Carefully Trimming Your Writing

Road after strimmingIf you haven’t edited a long piece before, then tackling the first draft of a novel can look like a nigh impossible task. You’re not just making sure four or five paragraphs flow together coherently – you’re analyzing a lengthy narrative and shaping it into its final form. A critical part of this process will be deleting language that does not work or does not matter to your reader. However, it takes some practice before you develop a sense of when and where to cut language. In the meanwhile, try to ask some or all of these questions about every paragraph you read.

  • Which parts of the story would be hard to understand without this information?
  • How is this information leading the reader through the story?
  • What kind of information are you giving the reader here? Is it plot exposition? Character development? A description of a cake that the heroine is having for dessert?
  • Where else in the narrative can the reader get this information?

If you are not able to answer the first two questions, then you should probably delete the passage you’re asking about. Half the purpose of editing is the removal of unnecessary information which adds nothing to the story.

It’s not so simple to evaluate a passage based on your answer to the last two questions. Sometimes, we need to convey information like the rich chocolate flavor of the cake, even if the handsome stranger already told us about it when he ordered it for her from across the room. The latter two questions are more useful for comparing the importance of two passages than for quickly flagging unneeded language for removal.

Examining all of your paragraphs this closely may seem arduous, but you’ll be surprised at how quickly you learn to scrutinize your writing and spot passages that it doesn’t need. By analyzing your paragraphs’ role in your story and evaluating their importance, you can make great progress on editing even a very lengthy work.

What They Mean when They Say “Clarify This Passage.”

Dcp_0334Clarity is something that every writer strives for. However, directions to “clarify this passage” or “make that passage easier to read” can be anything but clear. Each individual writer has their own particular strengths and weaknesses which can affect the clarity of their writing. Here’s a handy checklist that you can use to see what you need to do when you receive this particular criticism.

  • Go on a hunt for long sentences. As you advance, you’ll be able to wield longer and longer sentences without sacrificing clarity. However, there’s always something to be said for closely examining any sentence over 25 words in length and seeing if you can’t divide it into smaller, clearer sentences.
  • Highlight the noun phrases in your writing. Frequently, in our desire to bring our sentences’ subject to life on the page, we accomplish the opposite by burying the subject in a heap of modifiers. Shorter noun phrases (and shorter verb phrases, and shorter adverbial phrases) will help you clarify your writing.
  • Look for the logical flow. It need not be as simple and stilted as “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal,” but you do need to be building your paragraphs’ ideas in a simple, easy-to-follow format.
  • Look for words you don’t need. Adverbs and adjectives are typically first to the wall when you start editing for clarity. Although clear writing has some descriptors to distinguish the characters and objects it describes, there is rarely a need to use these words for mere decoration.
  • Make a checklist of everything you want the reader to take away from a given passage, and then highlight the areas where you think you’re communicating this information. You’ll often surprise yourself with missing or garbled information when you take this step.

This list should by no means be considered a complete guide to clarifying your writing, but it can certainly provide you with a good start. Whether you’re working on an academic paper or an experimental poem, clarity is essential to strong, powerful writing. Editing for clarity is a career-long task for any writer, and although the challenges are great, the rewards are even moreso.

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Mechanical Editing vs Creative Editing: Which one suits you?

You’re sitting on the mahogany armchair on the patio outside your holiday bungalow, the ice in your Piña Colada melting at just the right pace under the scorching but friendly Mediterranean sun, the brim of your Paul Smith sun hat pulled down low while its roasted-straw-scent distracts you from the concluding chapter of the sequel to your one-hit-wonder published less than six months ago. You’re on holiday five thousand miles away, after the twenty-hour autograph-signing and press conference in New York two days ago. But you’re perturbed because your Armani shades are useless against the glare on your MacBook Air… Honestly, really?crappy radiator

You’re shivering hard despite a hot water bottle pressed against your empty stomach underneath two hoodies, a coat and three duvets, in front of the desk that squeaks every time you press what is left of the space bar on your vintage Windows XP laptop. It’s 2am, the smell of burnt toast from the kitchen downstairs and the emphatic celebration and swearing from a video game duel between the male students next door are driving you insane, but you daren’t leave your cocoon and punch on their door to demand peace and silence because the radiator is broken and it’s sub-zero in the apartment building. There’s no deadline for your book, but you’re stressed because this is the third time your book’s been turned down by rude and snobby publishers. Nothing’s working for you, but you’re too stubborn to give up. You need something, but what is it?

Both the hot-shot writer and the subsisting writer are not happy with their respective lives at the moment, despite the disparity in success, because they’re suffering within the same painful process: Editing.

Remember Hemingway’s famous maxim: “Write drunk, edit sober”? That might explain the nightmares faced by the above two versions of you. The more capricious your first draft, the more excruciating your editing hangover. But why is editing such a gruesome experience?

Let’s look at the two types of editing:

Proofreading/Mechanical Editing

Mechanical editing is essentially proofreading. To say that a piece of text requires this type of editing means that it needs to be thoroughly perused and then polished in terms of grammar and punctuation. As the name suggests, it’s a robotic process that involves painstaking attention to detail in order to completely eliminate all errors in spelling, vocabulary, grammar, punctuation and language usage. The editor begins by detecting and correcting straightforward typographical slips, then extends his jurisdiction as far as stylistic infelicities and stops right there. Alterations outside his scope belong to the next category of editing.

Creative/Substantive/Holistic Editing

Creative editing, as its multiple aliases suggest, involves more general re-writing and re-organization for the purpose of improving the logic and flow of the book. In addition to logical changes, sometimes more subjective changes are also introduced and incorporated into the manuscript. Whether it be on the macroscopic scale that includes the reworking of storyline, character, tone or diction, or on the detailed level that assures the accuracy and consistency of minute facts, the creative editing process typically gives rise to the image of an over-caffeinated, red-eyed editor poring over a manuscript.

While creative editing allows for a less constrained type of input, it runs the risk of clipping wings or even damaging authenticity and spontaneity. This is why an author must choose carefully the editor in whose hands he places his manuscript.

Both of these types of editing share a common factor: they represent the archetypal ‘unfinishable’ job. However it is possibly this single facet of writing which sorts out the great work from the sloppy work.

Polish your work but know how far to go, where to stop, and when to call in reinforcements.

Everybody Hates Editing

Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it's money well spent.

Editing – Argh!!! Get someone to do it for you, it’s money well spent.

Ever heard of the Oxford comma?

“The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: We sell books, videos, and magazines.”

Weird isn’t it? Well you’re not alone if you think grammatical rules are sometimes a bit draconian. I mean, who are you to tell me I can’t put a comma here, or here, or right towards the end of this sentence, huh?

As long as it flows, right? While some writers are more pedantic about writing styles, syntax and grammar, others prefer to freestyle their ideas and sacrifice any adherence to traditional language rules. However, although rules are indeed made to be broken, some writers take it too far. The result is a sloppy, patchy, and unintelligible eyesore of a text.

The wild vagaries of writers aren’t always to blame though. While some writers do try their best to keep Spell-Check and AutoCorrect quiet, anyone capable of constructing slightly complex sentences is aware that a simple there/their/they’re error can cruise past syntax security. You might also know that reading your own book twenty times over doesn’t really stop those subtle typos from hijacking your trip to JK Rowling or EL James status—you just can’t spot them!

So what do you do? You phone up The Editors. These guys are vicious error assassins. They usually charge ad valorem fees, depending on how long your book is and how you want the job done. Be it straightforward and mechanical, or sophisticated and creative, the Editor gets the job done. You won’t have to worry about your worst enemies sneaking past built-in grammar checks and getting onboard your paperback or Kindle flights to stardom—nothing escapes the eyes of The Editor.

Scary isn’t it? Yeah, maybe you should be scared. Not only do Editors knock out errors stone cold, some of them knock a big chunk off your publishing budget as well.

BUT, maybe you shouldn’t avoid them altogether. The reality is that the stingy writer who insists on a zero-cost publishing tour and takes on the gruesome job of editing themselves often faces instant death as their hijacked flight crashes and their error-plagued books fall prey to the vultures patrolling the skies of Amazon — the harsh reviewers.

Can’t I just edit my book and republish it? You can, but don’t be too optimistic about a book’s resurrection once it has been published and has started incurring heavily critical reviews concerning poor editing. Once this has started happening, even Aragorn would be hard put to help you. But then again:

There is always hope.

The importance of proper editing

Finishing the first draft of a piece of writing is a great feeling. Although you should be very proud at this stage, you are far from finished yet.

As a writer, editing your work is imperative. It is not enough just to read back over it for spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. Proper editing requires you to look at your writing with a critical eye; you need to be completely honest with yourself about how successful your piece is in its current state. In fact, you need to be utterly brutal.

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Good editing is the key

The following are some tips for editing your work as thoroughly as it needs.

    1. Let go of any romantic notion about ‘capturing the moment.’ You look at a particular scene in your story and see flaws and imperfections, but you don’t want to change anything because you feel as though you perfectly captured the mood at the time of writing. You may well have done, but if you want a story that is polished, professional and stands out, you will need to iron out those flaws. Nobody’s writing is perfect and that’s not what you should be aiming for – you’ll drive yourself crazy. But if you see something that strikes you as needing improvement, then it probably really does need it.
    2. Don’t be afraid to ‘kill your darlings.’ You have a sentence, a paragraph, or a minor character that you really like; but do you need them? Really? What are they adding to the story? Do they really fit, or are they actually spoiling the quality? If you can’t answer positively to any of these questions, then that part of your story is going to have to go. If you take out that sentence or scene, don’t throw it away completely; you might find you can use it again in another piece of work in the future.
    3. Get a proof-reader. It is virtually impossible to edit your work without feedback from an objective party. Ask a writer friend, or even find a ‘writing buddy’ to swap work with. Writers are almost always willing to help each other out, and as long as your proof-reader is not afraid to be honest and has a good critical eye then you will find the editing process much easier. You don’t have to follow every suggestion; if you’ve been advised to change something, but strongly feel this is a bad idea, then don’t do it! Different people will notice and like or dislike different things. Do listen to and think about all the feedback you receive, but sometimes you will need to trust your own opinion too.
    4. Don’t be precious about your work. If you’re the kind of person who has trouble not taking constructive criticism personally, this is something you need to work on if you really want to be a writer. If you ask somebody to be brutally honest about your work, they will be. You don’t only need to be prepared for this; you need to welcome it. Certain things can be disheartening to hear at times, but good or bad, everything will help you along the way.
    5. Don’t be afraid to be drastic. If you think an entire chapter needs to be reworked or a fairly important character is serving no purpose and needs to be cut, then do it. Don’t be wary of your own work. Experiment and make those changes. You might find your entire piece is twenty times better for it.
    6. There is a possibility you will never be happy with your work. Creativity and perfectionism often go hand in hand. It can be difficult to manage, but rather than achieving your notion of perfection, it is sometimes best just to step back and accept that your work is the absolute best it can be. It’s a cliché, but it’s true; we are our own worst critics.
    7. You will know when you are done editing. Once you’re debating whether or not that comma really belongs in the middle of that sentence in line 9 of page 34 you’ll realise that there’s probably little else you can do. You created this piece of work and you know it inside out. You will instinctively know when it is there.

The importance of editing is never to be underestimated. It might not be an easy process, but it’s a very satisfying one; you’ll be amazed at the difference a bit of thorough and honest polishing can make.

Check Mate!

BlackboardOne of the things which unfortunately slaps you in the face about many self-published, first-time authors is that their books get uploaded complete with a whole host of easily rectified errors that any self-respecting editor would have picked up on and corrected.

Of course, editors are expensive – they can add hundreds of dollars, pounds, euros, etc to the cost of your book and, if you’re trying to do it all on a budget, it can quickly get prohibitive. While there can be no complete substitute for the eyes of a professional, a lot can be done by friends, relatives and other authors as part of a co-operative but they do need to be brutal with both you and the truth.

It’s worth compiling a checklist for them to work with – they’re not professionals and they’ll need to know what they’re looking for.

To get you started, and to show you what I mean, here’s an abbreviated summary of three of the most common error types.

  • Double words – such as as this. It’s particularly easy to miss when your sentence spans two lines
  • Wrong choices – for example; (they’re, there, their), (whose, who’s) and (to, too)
  • Silly words – modern nonsense such as ‘loose’ (instead of ‘lose’) and the awful ‘alot’

Don’t let anyone read your work who’s (!) afraid to criticise what you’ve written. This is not ‘just’ a novel, this is a commercial product which must stand or fall by its quality and you need to ensure it’s as near perfect as you can get it.

No-one makes allowances for beginners so don’t expect such treatment.

Grammar test – what do you score?

643010In a moment of ill-advised madness, we two directors of ASB just took the grammar test on the BBC website. While immodesty suggests it would be nice to report we both scored 10 out of 10, we actually got a joint score of 15 out of 20 (we took the test separately).

Before you pass judgement on this result, have a go at some of the questions – they’re far from easy.

Returning to the writing perspective, my own particular bêtes noires that I come across when editing are ‘alot’ and ‘loose’ instead of ‘lose’. There are plenty of other ones, of course.

The message it sends to me (and I speak now in my editorial capacity) about an author is that they really couldn’t be bothered. We all make mistakes (anyone who thinks that they don’t is not playing with a full deck of cards) but there are such things as taking care and taking pride in what you’ve produced.

Bragging rights allowed on this page. See if you can beat our score on the test but be honest – no second goes!

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