March 18, 2013 by kristin
Cross-posted from KirbyHowell.com, where I was the guest blogger this week.
I love writing, but editing comes in a close second. Very close. Writing is like mining for gemstones, but editing carves them into sparkling facets.
So when my dear friends, Dana and Jessica, who make up the writing team Kirby Howell, asked me to edit their YA novels, Autumn in the City of Angels and Autumn in the Dark Meadows, I was happy to oblige. Editing their work turned out to be not only a favor to them but to myself. It helped me develop and solidify some new editing techniques, and it drew my attention to potential problems in my own work.
I want to pass on some of what I gleaned from the process to those who might not find editing the natural delight I do. 🙂
Read and edit other writers.
Read books on writing, editing, outlining, crafting a novel, finding an agent, writing query letters, etc. But also, read other writers’ work, both published and unpublished. The published will show you where you’re aiming (though don’t use “Charles Frazier did it and he won the National Book Award” as an excuse to keep around excess verbiage – I aim this at myself). The unpublished will help you hone your editing skills, because you’ll notice familiar problems you were once too close to see in your own work.
Reading other people’s stuff takes time away from writing and editing your own. But it gets you out of your writer bubble, which is a lonely echo chamber you need to escape now and then. Find a writing group locally or online, volunteer to be a beta reader for another writer, make an edit-in-trade agreement with another writer or writers. I’ve recently discovered that Twitter is a great place to find and connect with other writers. I interact with Dana and Jessica on the fancy Google+, too.
But be careful who you choose to work with. If a sample of a person’s writing indicates they are way below par, the relationship won’t help you. Make sure it’s a fairly even trade.
CTRL+F and SmartEdit.
The CTRL+F command has become my editing best friend. I’ve always used it to find and replace the names of characters or places, and to look for inconsistencies (Ex. Wait a minute? Did I say that character’s hair was blonde earlier?) and redundancies (Ex. Wait a minute? Did I already tell that character’s back story?).
Now I also use it to make several passes through the document, looking for specific overused phrases. I started doing this with the tool SmartEdit but found it too tedious to go back and forth from SmartEdit to the document to make changes. I still often start with SmartEdit to see which overused phrases the writer favors, then find them myself with CTRL+F.
We all have a few favored phrases that seem to flow from our keyboard and over-salt our work. My greatest culprits of overuse? “I could see” and “for a moment.” In my novel’s current incarnation, they are each present 28 times, about once every two chapters, considerably less times than were in my first draft.
A good standard list to look for:
- “that” (which can often be eliminated)
- “could see” (which can often be reduced to “saw” or rewritten entirely just to show rather than tell what the narrator is seeing)
- “could hear” (same deal)
- “could feel”(which can usually be reduced to “felt”)
- any “had” construction.
Removing or simplifying those few words and phrases across the span of a novel can greatly reduce passive voice and make your novel sharper and more concise.
Rinse and repeat.
Back in my magazine editor days, I basically read through an article a few times, editing as I went. That was sufficient for a few-page article, but I need to do more for a 350-page novel.
On my first read-through, I catch the obvious problems – some typos, clunky wording, back story being explained more than once – but I often get caught up in the story and forget to pay close attention. Tracking changes in Word, I quickly fix any little things and flag larger issues with a comment.
Next, I do my several CTRL+F passes and viciously chop anything I come across that’s unnecessary. It’s easier to be strict when you’re hopping all over the document than when you’re in the story, especially if it’s your own darlings you’re sending to the killing fields.
Third, another read-through. This one is slow. Methodical. I ask myself questions like, “Could these two words be replaced with one?” and “Do we really need a dialog tag here?” I also make sure the story flows from beginning to end without leaving loose ends dangling, guns left unfired, etc.
I’m usually a bit sick of the story at this point, and that’s a good thing. It renders down my patience for shenanigans until I’m laser-focused. I want everything out that slows me down, makes me hang up and wonder “huh?” or wrinkle my nose at an awkward turn of phrase. I want the sentences to hum along one after another until they carry the readers to the end. And then make them wish they could keep reading.
When it’s someone else’s work, I stop there and send it back to the author, with the comments left in place so they can fix it. If it’s mine, there’s round four and five and so forth. My current novel is on draft seven. I named the file “final,” but I know I’ll probably get antsy as the agent search continues and edit it again.
So maybe tip number four should be “unleash your inner perfectionist.” My house isn’t perfectly clean (or even close), my hair has that slept-on-when-wet look, and my child sometimes goes to pre-school with breakfast goo on her chin. But when it comes to the written word – eek, obsessive. I want every word and comma in its proper place, and I still cringe over a tiny error I made designing my college newspaper TEN YEARS AGO.
And I think this is one place it’s okay to let that psycho perfectionist demon run rampant. When you’re querying agents or trying to entice new readers, you have precious few words to do it. Every one of them needs to count.
I now have a new post with another editing tip: The Kindle Edit
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