TITLE: Sneaky Editing: 1,980 words
By M. I.
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1) The title - too lengthy, too generic?
2) The length - shortening it would mean getting rid of some of the information: should I?
3) Target audience - is this article for too broad of an audience, and should I hone it in on, say, novelists?
4) accuracy - I know I get into some heady stuff, but I'm really not a professional myself. If something sounds wrong, please say so!
Any kind of critique would be greatly appreciated.
NOTE: please do not print this piece out or copy it in any way. I've had some people to that before, I was honored, but i'm trying to publish this piece and I can't have it in use. Thank you for respecting this :)
Ten Sneaky Steps: Editing like a Professional
With trembling fingers you lay your piece, perhaps a magazine article or even a novel, at the feet of your peers. All your hours of painstaking work are for this moment.
They read your piece. They shake their balding heads.
“What?” you ask, waiting for excitement to light up their faces.
One smiles and hands the pages back to you. “It’s good,” he states. “I liked it. But…” you hold your breath “…it needs work. It needs to be edited.”
You’re crushed. Doesn’t he know that editing is the Excalibur of writing, the mystic tool that only “qualified” writers can achieve?
I’m here to rectify this. If you can write, you can edit. Forget that MFA or that job as a copywriter. I’m handing you a cheat-sheet, and all you need is the guts to use it.
Are you feeling sneaky?
Sneaky Step 1: Let it sit there.
You heard me. The first and easiest stage of editing is abstinence.
Writers are like jealous parents; this is your baby, and it’s perfect. Setting your piece aside for a few weeks or months forces you to “depersonalize”—meaning you take a step back and really look for mistakes. That cute phrase may not be as cute as you thought, but you just won’t realize it unless you take step 1 seriously.
Sneaky Step 2: Plot and Character
If you wrote a novel, then your next move is a series of steps novelists call “drafts.” Read through your manuscript and analyze each of the following:
1: Sense of realistic, well-rounded character(s)
2: Character(s) development
3: Main plot development and conclusion
4: Sub-plot development(s) and conclusion
5: Consistency of theme
Your goal is a general strengthening of your document. Eliminate excess scenes. Develop or remove plots, characters, etc. Don’t be afraid to take each of the sub-steps one at a time. You might need a draft for each individual character or sub-plot. If you’re like me, you may rewrite the whole thing, working out the kinks as you go. Just take your time—it will make your manuscript better. Note that going through draft by draft might not be necessary for shorter works such as essays or news articles.
Once you’ve done all this, you can send the piece out to beta readers. These are people that typically read one of your early drafts and give you advice on the plot, character, or theme while you’re still working on it. But—do you need betas? Try it and see. I think you’ll find your betas invaluable. Make sure to ask them about it now, before going on to step 4.
Sneaky Step 3: Research
We all do research, whether we write novels or magazine articles. Double-check that research here. Look for accurate quotes, facts, and statistics. It helps to have an expert beta-read for accuracy. Sometimes it’s the subtle details that can ruin an otherwise legitimate piece, especially in non-fiction writing.
Sneaky Step 4: The line edit.
This is where things get harder. A line edit is the time to get dirty and clean up your writing. But how do you know what to look for? There are the two basic categories:
Flow is the very essence of your writing. What are you trying to say? Can you say it more efficiently? Do you change tone or theme midway? Is the progress natural and coherent? Are your transitions smooth? Does your dialogue sound fake or melodramatic?
Use paragraphs for one thought each, and follow long sentences with short ones. Watch out for rambling or choppy sentences. Keep the point of view constant—don’t begin with “you sighed” and then switch to “he sighed.” The same goes for tense; “I watch the sunset as I walked down the beach,” is distracting. Resist the urge to explain, tighten sentences ruthlessly, and show, don’t tell.
Grammar is about technicalities and structure. Sentences end with a period, quotations marks are for dialogue, that sort of stuff. Because grammar encompasses so many particulars, I’ve made a list for you. Take the time to look for each of these in your manuscript.
Punctuation Marks: This includes well-known marks like commas, exclamation points, and questions marks, but also “special” grammar items such as colons : ellipses … dashes - em-dashes — semi-colons ; bold underline and italic. Use them sparingly. You may think a cluster of punctuation marks adds emphasis—(Seriously!? That is so cool!!!)—but it doesn’t. It makes you look silly.
Adjective clumps: The small, gray, fluffy, baby robin chirped. (Pick one or two descriptive words instead—the downy baby robin chirped.)
Clichés: These are proverbs or sayings that lose their meaning from overuse. Even a simple phrase like “filthy rich” is clichéd. Avoid them. Replace them. Figure out how to get the same meaning with different words. Whatever works.
Repetitive phrases or words: These are “personal clichés” or “crutch words,” that vary by person. Find any descriptions you use often, like “her eyes sparkled,” and replace them with creative words/similes/metaphors. (Her eyes laughed.)
Being Verbs: “am,” “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “be,” “being,” “been,” etc. These verbs aren’t big baddies, but they can lead to “passive” writing—“Charles had been exhausted, and was lying unconscious on the couch.” (Compare that to: “Exhausted, Charles passed out on the couch.” Which is snappier?)
Misplaced Modifiers: A modifier is something that changes, or modifies, the way you read a sentence. A misplaced modifier is one trying to do two jobs at once. For example, in the sentence “I only tickled Debbie,” the modifier “only” is trying to say two different things—“I only tickled Debbie, not her siblings,” and “I only tickled Debbie, I didn’t hug her.” This modifier is misplaced because the reader doesn’t know where to put the emphasis.
(Clarify what you mean by getting rid of the modifier: “I tickled Debbie and no one else.” Or, keep the modifier next to the words it’s modifying: “I tickled only Debbie.”)
Adverbs: Use all “ly” adverbs with care, about three per every 500 words. In particular try to avoid these “serial adverbs”—luckily, suddenly, actually, finally, and really. (Your protagonist “suddenly” runs into trouble, and “luckily” has just the trick to get himself out...boooring.)
Buffers or Stressors: “So,” “very,” “like,” and “just.” These words tend to add a fake emphasis or put the real emphasis at a distance. Use the Microsoft Word find function to delete them from your manuscript, and see how many you miss.
Misused Words: “Then,” “Than,” “Affected,” “Affect,” “Effect,” These words are often misused, so I’ll clarify:
“Than” is for contrasting: I’d rather jog than run.
“Then” is for telling time: Maybe I’ll jog, and then I’ll run too
“Affected” can mean to exaggerate or pretend: She affected or faked a smile.
“Affect” by itself is a verb, an action done to something or someone: The fire affects or burns the house.
“Effect” is a noun, a thing, the impact of an action: The effect or result of the fire is a burnt house.
Homonyms: These are words you might pronounce or spell the same way, but they have different meanings. For example, the word “ball” means both a fancy dance
and a baseball. Other homonyms make sense in context, like “bare” as in naked versus “bear” as in the animal; stay wary of them anyway.
Misspellings: Words you typed by accident that your computer didn’t catch, because the misspelling was a real word itself. “Coats—coast,” “her—here.” Stay vigilant and you’ll find most of them. Hopefully.
Sneaky Step 5: Print it out.
Why is this one important? Staring at a computer screen can make you feel “buzzed.” The eye catches more mistakes when you have the printed version in your hands. It sounds simple—and it is. Do it. Repeat the basics of step 4 with a hard copy, and you’ll be amazed at how much more you spot.
Sneaky Step 6: Read it aloud.
It may sound strange, but this step is a great for smoothing out your piece, especially if you have trouble writing dialogue. Hearing speech is more natural than reading it, correct? Enlist someone to read your piece to you: if they stumble or hesitate, you know there’s a problem.
Sneaky Step 7: Get another opinion.
This one sounds simple. It’s not. First you need a couple of people who are willing to critique your work—readers, writers, grammarians, and topic experts are all good choices. Insist they be critical. Don’t ask close friends and family. They’ll want to encourage you, and that’s not constructive criticism.
Get ready to wait. And wait. Don’t be surprised if no one replies. Things come up, and most people don’t know how to back out of their commitments. Guess that a rough two out of five will respond.
When they do, be ready. Have a thick skin. Read the constructive criticism, then set it aside. Forget all about it. Waiting will make you calmer and more responsive, so give yourself a few days before reading the comments.
Criticism should always be constructive, meaning the critic points out a problem and suggests a solution. Some critics may fix it for you. At the very least, they’ll tell you what they would like to see instead. Ignore the critics who harshly attack your writing—they cannot help.
Remember that you don’t have to integrate everything someone suggests. Just because Mary dislikes the word “delicious” doesn’t mean John and Kate feel that way—but if two or more people comment on the same problem, work on it. And if you feel a change is uncharacteristic for how you write, then figure out how to fix the problem yourself.
Sneaky Step 8: Tithe.
When Stephen King was starting out, an editor told him to delete 10% of his total word count. This sounds harsh. But it forces us to get rid of the fluff or “purple prose” we insist on hoarding—it makes our writing cleaner, efficient, and easier to read.
Sneaky Step 9: Polish.
By now you’re sick of editing. You’ve revised, chopped and revised again. Step 9 is where you let your document shine. It’s like adding the flourish to your signature, that final touch. Go ahead and spend ten minutes re-arranging a particular sentence until it’s “just so.” Step 9 was made for this.
Look for weak sentences or words you could liven up. Often there are bad word choices, good, better, and then best. For example:
Bad: A dress. (This dress could be any color)
Good: A purple dress. (This could be any of a thousand purples)
Better: A violet dress. (This could be any number of gray-blue purples)
Best: A periwinkle dress. (This is an exact color)
Sneaky Step 10: Final read-through.
Print out a hard copy, curl up in an easy chair with a cup of tea, and go over your manuscript one more time. The idea is to look at The Big Picture…and enjoy yourself! You shouldn’t notice too many mistakes, but there’s always something you’ve missed. Often, now is when you’ll discover a renegade fact that needs verifying.
If we lived in a perfect world, your piece of writing should now be at its peak of magnificence, and can’t get any better. But this isn’t a perfect world. No matter how many times you read through your work, you will find mistakes. How do you know when to stop revising?
Someone once suggested that when editing makes your writing worse, not better, it’s time to quit. You may never feel it’s time to stop revising. That’s okay—to a degree. If you tend to procrastinate, set a self-imposed deadline for accountability. And who knows. Maybe next time your fingers won’t tremble when you approach those graying experts. Sometimes, it pays to be sneaky.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.