, only one of the three causes most of the trouble. The proliferation of texting “shorthand” has only exacerbated this linguistic mess. The best way to route these out is to learn them, cold. (Oops!)
- Too, to, and two. We all know this one, don’t we? Just remember that “too many” needs that extra “o”.
- There, they’re, and their. These three are constantly abused. If you mean “they are” then you have to use they’re, never their.
- Your, you’re, and yore. In days of yore, before texting, your never meant “you are”. Still doesn’t.
- Rain, rein, and reign. Kings reign. Notice that both words have a “g”.
- Sense, scents, and cents. I love this trio! Just watch out for it.
- Peak, peek, and pique. Often violated. Picture the two e’s in peek as a pair of binoculars. And notice the “i” in both pique and interest: “pique your interest.”
- Sight, site, and cite. Cite is the base for citation. Your blog is a WordPress site.
- Write, right, and rite. As writers, we should all know this one, cold. The only tricky one is the last — a rite of passage. “Write on!” is, however, perfectly acceptable.
- Meet, meat, and mete. Another tricky one. Your editor will mete out punishment if you get that wrong.
- Pour, poor, and pore. Again, it’s only the final variation that gets missed most often. Match the “o” and “e” in both pore and its synonym ponder. When you pour over information you destroy it!
- Aisle, isle, and I’ll. That one was just for fun. We all remember Gilligan’s Isle, don’t we?
- Not, knot, and naught. That last one means “none.” Go figure.
- Way, weigh, and whey. No matter which way you weigh her, Miss Muffet eats whey. Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.
Those homophone (sound-alike) pairs and triplets may be fun to play with, but they cause more manuscript errors than many of the other editing problems added together. That’s because our eyes read what we expect to see, so words that “sound” correct just slide right on by our brains.
On the other hand, misused punctuation makes the larger impression on our reputations as writers.
I know, learning proper punctuation is boring. Take pains to keep your punctuation consistent. That way, you should at least look like you know what you’re doing.
In an ideal world, every writer would have a dozen beta readers, plus an editor and a proofreader on call.
Unfortunately, you have to find and motivate beta readers — and pay editors.
For most writers, patience is your strongest ally for editing. If you approach the process methodically, you can expect to catch at least 90% of your original mistakes.
If you can include at least two diligent beta readers, you might get closer to 99%. (I had two for this post. I hope that was enough!)
In the end, there’s little sense in trying to achieve perfection, especially if your lack of perfection prevents publication. Do the best editing job you can, and then get back to writing your next masterpiece!
Can you add one more piece of editing advice to take us to 100?
Do you have any other favorite pairs or triplets of homophones you’d like to add?