Editing, that’s what defines my writing life; editing.
I love writing, the act of creation. You’re free to do what you want. Create entire worlds, to your vision. Stories that have never been told. New and interesting characters. It’s fun, exciting, and in some ways can make you feel God-like.
Editing though, well, that’s a different story – pardon the pun. Editing is confining. Anti-Creational. It involves ripping and cutting out stuff you love (killing your darlings). It hurts, man! And with all that, it’s based on pre-established syntax’s and grammatical concepts that must be adhered to. Of course, there are exceptions to the rules set forth, take a look at Jose Saramago’s book, Blindness. The guy ignores punctuation altogether. A full stop here, a comma there, but no speech marks. And he won a Nobel prize for literature! Is that BECAUSE he went out on a limb? Because he did something different? Because he ignored the rules of grammar? Was it rebelliousness that “made him do it”? Who knows? Maybe you do, reader of my blog. If you do, let me know.
Anyway, back to where I was… editing. I hate it. I feel like I’ve been doing it for years, like I’m caught in some kind of editing Groundhog Day and I’m quite frankly bored with it. BUT, writing, like life, is a cycle of action. Creation, change, and destruction. I’ve created (two books now, and a number of short stories), I’m changing (editing all of them), and one day the book/story will be destroyed (after all the world is ending December next year isn’t it? Or, if that old dude in America is to be believed, it’ll end this Friday… again).
By the way, what is all this hype about the world ending in December, 2012? Because the Mayan calendar ended at that point? Didn’t the Mayan’s just disappear into thin air? Didn’t they rip out people’s hearts for sacrificial rituals? Are those people to be trusted when it comes to mapping calendars a thousand years into the future? Did anyone think that perhaps the dude updating the calendar thought, “You know, I’m done updating this stupid thing; I’m not going to be here in 2012, or beyond, so what the hell am I doing wasting my time plotting a stupid calendar, when I could be out in the crowd watching some guy’s heart being ripped out?”
So…. Editing. It’s a cycle of action I need to complete. Otherwise, what’s the point?
In my VAST editing experience (vast only because that’s all I tend to do these days) I have a number of things I keep in mind to make the task of editing a little easier. And, I’d like to share that with you today.
Stephen King wrote this on Page 222 of his Writing Memoir – On Writing “In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High—1966, this would’ve been—I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to review for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft—10%. Good Luck.’”
All these tips come from “The 10% Solution: Self-editing for the Modern Writer” by Ken Rand. I recommend checking it out; I bought it some years ago on fictionwise.com as an e-book.
Some things to look for to trim the fat without cutting the meat:
1. of. When this word shows up, cut. For example, change “mother of the boy” to “the boy’s mother.”
2. -ing. Words that end in ‘-ing’ may lead to cuts. For example, change “using fewer words will sharpen your style” to “use fewer words to sharpen your style.” This also helps provide an active voice.
3. -ion. Words that end in ‘-ion’ tend to appear formal. They often have three or more syllables. Look for shorter synonyms.
4. Three syllable words. Again, longer words are often harder to read and more formal. If you can find a shorter word, use it. But be careful. When you change a word, you change meaning. Be a thesaurus-thumper and you’ll see when cutting long words works and when it doesn’t.
5. Contractions. Change “I would” to “I’d.” Again, this’ll help condense, but be careful. Contractions may be too informal. Know when they work and when they don’t.
6. Was and were. These are passive voice. Active voice both strengthens and shortens prose. Again, be careful not to distort meaning for brevity’s sake.
7. Commas. Watch for commas in a sentence. They often flag points where whole phrases can be cut.
8. Lists. Find padding, error, and contradictions in lists.
9. Quotes. Paraphrase where you can. Cut quotes to the bare bones. What remains will stand out.
10. Titles. Change “Assistant Governor’s Public Information Officer” to “Spokesman.”
11. Adverbs. Cut them—ruthlessly. Use the search and find function of your computer to find “ly.” Often this will highlight a deleteable adverb. (Whenever you come across a highlighted, possibly questionable word, ask yourself three questions about the word:
1) Do I delete it without distorting meaning?
2) Does it say exactly what I wanted to say?
3) Would an alternate word do a better job of saying what I wanted to say?
12. Said. Attribution lets your readers know who is speaking your dialogue, but when Mary and John are speaking alone in a room, you needn’t follow
“How are you, John?” with “Mary said.”
Always ask yourself, “If I cut, will it hurt meaning?” If so, leave it.
As an interesting side note, whilst these tips are extremely helpful – and I sincerely hope you find them so – I haven’t had much of a use for them in editing Strategem, my last novel. This is because I wrote Strategem through National Novel Writing Month where my goal was to reach a target of 50,000 in a month. As a result, when you’re writing, it’s “quick and dirty”. So long as you hit your 50,000 words, you win…. And I did. In fact, I hit around 53,000 before I completed the novel. What I was left with however was a novel that I felt was quite skeletal. It had very little, if any, character development, and was purely plot driven. It was written to be not only completed quickly, but to read fast too. And so, when I went back to it I realized I needed to ADD to it rather than CUT from it. And so, I’m currently “editing” on the basis of adding characterization, theme development, and even the first person perspective of an underdeveloped character (which in itself will almost double the length of the book).
Now, if only I could learn to edit what I SAY. Then I’d be a happy man….