Let me start by making it clear that today’s post relates to the EDITING stage of your work only.
The editing stage is notoriously difficult to define, and there’s a lot of good information out there on what constitutes a thorough edit, but I would like to suggest a few ideas based on one of the most elusive pieces of advice out there:
“Edit your work with a cold eye, as though you’ve never read this piece before.”
We’ve all seen this particular gem, but it’s nigh on impossible to do, isn’t it? We’ve been labouring so long and hard on our work the only way we can even hope to get it out of our system is to lock it away for several weeks/months without peeking, but even then an edit may not help much.
We often have the feeling we’re not happy about something, but working out what that something is is beyond us. That’s because we’re still in the role of writer and creator when what we really need to do is switch into the role of the editor.
So how do we do this?
- First of all make a copy of your beloved work in progress then put the original in a safe folder on your hard-drive where, you promise yourself, it is safe from the hands of any evil editors or other detractors. Then rename your copy file using the title of your MS followed by the words Edit Version or any other tag to set the two copies apart. For my copy file I chose the subheading The Massacre, and this pretty much sums up how you’re going to approach this version because you are about to become your manuscript’s greatest foe.
- Mentally adjust to the idea that you can now do an edit without worrying about spoiling your beloved manuscript.
- Now, forget about checking for modifiers, spelling mistakes, character slippage or any of the other familiar edits and think about this:
“Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action“
This quotation (from Kurt Vonnegut btw) is going to be your guiding principle.
This next bit will hurt initially, it will hurt a lot, but the end result will be worth it, just like the sticker at the end of a visit to the dentist. All right, bad example, the sticker was never worth the pain of a visit to the dentist, but this one will be good, I promise.
Facing your duplicate manuscript now I want you to feel the flaws (you may add your own Star Wars quips here). The amount of flaws you feel will depend very much on how honest you’ve been with yourself over your beloved manuscript, and chances are, if you’re like me or most other writers, you have not been honest at all.
Here are just a few of the justifications which we writers silently make for our work (hopefully you’ve never actually asked a reader, agent or editor to bear these justifications in mind, -100 points if you ever have):
1) The beginning is a little on the slow side / confusing / off subject but….
2) I know x isn’t a very strong / interesting (well thought out) character but…
3) The word count is a bit long / short but…
4) This scene doesn’t really add anything to the story but…
5) My spelling/grammar/punctuation needs improving but…
[This last entry is, as far as I can see, pure laziness. Never make this excuse when there are perfectly good writer’s manuals out there that can help you. Sure, we all make mistakes, but knowingly expecting others to turn a blind eye is an insult to all concerned.]
There are any number of excuses we can make for our work and the reasons will be so beguilingly plausible that we won’t notice falling under their spell until we finally listen to that irritating Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder.
- So, armed with your own personal clutch of painful justifications, start deleting. You can’t worry about diminishing word counts or ruining your elegant prose, remember your original manuscript is safely tucked away and will come to no harm, and if you have any resistance left at this point, remember; it’s better you should cut this stuff out rather than let that reader, agent or editor do the job by dismissing your beloved work (because they will). Cut out anything that feels redundant, and my suggestion would be to think of it as closer to amputation than cutting your nails.
- As you begin to massacre your beloved work you will find more errors coming to light, vital errors that are not ‘revealing character’ or ‘advancing the action’. Apply any other sage pieces of writerly advice now and you’ll probably see more truth in them than you ever could have when facing your original beloved manuscript.
You’ll soon find as you begin this process that the pain begins to subside, and before long you will be feeling like a writer on fire, because you are finally discovering the real story in the middle of all those lumpy digressions, the real characters in the midst of those paper-thin extras and it feels good – so good in fact that I’m willing to bet you won’t give that original manuscript another glance.
Happy writing, guys.
If you have any editing tips or thoughts on this article why not drop me a line in the comment box below?