I like editing.
Back in the days when most of my writing output was instruction leaflets for library resources, I enjoyed re-organising paragraphs and sections to hold back information until the student needed it, rather than pre-loading with explanations they didn’t need yet and wouldn’t understand.
Now I’ve broadened my writing scope, I still enjoy taking the story or article that I think I’ve finished and polishing until it shines.
Or at least until it makes sense.
For fiction, we’re advised to edit separately for plot, for consistency, for characterisation, for flow and rhythm… Line–editing and proof-reading (typos, grammar and spelling) should come last of all.
I’m not good at following that advice.
I can’t see an error without wanting to change it there and then in case I miss it next time. (I probably will miss it next time. I’m an inveterate scanner.)
Editing for plot and characterisation are still a challenge, but I’m getting better at consistency. I learned about that the hard way when I sent off a competition entry that began with Geoff’s story and ended with Stuart’s. (A word of warning – don’t rely on MSWord’s Search-and-Replace, useful though it is. Re-check every line.)
Words are precious – don’t squander them.
I enter many competitions (hope overcomes experience every time). These always stipulate a maximum wordcount and I don’t recall ever producing a first draft under the target wordcount.
When editing to meet a wordcount, ask yourself…
- Are there phrases you could express in less words?
- Are there phrases that repeat what has already been said?
- Can you use contractions without compromising your prose style? (eg. he’d instead of he had; or they’ll instead of they will…)
- Do you need both those adjectives or will one do the job?
- Can you find a stronger verb that won’t need that adverb to describe the action?
- Are you including information the reader doesn’t need to know?
With regard to that last point, backstory is a topic in itself, but any that is necessary to the plot is best supplied in small doses on a ‘need to know’ basis (like those instruction leaflets I mentioned in the first paragraph). Don’t churn it all out at once and bore your reader before you get to the action.
Once you’ve cut and sliced, edit again.
- Have you been too enthusiastic and cut things the reader does need to know? When I’ve been living my story for a while, it’s easy to assume the reader knows things I haven’t actually told them in the current version.
- Does your pared-down prose still sound good? For instance, when you’ve removed text, does the same word now appear in neighbouring sentences? Do your remaining sentences vary in length?
- ‘Showing-not-telling’ usually requires more words than just telling. Check that you haven’t edited out your characterisation or atmospheric descriptors. One pared-down story I submitted for critique brought the advice that it would benefit from more detail.
- That last point seems to contradict advice you may have heard that you must ‘kill your darlings’. This refers to those clever phrases you have laboured over the thesaurus to get just right, or the ones that came to you in a poetic flash. The need to adhere to a wordcount helps focus the mind on whether that beautiful sentence contributes to your story or is just window dressing.
Keep a copy of the original.
You may find you’ll want to send it out later to a competition with a more generous word limit. Perhaps you’ve cut so much that you can reinstate some of your gems, but can’t recall exactly how it went.
I find my shortened versions are generally faster-paced and a cleaner read; rarely, have I reinstated a cut once pruned. I almost always find my wordcount reduces with each edit, even when it isn’t a requirement.
The websites below are two of many that offer advice on pruning your prose.
Editing doesn’t all take place on the computer screen. I find different errors when I read my manuscript in print, and more again if I send it to my Kindle for reading.
If you’ve never done this before, attach your document to an email with the subject line convert, and send it to your Kindle’s email address.
If you have a different kind of e-reader, there is free software called calibre which will convert your manuscript to different e-book formats.
Find it at https://calibre-ebook.com/ .
Reading your work aloud helps you judge its flow and rhythm better than reading in your head.
Reading it to others is better still; I become more critical of my writing when reading it out to my writing group.
There are also automated readers you can download free. They sound like robots but help you pick up punctuation failures when the phrasing sounds wrong. Readers like me, who scan-read, have to slow down to the reader’s pace, which helps me notice errors I’d otherwise miss.
The automated reader I’ve downloaded is called Natural Reader, (https://www.naturalreaders.com/ ) but others are available. Most have an online version you can paste your text into if you don’t want to clutter up your computer with more software.
Beware of introducing new errors
Editing means making changes and it is easy to introduce typos such as mis-spellings and duplicated words. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of changing names or places; I’ve even changed genders of some of my characters, so a final reading has become a cardinal rule.
When you think you’ve finished, read it one more time.
What tips can you offer that I’ve missed out?
Which online resources or programs do you use to help with editing?