A Pirate’s Dozen Decrees for Self-Editing

To celebrate the upcoming season of Black Sails (what? You aren’t watching Black Sails???) I asked friend of the blog and editor extraoidinaire Julia Willson stop by to share some helpful insights about editing yourself – and she doesn’t mean holding your tongue at parties!

Enjoy these helpful tips!

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Before you ask, AYE—pirates write, too. Vivid tales of life at sea, buried treasure, and cannonball battles. The occasional drunken poetry. And limericks, lots of limericks.

So they are well-qualified to weigh in on the topic of self-editing.

As to your next question: “Blimey! I’m a mighty pirate. Why would I need to edit my own words? Isn’t that what the scurvy editor is for? Why am I shelling out all these doubloons then?”

Well, imagine that your pirate ship is in need of repair. All those cannonballs and rough weeks at sea have taken a toll. Prior to enlisting the assistance of a ship builder from the mainland, would you not prepare your vessel as much as you could? Clearing out cabinets, removing tabletop clutter, pushing chairs and tables aside.

Oh, and removing any lingering dead bodies from the brig and other common areas, of course. Those blood stains are hell on an oak floor.

That way, the builders can come in and immediately get to work. Also, it keeps your fragile and valuable items (gold, jewels, swords, and the like) safe from breakage or damage.

For us pirates, it saves a good deal of time and expense. It also lets your mates know you are being supportive and a good collaborative partner. You know…in case they might need to return the favor someday, savvy?

So, here’s our dozen decrees of self-editing —

heed them or beware!

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Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum… Or coconut water, a kale smoothie, whatevs. The important thing is for you to sit back, chill, and not look at your manuscript for a while. You’ve looked at those words so many times by now, your brain thinks they are perfect. So you need time and distance to see them with “fresh eyes”. Especially if you’re wearing a patch on one of them.

Check the basics. Use your spyglass (or the Find feature on Word) to search for double spaces and give one space the old heave ho. We modern pirates adhere to the code of single spaces after all periods and other punctuation. While you’re at it, swab the deck of random capitals or obvious misspellings. Add common spellings to the online dictionary so it “learns” your character names, etc.

Nix crutch words. Are there certain words that you use way too frequently? Find and Replace. Even better, grab a thesaurus and create a list of creative, alternate ways to say the same thing. Why? You don’t want your readers discovering an overused term, then making a game of counting how many times it’s used, instead of paying attention to your brilliant story. Moral: Don’t use crutches unless you have a peg leg.

Even pirates make mistakes. Every landlubber has their weaknesses. Certain word spellings that always stump them. (Hmm, affect or effect?) Usage rules that seem trickier than others. (Does that comma go inside the quotation marks? Aaargh!) Be aware of your most common errors, and make note so you can pay special attention to them in all your writing.

Tell your mates what it means. Are you using an acronym, initialism, or jargon that your readers might not understand? (No, Davy Jones’ Locker is NOT where Davy stores his gym gear.) Define each term clearly by putting yourself in their boots.

Style Sheet: Your Treasure Map Professional editors typically create a style sheet for every project. This list includes preferred spellings, usage, and formatting, to ensure consistency within the document and agreement between the author and editor.

If it’s passive, it might need to walk the plank. Sometimes it’s okay to use passive construction, but generally be on the lookout for any form of “to be” (was, were) and see if you can revise to make the sentence more active and engaging. Which do you prefer? “The booty was discovered by Blackbeard.” OR “Blackbeard stormed the shores with his men, who discovered the booty where X marked the spot.” (Aye…I said “booty”…har har)

Speak it aloud. Even if you’re the only one listening, hearing your writing spoken out loud helps you catch all kinds of things, like repeated words, redundancies, or awkward phrasing. Polly want a cracker? I’ve heard that one enough for a lifetime.

Ne’er rely on weak words. A strong writer, pirate or no, seeks to avoid words that are weak and wishy-washy. Like “really” or “very”, or excess uses of “that”, “then”, or “of”. We prefer to use more dangerous and exciting words like “menacingly”.

Orderly appearance. While we pirates don’t always look our best while out on the high seas, we try to look presentable before we go ashore to greet others. (Well, by “greet” I mean pillage and plunder.) Climb up to the crow’s nest for a high-level view. Make sure your formatting is clean in terms of tabs, line spacing, and font.

Call your editor, mate!

So, what’s the key to a treasured manuscript that is clean and ready for editing? It’s been in front of you all along. Look at the first letter of each point above, reading from top to bottom, and ye shall find it . . .

[Cue pirate shanty—I’ll dance a jig while I wait.]

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Julia Willson

That’s right—ye have it: consistency. If there’s one point you must remember, BE CONSISTENT. With your spellings, word usage, and formatting. Your point of view, your tone, and your author’s voice.

And if you decide the life of a writer isn’t quite exciting enough, just look for that Jolly Roger flag. We’ll be glad to have you aboard.

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As always, Julia’s insights will help you a LOT. When you need that helping hand, she’s the one to turn to. Stop by her site EditsbyJulia.com. She’s a freelance copy editor and proofreader working in fiction and nonfiction.

16 thoughts on “A Pirate’s Dozen Decrees for Self-Editing

  1. Thank you Dan. These lessons from the pirates that sail the seas, and like our writing, sometimes it a little rough. Hence the editing. I need an editor, for formatting, line spacing, and a few cosmetic touch ups, but although most writers do have an editor, go through their whole story with a fine tooth comb, I personally rather no one alters my words or thoughts, or even takes out some of my words. I am rather possessive of my thoughts and don’t want them discarded. I am comfortable editing my own work. Some might disagree, but that is my take on editing. Happy sailing in your writing Dan, and may your seas be calm and edited. Brenda

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great article! I second the advice on reading aloud. Even after I’ve edited (I *thought*!) a chapter to within an inch of its life, when I read it out loud at my critique group, I still hear problems I didn’t see. Especially repeated words (gee, did I just say “looked” about six times?), but also long dull stretches. If I’m reading aloud and *I’M* bored, that’s a bad sign. We also find that if we say a sentence differently than how it’s on the page, we should probably have written it the way that’s more natural to say.

    I’m curious about the style sheet. Am I really allowed to have preferred spellings, usage, etc.? How far does that go? I feel filled with editorial power now, watch out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joy, reading aloud is kind of my favorite part. So much easier to hear whether it flows or clunks. (Try different accents for even more fun! HAHA)
      The Style Sheet is something I create for each client based on author preferences and “correct” spellings and usage. The world rarely agrees 100%, so for example if you’d rather NOT capitalize “internet” even though many people still do, that’s fine! We’ll add it to the list, and I’ll make sure they are all consistent. Some authors like to use sentence fragments. Like this. Others feel strongly about using singular “they” instead of he/she.
      Now, if something looks funky or awkward, I will make a note of that. Because ultimately, you want to make sure readers can focus on your brilliant story and not get caught up with confusing spellings. But you, as author, have the final say–after all, it’s YOUR BOOK!

      If you’d like to see a sample Style Sheet, message me your email address and I’d be happy to share!

      Julia (Tatnall Willson)

      Liked by 1 person

    • And that is absolutely your right, Katie! While it might be a little distracting to some (likely younger) readers, as editor I would just confirm that as your preference and ensure they were all doubles for consistency. 🙂

      Julia

      Liked by 2 people

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