Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing on which the #WritingCommunity can agree. I suppose it’s a microcosm of the whole of life – there’ll always be at least two sides to an issue and a spectrum of possible positions which ever side of the fence you sit. Assuming you’re not sitting on the fence itself of course.
Editing is one of those things that most writers seem to despise: you’ve got the first draft down on paper, it’s an incomplete mess, and now, somehow you’ve got to impose some kind of order. I have a bad habit of editing on the fly rather than trying just to write and get everything down – but that’s another story…Under the right circumstances (time, quiet, space) I actually quite enjoy editing. There’s something quite therapeutic about bringing order from chaos. That said, there are different kinds of editing. It’s tempting to think that it’s just about catching the typos, the split infinitives, and the fact that you’ve used a particular word three times in two pages (or even two paragraphs). But editing can also be about making sure that the thread of the story is complete, that the story is well balanced, that you don’t change a character’s name halfway through.
So far, I’ve had three very positive experiences working with editors to revise texts. The first was with Rachael Ritchie who helped enormously in getting ‘The Cave of Legix’ into shape for inclusion in The Crux Anthology. The second was working with Cally Worden of Enigma Editorial: Cally was the first professional editor that I have worked with to review a story that I had a particular destination in mind for. Whilst the story is yet to be published, that’s more down to me as I need to finish some extensive revisions, because Cally helped me to see where there were some significant flaws in the story. Don’t get me wrong – Cally was incredibly supportive, and made me feel that the story was worthwhile working on. Most recently, I’ve been working with Jaime and Liz of Cardigan Press to polish a short story for their debut anthology – they’re great at letting the writer’s individuality come through, but absolutely insistent that the writing is top quality.
I’ve previously mentioned that I sometimes use Hemingway Editor as part of an editing strategy, and Debs has done a great comparison of various routes to listening to what you’ve written. But today I thought it might be helpful to look at how to edit in terms in deploying various strategies to get into the text and tinker with the nuts and bolts of it. In fact, thinking about your text as a piece of machinery is not a bad way to go. We’re trying to get from the workshop, where there are wires that are the wrong length, redundant bits that were part of an initial concept, important bits that fall off because they’re not fixed down properly, to the sleek, elegant form that’s going to convince people to buy it.
Editing strategies are going to depend a little bit on how long the story is that you are trying to edit. Micro or flash fiction is obviously fairly easy to see what’s going on – your entire story might be less than one screen’s worth of words. Once you are over a couple of thousand words though, and certainly when you are talking about novella and novel length stories, it’s seldom a good idea to begin with a complete read-through straight off. Like any exercise, editing requires a warm up – whilst your writing muscles may be lovely and flexible from getting all the words down on the page, you will pull something if you try to dive straight into editing. You will be using a different set of muscles now.
My warm up exercise for editing comes courtesy of Victoria Griffin and her ‘10 Red Flags‘. I work through the list sequentially: using ‘find’ I look for every instance of a particular word and delete if it’s unnecessary or revise the text as appropriate. This is also a handy way of dropping you into the narrative in random places and engaging with what you’ve written previously. What might have seemed like a lovely piece of text when you wrote it can be shown to be a bit flabby or unhelpful when you look at it again. Likewise, something that might have felt like you only put it in to fill a gap might be worth a second look. In either case, seeing it out of immediate context can be helpful in exposing flaws.
An extension of this first step is to check and see if you have any ‘crutch’ words – words that you use repeatedly for whatever reason. Last year we added Word Cloud to our list of Writer’s Resources, and I talked about how you might use it. It’s easy to generate a list of words and how many times they are used in the text. Again, find is your friend.
At some point, you will need to read through the whole thing, and you will probably need to do this more than once. Different people will have different takes on this, but, as an aside, I’m always surprised that people don’t turn on spelling and grammar features in their writing software of choice. It won’t catch everything, and it might flag things that you need to ignore, but I’ve always found it useful for catching a significant number of issues. Anyway, back to the read through. There is a temptation to try and and hack through as much as possible as you can in one go. This is rarely fruitful. Like any exercise, no matter how much you train, there is a limit. Whilst you might get over the finish line, do you really want to be figuratively (or perhaps literally?) vomiting because you’ve over done it? If you try to do too much, there will come a point at which you’re not doing yourself or your manuscript any favours. Depending on your style, concentration, and resolve, you might get through 500-1000 words in a session, but it might be better to think in terms of a scene, or even a time-limit. Twenty minutes is a good session time, and you can always come back to it after a quick brain-break.
If you’ll excuse me, I’ve just noticed that I’ve used the same word five times in one paragraph, so I’m off to do some editing…
But what about you? What are your top tips for editing?
©David Jesson, 2021