For some writers, editing is the most loathsome part of the process. For others, it’s their favourite. Yet undoubtedly it’s the most important, and given the rise in popularity of self-publishing, it’s more crucial than ever to know how to edit your work.
A good story is grown. It takes weeks, months, of careful tending and nurturing, uncovering the meanings hidden within, fixing things so characters leap off the page, refining to make the plot and prose gripping and immersive. Just like a seed, a story requires patience and dedication. Look after it well and you’ll end up with a blossoming flower.
“To write is human, to edit is divine.”
1. Put it away
Some write their first draft and think whatever pours out of them in the first instance is Man Booker-worthy. If you can nail a first draft like that then I doff my cap to thee, but for the vast majority of us, editing is necessary. As Hemingway eloquently put it: “first drafts are shit.”
Before you get down to revising, though, there’s something you need to do: put your story away for a while.
“How long you let your book rest … is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks. During this time your manuscript will be safely shut away in a desk drawer, aging and (one hopes) mellowing. Your thoughts will turn to it frequently, and you’ll likely be tempted a dozen times or more to take it out … Resist temptation … When it comes to the correct evening … take your manuscript out of the drawer. If it looks like an alien relic bought at a junk-shop or yard sale where you can hardly remember stopping, you’re ready.”
Stephen King, On Writing.
The point of King’s advice is to allow your mind to forget about your story altogether, so when it comes to that first revision, you’re coming at it with fresh eyes. You’ll notice spelling mistakes and inconsistencies, holes in the plot or jarring bits of dialogue or prose; new ideas that have been stewing in your mind will come to the fore; you’ll see areas lacking description, or notice over-description and info-dumping. With fresh eyes you can see and tackle all of these problems.
2. Attend to major matters first
The master editor Sol Stein recommended in his book, On Writing, that when editing, rather than working through it line by line, focus on the major problems first, such as characterisation, plotting, dialogue, theme.
When revising line by line you encounter a mix of problems, from tiny to significant. When you encounter a major one, your attention is consumed by that and you end up re-drafting whole paragraphs and sections. When you’ve revised those bits, they’re in first draft form. So essentially you’re not working on a third or fourth draft, you’re working on bits of a first draft and bits of later drafts. This is how inconsistencies crop up, which cause further headaches.
3. Adjectives and Adverbs
We strive to write beautiful, florid prose rich with imagery. But if a piece is riddled with adjectives and adverbs it can create problems for the reader, as literary agent Noah Lukeman points out:
- A text filled with adjectives and adverbs slows the pace significantly.
- When the writer fills in every last detail it can be demeaning for the reader, assuming they have no imagination of their own.
- When a series of adjectives and adverbs are used they detract from one another.
- Adjectives and adverbs weaken the noun or the verb when quite often the latter is strong enough to stand on their own.
- Writers that overuse adjectives and adverbs tend to use ones they’ve heard before, sacrificing originality.
- Using too many adjectives and adverbs prevent the reader from making the story their own. A lack of detail encourages the reader to fill in the gaps.
But it’s a problem easily fixed! Here are Lukeman’s suggestions:
- Undertake an exercise of cutting your adjectives. Lukeman suggests three places to look to cut adjectives: (1) Places where more than one adjective or adverb is used. Remove all but your strongest, the most unusual. (2) Cut the clichéd adjective, e.g. “a hot day.” (3) If you’ve used any unusual and interesting nouns or verbs, lose the adjective. Have faith in the noun and/or verb!
- Consider replacing an adjective with a comparison, e.g. a metaphor or simile. An example from Lukeman: “He ran a clean, well-organised office.” “He ran his office like a ship.” The occasional use of a comparison enriches your prose, making it more relatable for the reader.
- Think of stronger nouns and verbs to eradicate adjectives. For example: “He was a tall man.” “He towered over everyone else.”
This isn’t to say adjectives and adverbs should be banished to the depths of hell. They have their place. Think of them as a fine seasoning. Add too much and it spoils the broth.
4. Showing v telling
Don’t just say a character hates someone, show it in their actions. Do their jaw muscles tighten? Do they clench their fists? A piece in which we are merely told about how a character feels isn’t engaging.
In showing us something, you can cut out sentences of info-dumpy description. Lukeman gives a good example. Rather than telling us a character is a thief, why not show him stealing a twenty-pound note. Allowing the reader to read into these actions is infinitely more interesting and engaging.
To overcome this problem, consider the following:
- Look for areas of excessive description, such as when characters are introduced for the first time. What can we glean from a character’s actions?
- Replace information with actions or events. An example provided by Lukeman is to change a sentence which says that a character’s spouse is abusive, to one in which the spouse is attacking the character.
- When thinking of actions to include, seek to achieve some ambiguity. Did a character take a twenty-pound note because they’re a crook, or because they’re hungry and desperate?
Telling does have its place, however, particularly in the likes of short stories. Telling can help progress a plot. Aim for a healthy balance between the two.
5. Passive voice
When writing first drafts it’s easy to slip into the passive voice. You can read my guide on how to defeat it here.
6. The opening paragraph
With the opening paragraph, you either win your reader or lose them. A story needs a good hook, something which grabs the reader, which makes them ask questions. In Raymond Carver’s short story, Why Don’t You Dance? the piece opens with this:
“In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.”
Why is there a bedroom suite in his front yard? What kind of drink is he pouring? Alcoholic? Why? From the off we’re asking questions, and we want to know more.
Another way to create intrigue is with dialogue. When writing dialogue forget about the reader altogether. Live in the minds of the characters. They’re having their own conversation, the contents of which they know. It’s more interesting for the reader to act as a fly on the wall, to encourage them to think about what’s being said, and again to make them ask questions!
Spend time on your opening paragraph, heck your opening page. It’s by far the most important of all. It’s your one shot to win your reader over, to tie them down to your book.
7. ‘Kill your darlings’
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
You’ve almost certainly heard this before. What does it mean?
You’ve written something you absolutely love—a beautiful sentence or passage of prose, a vivid description of a person or place—but it doesn’t work. Your reader doesn’t get it. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. So kill it, banish it from your story. Be as ruthless as Napoleon.
Don’t incinerate those pretty gems, though. Save them in a word doc or scrapbook; they’ll find their place eventually.
Books on editing
Here are a few helpful books on editing. If you know of any others, please share!
Stein On Writing, Sol Stein
The First Five Pages, Noah Lukeman
On Writing, Stephen King
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr.
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
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