Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Murder Mystery

I’m back and what better way to celebrate the new year than by going back to an old one. Make sure you’ve had your jabs, we’re going time travelling!

 

Ingredients:

  • One suspiciously ahead-of-their-time detective
  • A team of loyal assistants who can be shuffled into the following categories:
    • Dependable muscle
    • Slightly shady rogue
    • Science one
  • A noble patron who is kind of the boss but can’t say ‘turn in your badge’ because badges haven’t been invented yet
  • Urchins
  • A sinister yet attractive lady
  • Someone who will describe things as ‘most irregular’
  • About a dozen people who are there to show how backwards history can be
  • A couple of well-known historical figures for our detective to chat to
  • One historical backdrop, complete with smells
  • MURRRDERRRR

 

Method:

  1. Unroll your historical backdrop behind our detective. Allow the reader to experience the sights and many, many smells of The Past.
  2. But oh no, what’s this? A crime?
giphy chipmunk
Dun dun DUUUNNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Our noble patron tells the detective to solve the murder. We don’t know why they’re in charge of murder-solving, but they are, and they have a special office for it.
  2. Our detective assembles his trusty crew. Time to investigate!
  3. Go to the crime scene and look around, but y’know, historically. This basically means you will have to bribe everyone to tell you stuff and that the crime scene will be in an absolute state.
  4. A sinister yet attractive lady turns up. She almost certainly has a Secret, but it’s okay because secrets are hot.
  5. Introduce your detective to some historical figures. One of them will have an original character attached to them in some way but they definitely won’t become important at around step eighteen, why do you ask?
  6. Find a Clue and celebrate in the manner most appropriate to the time period.
  7. Our detective has seen a suspicious character. Better follow them past a bunch of super-famous historical landmarks.
  8. The Clue has led our detective to another important place! Go there and investigate.
  9. Have a chat with another historical figure to pass the time. The sinister yet attractive lady is there, so make sure you look cool.
  10. Oh look, another Clue! But this one links with the first Clue in a way that’s really weird, what could it meeeaaannnn?
  11. Receive a talking-to from the patron. Drop hints that the king is displeased.
2554
Hopefully it’s not this one. (image: theguardian.com)
  1. Examine the Clues. Get the science friend to basically recreate a procedure from modern forensics and at last, a break in the case!
  2. But wait! The sinister yet attractive lady has been attacked by ruffians! We must save her, as this completely proves her innocence and was definitely not staged.
  3. Start feeling all tender and squishy. Perhaps our detective could give up this detective business that he’s only just invented and settle –
  4. HAHA IT WAS A TRAP YOU’VE BEEN BETRAYED
  5. Turns out the sinister yet attractive lady has been in cahoots with the original character from step seven all along. It was them who DONE THE MURDER. Now the detective has been locked up or something while they carry out the final stage of their plan. How will you ever cope with the betrayal?
  6. Escape and foil their dastardly plan, that’s how.
  7. Gather everyone including your patron into one room so you can explain how you solved the murder. Receive a tip from your patron, mope a little about what might have been, but then go back home with your detective pals for some period-accurate snacks.

THE END. Serve with torn edges and stained with a used teabag.

 

Tips:

  • Choose your time period carefully. You want a nice big window between the invention of cities and the invention of a modern police force.
  • Make sure your background is really, really gross. Bonus points for every passing character with syphilis.
  • Spend at least the first fifty pages just pootling round, showing your readers the sights. They definitely won’t get bored!
giphy table
GET TO THE MURDER DAMMIT (image: giphy.com)
  • Have at least one character addressed as ‘my liege’.
  • Not sure how to solve a mystery without modern methods? That’s fine! Just make your character use modern methods, but y’know, historically. Have all the other characters describe their methods as ‘unconventional’ and all your bases are covered.
  • Anyone who coughs is a goner.
  • Pay particular attention to language. Don’t say ‘hello’, say ‘good morrow’. Don’t wear ‘trousers’, wear ‘breeches’ or ‘hose’. Swear all you like, it’s authentic, but never, ever do it in front of a lady. You animal.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

William Fleetwood strode through the workroom doors and threw his handkerchief down on the alchemist’s table. It landed with a clatter. “There,” he said. “Best I could do, I’m afraid.”

Mortimer Banks put on his magnifying spectacles and opened the handkerchief up with a pair of tweezers. Wrapped up in the lace-edged cotton were about a dozen nuggets of misshapen metal. Mortimer poked one, experimentally.

“And they’ve not been contaminated?”

Fleetwood sat down heavily and got out his pipe. “It’s a clean hanky, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mortimer took off his spectacles and gave him a look. “You know perfectly well that is not what I meant.”

Fleetwood took a puff on his pipe and tried to keep his temper. He took off his long, curly wig, scratched his head and propped his feet up on the tea-chest. “They’re as clean as they can be, considering where I found them.”

Mortimer went pale at the memory. The misshapen metal had been found stuffed into the mouth of Colonel Victor Timothy Gonnairgh – or rather, into the mouth of his corpse. Fleetwood thought Mortimer was being unnecessarily squeamish. After all, he’d given them a wipe.

“I hope you at least wore gloves,” muttered Mortimer, turning back to the metal. “There are the prints of many fingers here…show me your hands.”

Fleetwood held out his hand. Mortimer peered at them and made a disparaging noise.

“Yes,” he said, “I can clearly see the prints of your fingers, but there are others…if only there were some sort of base in which to store all this data. With some sort of searchable engine, the task would take but a moment…”

“Have you such an engine?”

“Regrettably not. Perhaps if my first laboratory had not been burned by that ogre Cromwell and his men – ” They both paused to spit extravagantly. “ – then I might have been equal to the task. Alas, I shall have to make do with what Lord Fitzffortescue affords me.”

“Cheer up, old man,” said Fleetwood, puffing on his pipe again.

“Hmm.”

Mortimer turned back to his bench and started boiling something in a beaker. He started dropping the lumps of metal into the beaker one by one, and then taking them back out again. “Did the maidservant say anything useful?”

“Not a jot,” said Fleetwood. “Dreadfully upset, wonderful employer, the usual. I happened to mention Cromwell –” They spat. “ – and she turned quite pale, but I couldn’t get anything out of her. Nothing that would satisfy Lord Fitzffortescue, anyway.”

Fleetwood’s patron, Lord Fitzffortescue, was a demanding man who took orders only from the king, having helped him back to power after the fall of Cromwell (Fleetwood spat again, just to be sure). He had charged Fleetwood with solving Gonnairgh’s murder, quickly, quietly, and with minimal bribes.

“Of course she didn’t,” said Mortimer, “not if you blundered in there like you always do. You know, sometimes I think that approach might work well if you had a partner with you – someone who might be able to play some kind of ‘good’ role, while you assume the ‘bad’…”

“A partner, Master Fleetwood?” came a low, female voice.

Fleetwood scrambled to his feet, dropped his pipe and rammed his wig on his head. He turned around and saw Lady Evelyn Hyde smiling in the doorway. With her gown of gold brocade and her shiny auburn hair, she looked very out of place in the cramped, spit-splattered laboratory.

“Lady Hyde! How may I –”

Do call me Evelyn. I hear you’ve been attending to the late Colonel Gonnairgh.”

Fleetwood tried to look regretful and sombre, but also still tall and manly. “It is my sad duty.”

“You must be very brave to look upon such dreadful things.”

“Yes, well.”

Lady Evelyn smiled at him and came closer, brushing past Mortimer’s workbench. “I must say, I would feel very safe if I knew that you were my protector.”

Fleetwood coughed on purpose to make his voice sound deeper. “Would you?”

“Oh yes…”

Just then, Mortimer sprang to his feet, shouting. His beaker was fizzing frantically and giving off a strange, noxious gas. He pointed at Lady Evelyn. “She put something in my beaker!”

She stepped back. “How do you – I mean, what do you mean?”

Mortimer jabbed a finger at the beaker. “You’ve added acid to this! Look, the metal’s all dissolving!”

Lady Evelyn fluttered her eyelashes. “Dear Master Banks, I am sure that I, a mere woman, would never even carry such – what did you call it? Ah-sid?”

Fleetwood sprang to her defence. “See? Of course she didn’t do that, Mortimer, she’s a lady. Why would she even have any acid?”

Lady Evelyn frowned prettily. “Is it a kind of ribbon? I do so love ribbons.”

“She did!” Mortimer wailed, “I know she did!”

“Perhaps it is best if I leave you to your deductions,” said Lady Evelyn, swiftly pocketing a handful of papers. “You simply must tell me what you find out, dear Master Fleetwood. I should be very glad to hear it.”

She left. Fleetwood watched her go with a dreamy smile on his face while Mortimer muttered at his bench. When he started paying attention again he noticed that he was short fifty guineas and three pewter mugs.

“What I wouldn’t give for some surveillance in this place,” Mortimer muttered, “perhaps in some kind of circuitry that could be closed to the public…”

Fleetwood laughed. “Oh, Mortimer,” he said, “what will you think of next?”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)
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November is Coming: How to Survive NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is nearly upon us. Forget Halloween, this is what autumn is really all about: finding an excuse to sit indoors under layers and layers of blankets.

giphy blanket
I cannot create unless I am cosy. (image: giphy.com)

But let’s be real. NaNoWriMo can be a pretty daunting task. The goal is to write a fifty-thousand word novel in thirty days. Fifty thousand. That totals out at roughly one thousand six hundred words per day, and the worst part is that you’ve got to make sure that they’re actually good rather than just stringing lists of adjectives together. It’s pretty intimidating, especially if you know one of those people who insists on comparing word counts.

Fortunately for you guys, I’ve done NaNoWriMo a few times before and have picked up a few tips that might make things easier:

 

  1. Plan beforehand, and only beforehand

Trying to write roughly 1,600 words a day is going to be difficult. It’s a lot of words to get down in one go, particularly if you’ve only got one time window to do it in. But if you don’t know what you’re going to write it’s going to be twice as hard to actually get it on paper because you’ll be working out what you want to say as well as how you want to say it.

This is where your plan comes in. I’d recommend starting this a week or so before NaNoWriMo, assuming you’ve already had the vague idea of what you want your story to be about. Start plotting things out in more detail, including character and setting. If you do it every day, this can also help you get into the rhythm of regular writing. But when you start writing, stop planning. It’s easy to wind up with a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the plot of your novel and no actual text, so don’t rely on this too much.

 

  1. Start your research in October

November is for writing. If you’re writing something which is going to require any kind of research, start it a couple of weeks before you’re going to write. Read as much as you can and get comfortable with the details before you launch into your novel. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been plodding along with a paragraph when suddenly, I’ll go “Wait, when were pyjamas invented?” and it’s off down the rabbit hole I go. If you’re writing anything historical, I’d recommend starting even earlier, but this blog post is going up with less than two weeks until November so NEVER MIND YOU’LL BE FINE.

 

  1. Writing nine to five

WHAT A WAY TO MAKE A LIVIN’

No, seriously. It’d be great. But unfortunately it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have all that time just for writing. Just because you’re writing a book doesn’t mean the world will stop and wait for you to finish it. Realistically, you’re going to have to look at your schedule and try and work out when you’re actually going to have time to write. I’d recommend trying to find an hour each day, either in one go or in short chunks. Be a little flexible – if weekends are always really busy for you, try and find some time on weekday evenings. If you commute on public transport, consider taking a notebook with you and working there. See what works for you!

 

  1. Just do it

When it comes to November the first, just start. There’s nothing more intimidating for a writer than a blank page. It can take hours to come up with a first line (mainly due to all those writing advice blogs which tell you to make sure you have a good first line). But you don’t have time to dither – you’ve got a fifty-thousand-word mountain to climb. Just start, and worry about whether it’s any good later. That’s what the second draft is for.

 

  1. Get on with it

Sometimes, inspiration does strike. Sometimes your synapses are flashing, your neurons are firing and an idea comes into your head like a beautiful sunrise. You seize your pen, your notebook, your laptop and don’t look up for hours – for you, dear author, are inspired.

Ninety percent of the time, that won’t happen.

There are going to be days when you just don’t wanna. You’ll be tired. You’ll get home late. You’ll have a bad day and want to spend your writing time curled around a hot water bottle in front of the telly. But when you’re writing to targets and deadlines, sometimes you’re just going to have to make yourself do it. You have to –

– yes, exactly.

 

  1. Just keep swimming

Resist the temptation to go back and rewrite what you’ve already done. Focus instead on progressing through the narrative and get your key plot points down. This is where your plan can really come in handy (although hopefully having a plan will have helped you thrash out any potential plot holes). If you’re having some doubts about something you’ve already written, make a notes section in your plan and add them to that. That way you’ve kept a record of your ideas and you can keep going without needing to slow down. You can always go back and redraft when NaNoWriMo is over.

 

  1. Keep an eye on your daily totals, but don’t stick to them

There are special NaNoWriMo calendars you can find where the ideal word count for each day is written on them. They measure out the month in chunks of 1,667 words and some people find them really helpful.

nanowrimo_calendar_by_reapthebeauty-d31npzj
Such as this one. (image: deviantart.com)

Personally, I don’t. Some days are going to be better than others, and some days I’m going to come home too tired to do a sentence, let alone like, 160 of them. On those days I write what I can and try and make up the total another day, and I find that works much better than keeping to very strict limits.

 

  1. Details, details

Don’t be afraid to fudge some of the finer points to avoid getting bogged down. Obviously the really important details (i.e., the plot) should be in your plan, but it’s perfectly fine to put in placeholder names for minor characters and places. Just remember to replace these with real names when you’re done and you’ll be fine.

 

  1. More like guidelines

Some people are real sticklers for the rules of NaNoWriMo. I’m not. I once extended my NaNoWriMo project until the New Year because November isn’t over UNTIL I SAY IT’S OVER. I always found I got a lot less stressed about NaNoWriMo when I didn’t take it quite as seriously and that way, it was easier to balance writing with everything else going on in my life.

 

  1. It’s not for everyone

I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a couple of times now and on balance, I’ve decided it’s not for me. I could do it fairly easily when I was a student, but that was because I was on a course where I only had ten hours of class time per week.

giphy nap
It was blissful. (Image: giphy.com)

Now I have a full-time job, I find it way too stressful. NaNoWriMo has taught me a lot about the discipline required to finish a novel, and writing every day has helped me get into some really good habits, but I find the obsession with word counts kind of counter-productive. The structure was really helpful, but now that I’ve taken that framework and made it work for me I don’t find the old model quite so useful any more. I learned a lot, but it stopped being something I did every year a long time ago.

 

 

And that’s it! My advice for surviving NaNoWriMo. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It’s very easy to get swept up in NaNo Fever – it can be really fun, and it taught me some good writing habits which I still use. But I don’t think anyone should take it too seriously. It’s a good way to get into writing longer projects, but it doesn’t have to be the only way you write.

Book Recipes: How to Write Folk Horror

Time for another book recipe! Because it is October, the spookiest month, we’re going to be looking at folk horror. Grab your most flickery torches, we’re heading to the country. But, y’know, the creepy bits.

 

Ingredients:

  • One creepy village
  • A hapless, city-bred idiot
  • Spooky trees
  • A grab-bag full of miscellaneous Celtic imagery
  • Sinister villagers, possibly with catchphrases
  • A beautiful woman who is totally not going to betray the hapless idiot, honest
  • A contrived reason to stop your characters going home or calling the police
  • A bunch of straw, just, like, everywhere

 

Method:

  1. Prepare your creepy setting. Your village should be isolated, surrounded by spooky trees and have a bunch of, like, straw bales and that lying around. Because it’s the country.
  2. Enter your hapless city-boy. It doesn’t matter why he’s here – all that matters is that he is 100% definitely going to die.
  3. Oh boy, sure is spooky in this spooky village! We’re not leaving though. There’s still seventeen steps to go.
  4. Let’s meet some spooky villagers! They like to stand around and say meaningless but creepy things. It’s a quaint countryside pastime.
giphy swan
That and chasing swans. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Introduce your beautiful woman to the hapless idiot. She’s not like the other villagers – she’s hot.
  2. A mysterious thing has happened! Better investigate. Ooh, look at how Celtically spooky things are.
  3. Have another encounter with some spooky villagers. They’ll say cryptic things at you, but it’s probably fine. This is just what passes for fun when you can’t get reliable internet.
  4. Have a brief moment of contact with the outside world. Your hapless idiot could go home, but he won’t, because I said so and this is my blog.
  5. But oh look, here comes the only babe in the village! We can leave later – once we’ve got her number, amirite??
  6. The village’s resident hottie agrees to help the hapless idiot investigate the spooky things. It’s not a trap.
  7. Uh-oh, things are definitely getting spookier! Uncover some sort of vaguely mystic Celtic nonsense that’ll set things up for the final act.
  8. Have an encounter with a spooky villager, but, like, a really scary one. If you end up running through the woods, you’re doing it right.
giphy snow forest
See, Snow gets it. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Oh no, someone has attacked the village hottie and NOW WE MUST SAVE HER. Celebrate by making out a bunch.
  2. One last encounter with the outside world! The hapless idiot is offered the chance to leave, but he doesn’t take it because the clue’s in his name.
  3. Spooky things are happening more often! Almost like there’s only five steps to go…
  4. Uncover the village’s spooky, spooky secret. It’s, like, totally scary.
  5. Oh no, a thing has happened which means you can’t leave the village!
  6. The village hottie reveals that she was working with the rest of the creepy villagers all along! You feel so betrayed – but mainly you feel scared, because they all want to kill you.
  7. Run away! Time for a last-minute dash to safety. Here’s where you find out if all your cardio paid off…
  8. Hooray, you made it! Back in civilisation, you’re totally safe from creepy straw bales and corn dollies – until HAHA SURPRISE THE SPOOKY GOT YOU

The End. OR IS IT??

 

Tips:

  • Always set it in autumn. It is the spookiest season.
  • Don’t feel you have to get specific about the kind of spooky stuff that’s going on. Just make vague allusions to Celtic-sounding things and you’ll probably be fine.
  • Make sure to talk about the full moon at least three times.
  • Keep the technology to a minimum. Googling the spooky stuff is all well and good, but it’s nowhere near as effective as looking it up in a mysterious old tome.
Vampyr
AKA The Buffy Principle. (image: buffy.wikia.com)
  • Always have your creepy villagers say something like ‘you don’t belong here’, or ‘we don’t take kindly to strangers round these parts’.
  • If in doubt, chuck in some vague paganism.
  • Make good use of your agricultural props. Corn dollies – check. Rusty old farm tools – check. Spooky scarecrows – double check. Blue plastic tarps and government-subsidised windfarms – maybe not.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

John turned up the collar of his jacket against the cold. Wind whistled through the trees as he approached the old pub in the distance. The lights in the windows were the only signs of life for miles around. But it would be worth it. In a place like Grimbrooke, he could write his masterpiece.

There was no better place for an aspiring writer. No Internet, no TVs and only one phone line in the whole village – in short, there would be no distractions. True, every time he passed an animal it turned its head and hissed at him, but that was probably just a countryside thing. He’d never been great with cows.

A shape loomed out of the darkness. John flinched and swung his torch around; it was only a scarecrow. Dressed in a ragged old smock and with a carved pumpkin for a head, it had one arm propped up to point towards the pub. Rustling came from the field behind it.

“How convenient!” he said.

He kept walking. The road was narrow and winding, and overshadowed by trees on both sides. Every now and then the path twisted, blocking out the lights in the pub windows, and he was left stranded in the dark. He wished he’d been able to get the taxi driver to take him all the way up to the pub doors. He’d asked, but the man had shuddered and said “Be nowt in Grimbrooke for the likes o’ ye,” and he’d driven off before John had worked out what accent he was supposed to have.

He passed by another scarecrow. For some reason, this one was hanging from a tree by a noose, pumpkin head grinning. He looked at it for a little while and decided that it made sense. It was definitely scarier that way.

There was some more rustling. John ignored it. It was probably just the wind – but then, a man dressed all in black stepped out of the trees. He was old, with a scraggly beard and wide, staring eyes.

He made a vaguely agricultural noise before saying “Tha’d best go home, stranger.”

“Hello,” said John. That was probably what the old guy had meant. “Can you tell me if I’m on the right path for The Grimbrooke Arms? I can hardly see where I’m going with all these trees.”

The old man wheezed at him. “T’Grimbrooke Arms? Aye, ‘tis yonder. But why ye should go tae such a dark and eldritch place, on tonight of all nights…”

John was still struggling with the accent. “Eldritch? Isn’t that just a sort of square?”

The old man waved a knobbly finger in John’s face. “Dinnae come roond here wi’ yer fancy city ways and yer Pratchett references! We Grimbrookers are a proud people, ootsider, and ye’ve no business here!”

“I’m sorry,” said John, wondering how far away they were from the Scottish border, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

The old man nodded and fell into step beside him. “Aye, well, tha knows nowt of the old ways.”

The pub was growing closer now. John could see the little round windows and the big bales of straw stacked up outside. They passed by some more scarecrows. They all had pumpkins instead of heads – one of them with a knife stuck in it – and their ragdoll bodies had been bent to spell out the word ‘NOPE’.

“What are the old ways?”

The old man chuckled, spookily. “If tha goes t’Grimbrooke Arms, tha’ll find out.”

“Look,” said John, finally cracking, “where exactly are you from?”

The old man ignored him and pointed up at the pub. The trees had thinned back to show a small, squat building hunkered down beside a river. There were two more pumpkin-headed scarecrows outside: one holding a long, red candle and a tall pitchfork, and the other holding up the specials board.

“’Tis yer last chance, stranger,” said the old man. “Tha stands at a crossroads. Doon one path lies the familiar, doon the other leads…well, doom. Only tha can choose.”

John shifted his backpack higher onto his shoulder. “I’m just here to write a book.”

The old man looked interested. “Will ye put me in it?”

“If you like.”

“Then I’ll give tha three pieces of advice. One: dinnae trust a crow. Two: keep away fra’ the auld Grimbrooke estate, ye’ll find nae comfort there. And three – ” and now, he beckoned John closer, and whispered in his ear “ – try the special. They’ve a kale and quinoa-stuffed butternut squash yonder that’s to die for.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

Alice-In-Wonderland-I-See-What-You-Did-There
Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)

Editing Tips: How to Do the Words

Let me paint you a picture. You’ve just finished your first draft. Corks have been popped, backs have been slapped, and you’re basking in the rosy glow of a job well done.

Except NO YOU’RE NOT, GET BACK TO WORK.

tenor scrooge
That novel’s not going to write itself. (mage: tenor.com)

There’s a saying that writing is re-writing, and that’s by and large true, in my experience. It’s very easy to miss stuff on your first go round. But it’s pretty daunting to have just got to the end of a project and then realise that you’ve got to go right back to the beginning again. Whether you’re writing a novel or an essay, you’re always going to make mistakes in your first draft, but often it’s quite tricky to know exactly where to start.

Luckily for you guys, I am a mild-mannered editor by day and I am, like, the best at making sentences. Here’s some quick and dirty tips to use as a starting point.

 

 

  1. Check your spelling and grammar…

All the editing lists say this, and it’s because it’s true. If you’re writing fiction, having proper spelling and grammar will help a reader get into the story – they won’t get snapped out of it every time they see a typo. If you’re writing an essay, correct spelling and grammar will make you sound like you know what you’re talking about. (Also one time, at university, our tutor told my seminar group that someone had submitted their dissertation with an accidental swear word in there, so CHECK YOUR TYPOS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.)

 

  1. …but don’t stick to it too rigidly.

This really applies more to fiction than non-fiction, so if you’re writing an essay feel free to skip to the next step. Depending on the type of thing you’re writing, sticking to very rigid grammatical rules can sometimes work against you. By all means use the correct punctuation, but forcing all your sentences to fit into a very regimented pattern doesn’t always work well – it can be pretty boring. Mixing things up a bit in terms of sentence structure helps your writing feel interesting, so go ahead and start that sentence with ‘and’.

 

  1. Take a break.

Go for a walk. Look at some clouds. Have some dinner, or maybe a nap. Anything that will give you fresh eyes, because if you go straight back to the beginning after typing your final sentence, you’re going to be reading what you were going for instead of what’s actually there. Obviously this works better when you’ve got time to take a proper break, but even if you’re writing to deadline this will really help. Maybe just go for a run instead of taking a full week of R&R, otherwise your teachers will be mad at me. 

 

  1. Invest in a thesaurus…

Check your work for repeated phrases. It’s OK to use the same phrase a few times, but if it’s popping up every paragraph you need to re-assess your choice of words. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I used to be so bad for this and only realised I was doing it when one of my friends pointed it out. I was leaning on those phrases so often that they were actually getting in the way of the plot. Fixing it was difficult, but when I did my writing became a lot better.

 

  1. …but don’t pay it too much attention. 

Look. Thesauruses (thesauri?) are great and everything, but they do have a tendency to turn all your prose completely purple. By all means switch up your choice of words, but don’t choose anything that sounds daft.

 

  1. Get some outside feedback.

If you’ve got time, see if you can get someone else to have a quick look through your work. Even if it’s just your mate proofing your essay at the kitchen table, it really helps to have a second pair of eyes. I’ve got my family and friends to read bits I’ve written for as long as I can remember, and they pick up stuff I wouldn’t have even thought of. (Thanks, guys!)

EnragedOrneryDachshund-size_restricted
Ron learned NOTHING without her. (image: gfycat.com)

 

  1. Read it aloud.

Seriously, do it. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of putting stuff down because it looks good on paper, particularly when you’re writing essays. Don’t make the same mistakes I made, and always make sure it sounds like something a human could conceivably say out loud before you hand it in.

 

  1. See how it all flows together.

How are you progressing from one idea to the next? Are you following a chain of argument or a narrative thread when you’re moving between topics? This will really help it feel natural, as opposed to checking things off a list. I always find that reading it aloud helps here too. If new topics are introduced in a way that feels jarring when it’s spoken, that probably means I’m not doing something right.

 

  1. Be picky.

You don’t need to have a cast-iron reason to cut something if you want to get rid of it. It’s your work, and if you decide that it’s time to hack and slash at something you’ve written then chop chop.

original
Calm down. (image: weheartit.com)

It’s enough to decide you’ve gone off something – and if you keep the original version, you can always put it back in if you change your mind.

 

  1. Trust your instincts.

You know what you want to say, so write it down. These tips are just tips – they are by no means the be-all and end-all of editing. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t use it. Equally, if something else on a different list works better, add it to your list of things to look for. Going over your own stuff can be an incredibly personal process, so you’ve got to do it in a way that works for you.

 

And that’s it! These are my extremely basic, starting-point tips for anyone looking for some advice on how to edit their own stuff. Hopefully they’re useful. The most important thing is to find a process that works for you. It may take some doing, and you may want to try a few different approaches, but it’ll help you find a way to make your writing really shine, no matter what it is you’re actually putting on paper.

Now get back to work.