By Jane Riddell
Is editing really so important? If a story is good, isn’t that enough? Sadly, no. A publisher receiving daily bucket loads of submissions will be quick to relegate one to the bin if it contains spelling and grammatical errors. And readers won’t be impressed if their reading journey is jarred by a story that hasn’t undergone a thorough edit.
Editing can be divided into two parts: the overview and the line to line. The overview consists of aspects such as weaving action, reflection and dialogue throughout the story, rather than what some writers refer to as ‘slab’ writing, i.e. chunks of action, followed by prolonged dialogue or reflection. Focus is another thing to examine the text for, ensuring that scenes and chapters don’t hop from one storyline to another and that the story doesn’t go off at a tangent.
Being subtle with emotions is important. Inspecting your manuscript for the right amount of emotion is about enabling the reader to sense the main characters’ feelings rather than being subjected to paragraphs of sobbing or exaggerated descriptions of anger. There are other ways of conveying a character’s despair than crying. And there are alternative ways of illustrating anger than someone throwing a chair across the room.
Providing the right amount of explanation can be tricky. You don’t want to confuse the reader. Nor do you want to explain so much or so often, that it becomes irritating. This can occur when the dialogue conveys information, followed by a line such as “Paul was angry”, when the reader already knows from the dialogue that Paul was angry. Or when a character does something and the writer proceeds to provide an unnecessary explanation of motive.
Overview editing also includes aspects such as checking that there is adequate character interaction, and avoiding excessive foreshadowing. The reader wants to have an inkling that all’s not well, but not be able to predict what happens.
The line to line edit
Line to line editing is about studying your manuscript at word level. At its most conscientious, it justifies the presence of each word on the page. More than just ensuring compliance with accepted rules of grammar, it involves checking for strong and succinct sentences. Sentences can be grammatically correct but weak.
The acclaimed writer and editor Sol Stein’s visual term “liposuctioning”, in relation to writing, refers to the many ways in which you can strengthen a sentence by removing superfluous words. Such words slow the pace and weaken impact. For example, using adverbs is rarely as effective as selecting strong, visual verbs – “striding across the room” is stronger than “walking quickly across the room”. Likewise, verbs are sometimes redundant. Deciding to do something is weaker than describing the doing, for example, instead of “He began to laugh’ simply write “He laughed”. “I’ll have to go to the dentist,” is stronger than “I’m going to have to go to the dentist.”.
One thing to look for is variety in sentence construction. Do too many of them begin with “he/she”? Are there enough short sentences or sentence fragments (for example, “If only” and “What now?”) to “lift” the text and prevent monotony when reading?
Dialogue – try reading it aloud
Editing dialogue can transform it, changing flat statements into edgy ones. Things to consider include avoiding overuse of characters’ names, which takes the reader out of the story. Using subtext adds tension and improves writing quality considerably. There are various forms of subtext: sarcasm, silence, changing the subject or not answering a question. If you compare two pieces of dialogue with similar content where subtext is used in one, and not in the other, you can see how much better the former one is. For example:
‘Where have you been?’ Rob asked. ‘I was worried.’
Liz looked concerned. ‘Sorry, love. I had to finish something at work. You shouldn’t worry so much when I’m not back on the dot of six.’
The above example is what is known as on-the-nose dialogue, when characters say what they mean.
Compare this to the following:
‘Where have you been?’ Rob asked. ‘I was worried.’
Liz flung her coat over the chair. ‘You were worried? If I even nip over the road for bread, you worry.’
This example contains subtext. Liz isn’t saying what she means, which is that she is fed up with Rob worrying. This adds tension. The reader knows that the couple have issues in their relationship.
Likewise, using beats to avoid too many taglines (he said, she said) provides variety and imagery. A beat is a description of the physical action a character makes while speaking. Readers want to be able to “see” what is happening in the story.
There are many other aspects to improving your manuscript. Editing, therefore, can seem to be a daunting task. But this shouldn’t stop you from undertaking it. Hard work as it is, you will notice your writing strengthening as you go along.
Try the manual
Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing describes a systematic and flexible technique for managing editing. It provides a short definition of some aspects of writing to check, and illustrations of these. WW suggests what to check, rather than being prescriptive.
Furthermore, you can personalise and update the technique to make it relevant and useful to each piece of work you undertake. While the guide is tailored to fiction, parts of it will also be helpful in strengthening non-fiction writing.
Words’Worth: a fiction writer’s guide to serious editing is available from Amazon and Smashwords in both electronic and paperback formats.