Saturday, 5 April 2014

The E's of Editing

Editing. Of course no-one submits their first draft, or their second, or probably even their third! So what happens in those stages of proofing and self-editing? What steps get you from the breathless-belt-it-out original to the exquisite polished piece of prose you send out into the wild? You’ve finished writing; you’ve walked away, moved on with life, then days later—or a week, a month, perhaps only the minutes it takes to have a cuppa—and you’re ready for a second look. So, where to start? 

First, try to get a fresh perspective. I recommend printing it and moving away from the computer. Grab a coffee, tea, or cold drink. Relax. Get comfy in your favourite chair, go to another room, sit outside in the sun. Whatever it takes to help trick your brain into thinking you’ve never seen the piece before! For those who prefer to edit on screen, make it mobile if you can. Transfer it to your laptop or tablet, or at the very least switch your screen to reading mode. The point here is to make it look different and to distance yourself from the setting in which you wrote it. Otherwise it is all too easy for your brain to gloss over typos and automatically fill in any gaps. 

Once you’re sitting comfortably, read through your piece. Do not read as a writer, or even as an editor. Read as a reader. Try to forget that you know anything about the story. Does the story draw you in with an excellent beginning? Are you entertained? Enraptured? Read it out loud. Does the piece feel cadent or clumsy? Does it flow? Are there sections where it drags or the pace suddenly speeds up? Are transitions smooth? Are you satisfied with how the story progresses? Are the characters compelling? Once you’ve done this initial read through it’s time to pick up your pen for the second pass.

Are there any evident errors? Pay attention to continuity. Did you describe a character of short stature only to have him, a few paragraphs later, reach easily for something on a top shelf? Has the setting inexplicably changed, or has Bob suddenly become Jack on page ten? Did his blue eyes turn brown? Be particularly vigilant if you made any global changes through your word processor’s ‘find/replace’ function. It’s all too easy to rely on it to catch everything; there could be an instance where the word you’re replacing is next to punctuation or another typo or extra space and it doesn’t get picked up. It’s surprising how inconsistencies can slip in and go unnoticed. The same goes for homophones (i.e. be, bee) which are not necessarily caught through spellchecking.

Is your exposition exceptional? Is it concise and necessary, adding to the story rather than weighing it down? Are there any passages that require clarification? Keep exposition to a minimum and thread it into the story in a way that doesn’t detract from the action. Make sure it adds to the history or back story. Watch out for overwriting and don’t belabour your point; trust the reader to understand what you mean. Likewise, look out for underwriting and gaps in plot or essential information. Eliminate extra wording here but expand there. A fine balance is essential.

Is the dialogue useful and relevant to the story? Does it reflect your characters’ personalities and goals? Does it contribute to establishing their relationships? Does it add to setting or ambience? No idle chit chat. Do you need all those dialogue tags? Does it flow naturally like a real conversation? 


Gather your tools; a dictionary, a thesaurus to help replace repetitions, and any other reference books you find helpful for a final run through. A handy quick reference is the Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation by John Seely (OUP, 2009). Other useful references include New Hart’s Rules The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (OUP, 2005) and Butcher’s Copy-Editing by Judith Butcher et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2006). It is also advisable to have to hand any submission guidelines or your publisher’s style guide/list of house rules.

Go back to the computer. Make your changes. Run the spellchecker until the last red wiggly is expunged. (But first make sure that your word processor is set to the appropriate English language—UK/US/AUS/CA.) Then print, read, edit, repeat until finally, once completely satisfied and euphoric with what you've produced, you are ready to submit!

This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Monday's post will be on F. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Re-writing and smoothing out my prose can be tough, but when I finally get to the point where I'm just looking for typos and other boo-boos, editing is actually a relief!

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