by Eric Wharton
Learning how to edit your own work
|CONTROLLING THE BEAST
An editor once told me, "There are no good writers, only good re-writers." Of course, I suppose that's what an editor would say. Still, I use that as my mantra.
Editing is the most difficult part of writing because the fun part is over—creation. Now comes the work, and it is indeed work. There is no avoiding it, but there are some things you can do to manage it better.
The key to revising your own work is learning to organize and control it. Do you find yourself correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and so on, as soon as you start to edit? Perhaps you shouldn't. Instead, organize your editing into separate "passes" through your work.
Think of your story as being contained within a series of boxes. It's buried in there, a sparkling diamond waiting for the world to see. But to get to it, you need to unwrap all the boxes that surround it, much like a surprise birthday present.
These boxes start from the very largest (general) to the very smallest (picayune). Start from the outside and work your way in. Ignore every subsequent level until you come to it. Why change a spelling error if you are going to delete the entire sentence? You cannot, however, skip any step simply because you don't want to do it.
The 7-Step Process of Editing
Think of box 1 and 2 as the artistic part of your writing. An artist works with hands, mind, and heart. In box 3 and 4, you are in the a craftsman part of your writing. A craftsman works with hands and mind. Finally, think of box 5 and 6 as the laborer part of your writing. A laborer works with hands only.
Box 1 (TRUTH)
Would your characters really say and act the way you have presented them? Check for accuracy of characterization, plot, and setting. Make sure it all sounds logical.
Box 2 (FLOW)
Do entire sections need to be moved, or even deleted? Don't fiddle with words, consider the flow of the story first. What can you do to improve the storyline? Make the changes to the creativity of you piece before you consider writing techniques.
Box 3 (PARAGRAPHS)
Examine each and every paragraph for proper structure. A writer should write in paragraph units, not sentences. Each should contain a specific thought, generally with an opening comment, specific sentences that support it, and a conclusion that springboards to the next paragraph in order to hold the reader. Paragraphs are more important than sentences. Thoughts, not words, hold the story together.
Box 4 (SENTENCES)
Check sentence structure for logic, length, compatibility of subject/verb, tense, and so on. This is also the time to spice up your writing with figures of speech like similes and metaphors. Sentences are the transparent, silken threads of your story. One broken thread, and the paragraph crumbles. One crumpled paragraph, and the story can become a train wreck.
Box 5 (GRAMMAR)
Check syntax and word usage. Here is where you improve imagery, clean up the language, find synonyms, solve word pollution problems, get rid of cliches, and do general word-smithing. This is where authors spend almost all their time editing, when in fact it's far down the list and only a part of the self-editing process. It's why authors get sick of editing their work. The best way to do it is re-read the story a number of times, checking each time for individually specific problems you may have experienced in the past.
Box 6 (SPELLING)
Most easily fixed, but never, ever fail to do so. Nothing turns off an editor more than bad spelling. Don't rely on a spell-checker, it will allow 'too' in place of 'to'. Read and re-read specifically for spelling errors.
Box 7 (WORD COUNT)
Absolutely done last. This is a mistake many writers make. It's okay to look at word count to get you in the general vicinity, but don't try to get it under your maximum word count yet. Previous editing may solve a lot of these problems. Only when you are satisfied with what you've written should you start to delete in order to conform to word counts.
Things to remember when self-editing
1. Always save previous work. If you write by hand, use a pen and cross out rather than use a pencil and erase. If you use a typewriter, don't do as seen on TV and toss crumpled manuscript pages into the trash. If you compose on a word processor, always use "save as" and label the document with revisionary numbering. It's okay to simply save it if you're in the final stages of editing and making nit-picking changes. But don't make wholesale changes without saving previous work, even if it means having dozens of versions. The time you spend going back trying to find a section you really wished you hadn't deleted beats re-writing it from memory, which truthfully is impossible to do.
2. You don't have to wait until the entire work is finished to follow the self-editing steps. You can do so with scenes, sections, chapters, groups of chapters, and so on. And they don't need to be completed in order to do so. If you want to write the dialogue part of a scene and edit that alone, it's not a problem. However, be sure to follow all the steps when the document is completed to get a better perspective on flow. Otherwise, it may just look like pieces of a story that have been thrown together.
3. Edit occasionally from printed copy. Why it's easier to proof-read from the printed word than from a computer screen is beyond my ability to comprehend. Perhaps it has something to do with how we learned reading fundamentals. However, I tend to find additional errors when reading from printed copy than I do from the screen. So, make it a habit to proof-read from paper every so often.
4. Occasionally, read it aloud. We read silently faster than we speak. Nothing shows up errors better than stumbling over the story as you read it aloud. If you stumble, the reader is most certainly going to do so while reading.
5. Your best friends are named Webster, Merriam, and Roget. Get to know them. Get to know them well.
How to know when you're finished editing
When you are sick of looking at the piece. When that happens, set it aside for days or even weeks and then come back and do the steps above all over again. You would be surprised what you missed. Let the story percolate.
When you start changing the same word back and forth. For example, when you are operating mostly at box 5 and taking out a word, and then putting it back in, taking it back out, putting it back in. When that happens, you're over-editing. It's time to set it aside or conclude it's finished editing.
Why is editing important?
I'm a stickler for grammar, even though I don't always do it right. I refuse to be afraid of pointing out errors in others that I may make myself, or as Bob Dylan wrote, "Fearing not I'd become my enemy, in the instant that I preach." I've even been called a grammar Nazi, but I don't mind the moniker because there is a perception these days creativity is more important than the details of writing.
I've heard this time and time again, to my chagrin. One student even once said, "I don't worry about grammar errors, that's what editors are for." That is not what editors are for. Certainly, that's part of what they do, but first and foremost, their job is to select appropriate material for the outlet they publish.
Editors (and sometimes readers) have two modes of reading—enjoyment and editorial. Editors by nature are very discerning and believe it or not, so are many readers. The latter in particular may not be able to write well, but they know what good writing looks like. The trick is to keep both editors and your reader in the enjoyment mode when they first read your story and out of the editorial mode.
Bad grammar will certainly drop them right into the editorial mode. Maybe not at first. No document can be 100-percent clean, and most folks will skip over a spelling error or two, some misplaced commas, a errant capitalization, and so on. However, when the errors come one after the other and start to pile on, you've lost them. They may continue reading, but the flow has been interrupted, and quite possibly the point of your story.
I believe that everything an author writes, whether it be a book or an e-mail should be grammatically correct. Get in the practice of editing your own work, all the time, every time. The real reason is because it needs to be so, but it you can't conform because of that reason, then please do so because you don't want to interrupt the interest of your reader.
Perrin, Timothy. "Unleash Your Creativity: Become a Better, More Productive Writer" Writer's Digest, July 1989. www.right-writing.com/unleash.html, accessed 2013.
Perrin, Timothy. www.right-writing.com/unleash.html, accessed 2013.