Everyone teaches Creative Writing these days, but it often looks like no one teaches Precise Editing. We’re all led to believe that creative writing flows effortlessly from our finger tips in an unbroken stream of consciousness. It doesn’t. Good writing is hard work; good, finished writing is down to good, solid editing.
Few texts can fail to be improved by several rounds of re-reading and re-editing, cutting and honing until the best possible version is achieved.
And how do you edit, exactly? Here’s a basic tool set.
Reading in reverse breaks down our natural tendency to read what we expect and not what is actually on the page; miss-spellings and typos. Not much use for content, context and meaning, but it will cover the mechanical accuracy of the text. This falls under proof-reading more than editing, but it does make the editing process more effective by taking out all the mechanical glitches.
Distance. Put your draft aside, if only overnight. Re-read with fresh eyes another time; it’s amazing what a little distance does when you return to a piece you were immensely satisfied with, only to find a half-completed, garbled mess. Re-write, simplify, sharpen.
Unless you’re writing an academic paper or a self-help text, the teaching or PowerPoint presentation rule of ‘tell them what you’re about to say, say it, then tell them what you said’ seldom applies. At best it’s repetition, at worst it’s Amateur Hour. Punch it out clearly, first time, then move on.
Reading aloud can reveal those clunky, convoluted and unclear passages that seemed so clear on the pad or the screen. You may not have the time to read the entire 40,000 word manuscript, but you can spot those difficult, long passages with too many clauses and not enough commas or full stops.
Cut, cut, cut. Brevity doesn’t come easily to most writers. Good, tight, concise and precise text usually comes from ruthless cutting of early, wordy and abstruse drafts.
Value-add. If a word, clause or passage doesn’t add any value in terms of meaning, context, backstory or relevance, cut. There has to be value or a pay off, if not immediately, then as a plant for several pages or chapters’ time. Otherwise, cut.
Justify. See ‘value-add’, above. Justify why that word or passage is there. Does it contribute? Does it fit the subject, genre and tone of the piece? Is it worth the pay-off later on? Is a joke, a lengthy description or a brutal act of violence in keeping with the piece? Is it an unnecessary digression of distraction? If so, cut.
Pretentious, parodic or technical language. Is your use of these appropriate for the piece? For parody, satire, comedy or genre pieces such as science fiction, military adventures, medical or legal thrillers, they may be – in which case you have to be thoroughly grounded in research or completely plausible in your speculation. Will the reader ‘get it’? Will they understand it? Is there language that needs to be simplified, explained, or, re-written in plain English? Few readers relish a show-off. New readers coming to you fresh my switch off.
Audience-appropriate? Sex, violence and profanity may be part of human experience, but hopefully not if you’re in reception class learning to read about Jimmy and Joanie. Similarly, the Trainspotting crowd won’t appreciate a Jimmy and Joanie text, gosh-darn-it.
Don’t be afraid to kill your children. We don’t mean that literally. No minors should be harmed in the process of your editing. This means recognising your little darling phrases, characters or scenes that you become inordinately proud of, but which are actually overblown, out of place or unbalance the rest of the piece. Cut them out or cut them down to size. You may see a literary icon, others will see a caricature, cartoon-cutout or honking great distraction that takes them out of the text they’ve willingly dived into.
All this editing is before we even begin to look a aspects of style and compositions – items for another post.