by Karen Ball
There are some great quotes out there about editors and editing. For example:
“Read your own compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Samuel Johnson
“What I have crossed out, I didn’t like. What I haven’t crossed out, I’m dissatisfied with.” Cecil B. DeMille
“From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” Winston Churchill
“I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” Shannon Hale
And my favorite:
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dr. Seuss
SO, how to edit your own writing? Well, we already talked about three helpful tools in my post last week. Now, let’s take a look at three more:
1. Pull The Threads. How often have you finished a book and realized you’re not sure that a character’s story/faith/emotional arcs are all you want them to be? Here’s a great way to check that out: Copy and past that character’s scenes into a document, then read them beginning to end. When you read just those scenes, you’ll have a clear idea of whether or not you’ve accomplished what you wanted. What’s more, you’ll be able to pinpoint where to make any changes or revisions.
2. Use Your Ears! When we write, we see the story unfold in our heads, playing out on the screen of our minds. But once the story is on the page, and once you’ve had a little time away from it, it’s time to get outside your head and…listen. Listen to your story. Close your eyes, and just…listen. Whether you have someone read the book to you, utilize one of the many text-to-speech programs available, or read it out loud yourself (in which case, don’t close your eyes!), hearing your story can help you catch an amazing number of issues. It’s well known among editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders that the eye reads what it expects to read on the page. Which makes it easy to miss when words are misspelled or misused. But hearing your story, or reading it aloud yourself, helps you catch such things as:
- Missing words
- Wrong words (e.g., you rather than your; through rather than though)
- Pacing issues
- Dialogue issues
- Confusing sentences
- Spell-check missteps (years ago I was editing a manuscript on comparative religions, and spell-check changed every Mormon and Mormonism to moron and moronism)
- Narrative and character voice
3. Tighten Up! When you’re editing it’s the perfect time to remember that old adage, “Less is more.” Unless you’re writing about a character who uses ten words when five will do, use the editing process to tighten your prose. Some things to watch for:
Superlatives. They’re there, hiding in your manuscript. And you need to blast ‘em into extinction: very, extremely, super, really, just, and so on. So make your writing super tight with the extremely easy step of just cutting out all those really useless superlatives.
Empty phrases. A few to watch for: started to, in order to, began to, prepared to. Not He grabbed her pen in order to stop her from adding another superlative but He grabbed her pen to stop her from adding another superlative. Not She started to write but She wrote.
That. You’d be amazed how many thats creep into our writing. Most can be eliminated (e.g., not She told him that he was too wordy but She told him he was too wordy)
–ly Adverbs. More often than not, these are weak writing. See if you can replace them. (e.g., not He walked quickly to cash his royalty check but He hurried to cash his royalty check; not She hummed happily as she edited but just She hummed as she edited, since not many folks hum unless they’re happy
Ups and Downs. Not The writer stood up at his signing, but The writer stood at his signing. Remember, unless you’re in the military, you don’t stand down. Not The editor sat down to work but The editor sat to work
Speaker Attributions. Only use ‘em when you need ‘em for clarity. And when you need to use them, go with he said/she said. Those tend to be invisible to the reader’s eye.
Redundant Expressions. Watch for expressions where you can drop one or two of the words and the meaning of the expression doesn’t change (e.g., not Commute back and forth to the library, but Commute to the library.)
Okay, let’s close today’s blog as we opened it, with a quote or two about editing:
“Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon to commend the bone, but to set it, Sir.” Emily Dickinson
“It is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” Robert Southey