What is editing?
Editing is often thought of as a cold, dry, uncreative activity – the part where you take all those beautiful, wonderful – albeit chaotic - words of your first draft and cut them and slice them, and heartlessly toss them into the bin.
This could not be further from the truth.
Editing is just as much a creative process as the writing of the first draft – if not more so.
And just like all writing, there are techniques that can be learnt in order to make the process clear and simple.
As I’ve said before – writing is a simple thing. It’s all about transferring the words and images inside your head to the inside of the head of a complete stranger.
There are two central principles in editing: the principles of Clarity (knowing what you want to say and stating it clearly) and Economy (knowing what you want to say, and stating it in the fewest words – thus aiding Clarity). Editing, fundamentally, is all about asking yourself these two questions: What am I trying to say? and Is this the best way of saying it? Every line of your manuscript – every word – must be judged and assessed in this way.
There are a million analogies to explain the relationship between the writing of a piece and the editing of a piece.
a pottery analogy – first draft is the lump of clay thrown on the potter’s wheel/editing is the shaping of it into the perfect shape
cookery – first draft is the retrieving of the ingredients from the cupboard/the editing is the measuring and the mixing and the cooking of those ingredients into something tasty
getting ready to go out – first draft is when you open the wardrobe and see what you’ve got/the editing is when you choose the clothes and the colours and you shine up your shoes, and walk out into the world
Like I said, there are a million others.
One final analogy . . .
iv) the first draft is what you see inside your head, the editing is the tuning of the reception to enable the complete stranger to see what is inside your head as clearly as possible.
Clarity is about saying things clearly. It is really very simple. It is a case of finding the best words to say what you want to say. In terms of the best words, verbs are, obviously, very important. Try underlining all the verbs in your piece. Are they the strongest verbs? Do they give the clearest picture of what you are trying to describe?
If you have used adverbs – underline those too. Adverbs seek to describe a verb. If you choose the right verb, the strongest verb, you do not ever need to use an adverb. For instance, look at the following sentence:
‘The boy walked slowly down the stairs.’
Think about how the boy looks when he is going down the stairs. What other words other than the rather bland ‘walk slowly’ could we use.
Looking at the verb/adverb structure here, this sentence could be edited to:
‘The boy crept down the stairs.’
Not only does this option replace two words with one (ECONOMY), because the second verb is stronger it gives a much clearer picture of how the boy is moving (CLARITY).
Put all of your verbs/adverbs to this test. And always go for the strongest verb to give the clearest picture. If you cannot think of one, use an adverb – it is not a crime – merely a last resort.
Sorry, let me edit that last sentence . . .
To use an adverb is a crime – try harder.
A word on adjectives . . .
Books for children are bursting with adjectives. Kids are taught at school to fill their writing with them. But, as with much adult fiction, a first step is to unlearn everything you were taught in school about writing. Now highlight your adjectives – as you did your verbs. And put them to the same test. An adjective describes a noun. Are you using the strongest, clearest, most original adjective. Don’t forget, another golden rule: always make your writing interesting. If you do need an adjective, you mostly only ever need one – two at most – to describe something. Make them good ones 😊
A word about sentences and paragraphs . . .
Remember, the act of reading is really an act of listening. When you read something, you don’t see the words in your mind, you hear them. Therefore, the sound of a sentence is really important. This is where reading aloud what you have written is vital. If you stumble over a sentence as you read it out, the reader will stumble over it too.
Solution: rewrite it or remove it.
Some notes on punctuation . . .
Unless you are writing literary fiction, you never really need to use a semi colon. Use a full stop instead. Break it up into two sentences. Exclamation marks are only to be used for dialogue, and even then, sparingly. Remember the golden rule: keep it simple.
Do not be afraid of full stops. They are your friends. Always see if you can simplify your writing by breaking it up into shorter sentences. To generalise for a moment, longer sentences are better suited to descriptive passages, whilst shorter sentences are better suited to action and dialogue sequences. Juggle around, play with your words – are they doing what you envision them to do?
A word about redundancies . . .
It is very common in the first draft of anything to find yourself having said the same thing twice, just in a different way. For instance:
‘She looked out of the window and peered outside.’
On the face of it, there seems to be nothing wrong with this sentence. Then you look closely with your editing eyes, and realise the second half of the sentence is merely a repeat of the first, just using different words – thus making one half of the sentence redundant. When you spot something like this, choose which one you want to keep – and get rid of the other. This sort of redundancy is common in first drafts, almost as if our brain is unconsciously trying to find the best way of saying something and lays out both options for us to consider in the editing phase.
We all have, what you might call, writing ticks – repetitive filler words we habitually use, that then have to be removed in editing. One of the most common of these is the word ‘that’. Almost every time the word ‘that’ appears in a piece of writing, it can be removed. The test, as in every edit for redundancies, is Does the sentence still make sense if we remove the word? In almost every case, the answer will be yes. If it makes sense, leave the word out – if it doesn’t make sense – keep it in.
A couple of other words to look at, are the words ‘very’ and ‘really’. Any time these appear, put them to the same test. Stripping your writing of these words aids clarity and, of course, economy – thus making your writing leaner and clearer.
Click the following for a list of thirty needless, redundant, expedient, filler words you can almost, seemingly, probably leave out:
A word about tenses . . .
Verbs, being the cornerstone of your writing, you need to get them right. Now, each verb form used has a tense. Make sure you are using the right one. Check the lesson we had on Point Of View too. This also needs to be checked for consistency in the editing process.
As we have already mentioned, verbs need to be the strongest you can find. One way to you can make your verbs even stronger, is to experiment tense endings, replacing ‘ing’ endings with ‘ed’ endings. This has the effect of strengthening your writing, replacing an action that is in the process of happening, with one that has already happened. Try a couple, see how it affects the writing. As with all editing – if it works, keep it in, if it doesn’t, change it.
So, editing – it really is the creative part of the process.
Have fun with it.
Learn what works, and what doesn’t.
And most of all, never forget that writing is a magical process – and editing is the part where you make the glamourous assistant disappear, then reappear in the balcony – to thunderous applause.
Hope some of this helps 😊