Approximately 142 years ago, I wrote this as a guest post over at the web-place of Mr Mark Barnes. It appears here now as it’s wandered home, somewhat drunk, and can’t really remember where it lives anymore. Any typos you might find are intentional … or are they?
On the Importance of Being Edited (and Editing)
There’s a particular kind of arrogance that can trip up a new writer (and sometimes even an experienced one) and it goes something like this, “I just wrote The End, so it’s all done.”
The End, to paraphrase The Mummy’s Imhotep, is just the beginning.
Your first draft is just that: a draft. It needs tender loving care as well as brutal pruning to shape it into a piece that’s not only something someone wants to read, but also something that someone (i.e. an editor/publisher) wants to (a) put into print and (b) pay you for.
Editing is a form of auditing and before an experienced editor/publisher will look at your work you need to make sure what you’re sending to them is the best you can produce. You must go over your own work to make sure that you have actually written what you think you’ve written: are spelling and grammar all present and correct? Does the ending match the beginning? Is the story’s internal logic flawless? Do characters act in a manner consistent with their motivation and characterisation? Are those characters believable and engaging or merely cookie-cutter stereotypes that interest no one? Does the pacing work as it should or does the story have a flabby middle that needs tightening? Are your descriptions apposite and sharp, rather than simply a bruised purple mess? My expertise is in short stories, but most of what follows can ? and should ? be applied to longer works as well. I can’t cover everything here, but I’ll do my best.
The task of self-editing always seems huge, but just like eating an elephant it should be done one bite at a time. I always start with the small stuff because it’s relatively quick and easy and it gives me a sense of achievement that buoys me up to tackle the bigger issues – yes, being a writer is a constant system of sticks and carrots. The basics are always spelling, grammar and punctuation. When you’re reading over a draft, put on your critical thought hat: have you used the right word? Have you written ‘enervated’ when you mean ‘energised’ because they sound a bit alike? I have marked more student pieces with this kind of assured idiocy in them than I care to remember – some crackers I cannot burn from my memory include: “She spent the day begatting a meal for her husband”, “This gave the movement the inertia it needed to move forward”, and my personal favourite, “She danced around on the stage with a feather Boer around her neck.”
Have you used the correct version of words that have different meanings and spellings but sound the same? Your, You’re, Yore? Their, They’re, There? Where, We’re, Wear, Were (as in the Old English version meaning ‘man’)? Flaw, Floor, Flore (Latin for flowers)? A good idea is to keep a list above your desk of words that you know are a problem for you; every time you’re reading a draft, check against the list, make sure you’ve got it right. With any luck, the repeated reminders will help embed the correct meanings in your brain. It’s easy to make a mistake in the first draft – that’s what the first draft is for, making mistakes, throwing the brain-vomit onto the page. What’s not forgivable is to leave those mistakes in there after the second or third draft.
Grammatical mistakes, such as disagreement between your plurals and singulars, most definitely need to be fixed. If you know grammar is not your strong point, then find a writing friend who is good at it and learn from them. Punctuation is also very important: the old saw about “Let’s eat grandma” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a perfect illustration as to why punctuation matters. Also collect – and read! – books such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Mark Tredinnick’s The Little Green Grammar Book or Lynne Truss’s most excellent Eats, Shoots & Leaves. These reference books should sit beside your dictionary and thesaurus.
And for the love of all that’s holy or otherwise, learn how to use apostrophes. Here’s The Oatmeal to tell you how http://theoatmeal.com/comics/apostrophe.
Another problem to look out for is that of unintentional repetitions: you’ve described something as ‘dark’ eighteen times in the space of a page, or seven times in two paragraphs, not because you’re going for a considered repetition to build a rhythm or a motif, but because it was the only word you could think of in your rushed first draft. Remember: the thesaurus is your friend. A lot of unintentional repetition occurs in descriptions or actions, so look for them there first. Replace those repeated ‘darks’ with ‘ebony’, ‘cinereal’, ‘shadowy’, ‘murky’, ‘gunmetal’, ‘charcoal’ … carefully consider the subtle sense you want the word to convey. There’s whole range of alternatives that will add texture to your writing – but don’t go overboard and make a simple sentence read like either an anatomical text or a bad romance novel: “Her heart beat strongly” never, ever needs to be “Her blood-pumping organ palpitated indomitably.” Also to note: don’t just do a global replace of the offending word with a new one.
You also need to develop an awareness of your crutch words – those you fall back on automatically and don’t even think about. Are you a repeat offender with ‘seems’, ‘that’, ‘suddenly’, ‘slightly’, ‘appears’, ‘maybe’? Do they pepper your manuscript like buckshot? Once again, a reminder list above the desk can do wonders to keep these words from cluttering up your work.
Another thing to consider during the self-edit is the length of your sentences, especially if you’re a new writer with less experience in crafting prose. Here’s the thing about long sentences: the more words you jam in there, the more likely your reader will get to the end of the sentence and go “Huh? What was the start of that? I’ve been reading for about fifteen minutes and I forget what the point was.” The more words you put between your reader and the story, the more chance your tale has of failing, of losing the reader. There are some writers who are simply masters of the long sentence: Jeff VanderMeer is one of them, Angela Carter is another. They also know this secret: a long sentence set amongst a bunch of shorter, sharper ones will stand out. It will stand out like a jewel; it will make the reader pause, catch their breath, marvel at the craft displayed. Shorter sentences are great for simply transmitting information and action, as well as keeping the pace cracking along. Longer sentences can be where you make your reader think more deeply – but you do need to frame them carefully to best advantage.
This brings me to Five Dollar Words. Is your narrative crammed with multisyllabic words as a matter of course? Does your sentence look as though it ate a thesaurus? Is said sentence verging on purple, with the prose so ornate and extravagant that it draws attention in the way a lime green mankini does? For the record, that is Bad Attention. The Five Dollar Word is best deployed, like long sentences, in a garden of Five Cent Words. That way it will have more impact.
The idea of minimising purple prose leads to another important characteristic of the short story: brevity. There is an art to making short fiction short and making it work. Henry David Thoreau said “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” This may seem self-evident and you’re thinking, “Well, d’uh”, but I’ve critiqued and edited a LOT of work in which there were too many words for the amount of story contained therein. You don’t have the same luxury you’ve got with a novel, that of great long wandering descriptions: as with life, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, so do it right the first time. Your descriptions must be powerful but precise: if you’re describing a character, give us their outstanding feature/s, the thing/s the reader will remember (or needs to know in order to comprehend the tale). If you’re describing a setting, again, tell us what we need to know in order to understand the story, although brevity doesn’t mean a white room, i.e. no setting given. It means, as my old friend and mentor Jack Dann says, “What does the camera see?” So, if a television camera were to pan through your scene what would/should it pick up?
What must the reader see when they enter that scene? A shotgun on the mantlepiece? Show us – carefully and casually scattered amongst a few other red herring items – what is going to be essential to the story’s resolution. So, if the shotgun is going to be fired by the end of the story, then show it in the first act, remind us about it (subtly) in the second act, then fire that shotgun in the third. My point? When you’re editing/auditing ask yourself “Does my tale do this/work in this way?”
Another important thing to keep in mind is structure. I like a three act structure because it gives you a good guide for where to put which plot points. It’s especially useful for new writers to train them in the rhythms of a short story, so they become second nature. When you’re editing/auditing your work, ask: do all of the parts make up the whole in the way they need to? Is there too much/not enough set up/foreshadowing in Act One? Is there to much exposition/marking time in Act Two? Is Act Three simply too short or too long? Has the climax of the story occurred in a fashion that leaves the reader saying “Huh?” because the writer hasn’t given enough foreshadowing/hints/ breadcrumbs in the previous acts? So, once again, you need to read your draft with a critical gaze: forget that it’s your baby and you love it to distraction; actively look for its faults.
Consistency is also critical, not simply in the spelling of particular words, but in the meaning you give to them and the way you use them. For example, if in your story you’ve allocated a specific meaning of “magical and dangerous” to “weird” and that is a recurring meaning, then keep that word specifically for use in that context. Don’t suddenly use it for “a bit off”. Similarly, make sure a character’s appearance remains consistent – don’t change eye or hair colour unless you’ve also given a very good reason. A one-armed woman should not suddenly be shown using a tool or weapon that requires her to have grown back her other arm, because that says the writer forgot who their character is and the limits within which they must operate. In addition, you must show consistency in a character’s motivation and action – don’t suddenly have your protagonist acting against their grain unless you’ve given them (and shown the reader) why they are doing so.
Finally, when you’ve done all of the above, is it over? Can you send it out into the wide world for publication?
You do another draft, a second, a third, a fourth until you can no longer see any problems.
Then can you send it off for publication?
You give it to your writers group or your trusted beta readers and let them find problems with it.
Why? Because, let’s face it, we’re all certain we know what we’ve written, and the mind will trick us into seeing words that aren’t actually there. You’re likely to see the ghost words because you know the story so well, you’re used to it, it’s like a long-term partner: you’ve stopped looking properly at their face, you’re relying on your memory and you’ve become too lazy to look for something new. Your beta reader, however, as a person who did not write this thing that means so much to you, is not invested in it – they will see omissions and highlight them. This is an essential part of the critique process, for which you must thicken your skin. You must not be so in love with your story that anyone pointing out its faults causes you to burst into tears/flames/defensive protestations about what you really meant/how no one understands your genius. The whole point of editing is to make your story the best it can be. Isn’t it better for a beta reader to find these problems rather than the editor/publisher to whom you’re hoping to sell it?
The other side of the critiquing coin is that being a beta reader for other writers will help you become a better self-editor/auditor. The more you’re exposed to the process, the more you’ll learn, the more able you’ll be to spot issues, and the more all these techniques will become second nature to you. As a matter of courtesy to your beta readers, always do a self-edit before you pass your work on because, quite frankly, if all you’re doing is writing a really rotten first draft then sending it off for someone else to do the hard work then you’re a bad person. No, really, you are.
Now, you’re wondering: is it all over? You’ve self-edited, you’ve let beta readers gnaw on the entrails of your story-child, you’ve patched it up, and you’ve sent this new, beautiful Frankenstein of a thing out into the world. If you’re lucky, someone else will love it too, so surely the editing is over. Surely.
An editor/publisher worth their salt will see what’s wonderful about your tale, but they’ll also see what’s been missed. They might have suggestions that will make it even better (sometimes they will have terrible suggestions, too, but that’s a subject for another post), and you will find your story is being slashed and stitched yet again.
But that is okay, because you’re a professional. You’re tough, your skin is thick, and you’re wearing your Big Person Pants so you can deal with anything. You are okay with the editing because you want your story to be something that takes a reader’s breath away, that stays with them as they go about their day long after they’ve read the last line. You are okay with the editing because it’s all part of the profession. You are okay with the editing because the whole point of editing is to make your story the best it can be.