by Joe Moore
The writing process is made up of many layers including outlining, research, first drafts, rewriting, copy editing, proofing, more editing and more proofing. One of the functions that sometimes gets the least amount of attention in discussions on writing techniques is editing.
There are a number of stages in the editing process. Starting with the completion of your first draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. Pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?
Check for clarity. This is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.
Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be considered for the slicer-dicer.
Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to the writing.
Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thought. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.
Next, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.
Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Slice and dice them.
The next type of editing is called line or copy editing. This covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.
On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the copy edit phase.
Line editing also covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?
The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.
Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for awhile. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.
One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels.
Any other editing tips or techniques out there? How do you approach editing; on the fly or after the first draft is complete?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.