Not too long ago, I wrote about various methods that writers can use to focus on their writing. Once you’ve picked your ritual and/or piece of software (and beat writer’s block), it’s time for the most dreaded part of writing-– the editing.
I’ve always found editing to be the most tedious part of writing my novel Rawmesh, but it’s a necessary step before you can submit your work to an agent, publisher or even an editor (there aren’t many who would accept something full of basic errors). Of course, editing also leads to some amazing ideas and concepts that might have never crossed your path any other way. There are countless books on editing, but I’ll describe what I feel are the ten most important steps you should do once the first draft is finished:
1) Remember that first drafts are almost always crap (no, seriously, even first drafts by famous authors can be outright horrible). Don’t be discouraged by your writing. While reading through your work the first time, take notes on which characters, scenes, tangents or other items can be changed or cut entirely. Be ruthless. Even J.K. Rowling admits that she cut an entire character (and associated scenes) even though she “really liked her”. When you finish reading all the way through, cut what isn’t doing what you need/want it to do (though keep it somewhere in case you ever need to bring it back).
2) Split your writing into separate pieces and look at them individually. This could mean putting summaries onto index cards (or using software like Scrivener to separate everything into “sections”), spreading out the attached physical chapters/sections, or simply zooming-out in your word processor. Doing this allows you to see the big picture and modify the flow a lot easier. Many times, this also allows you to see gaps that might not have been noticeable while you were in the weeds. Personally, I like rewriting summaries onto index cards by hand as that forces me to think of a specific goal/point for each section, as well as shows me where I might have “wimped out” in certain chapters.
3) Along with the above, it’s important to check continuity (whether it’s continuity of a character’s hair colour, time of day, or a part of travel you’re discussing in your autobiography), everything should be catalogued and checked each time you read your work. Make sure that all subplots or ideas are followed through to completion, otherwise they should be cut.
4) Especially in fiction, it’s important to check both the point of view and language of your characters. It’s easy to make mistakes with both of these points, but important to get them right. Having your character suddenly know another character’s emotions or thoughts (when they normally wouldn’t be able to) or have a character say a word they normally wouldn’t can pull the reader out of the story.
5) I strongly recommend having at least one vivid image or event on each page of your writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a major plot point — it could could be something as simple as a line that resonates with the reader. Not only does this give a visual memory for the reader to look back on, but also gives the reader expectations/hope that more will come.
6) First and last lines have always been important for readers. This isn’t just true with the first and last lines in the entire book (though they are)–- the first and last lines of your chapters are vital as well. Going along with number five above, you need to give something to the reader at the end of each section that will make them want to keep reading.
7) Weasel words (salt-and-pepper words, beholder words and lazy words) should be eliminated as much as possible to keep the pace of your writing in check. Not every one of these can be removed (some are required grammatically, or are part of your character’s speech), but use your software’s Find option to see which can be changed.
a. Salt-and-pepper words include “a number of”, that, just, various, fairly and quite. They have no real meaning to the reader (e.g., “A number of men in black suits stepped out of the van” could be changed simply to “Men in black suits stepped out of the van.”).
b. Beholder words like interesting, surprising, remarkable, or clearly, are “boring” or do the dreaded “show and not tell” (e.g., “To his surprise, the gun was out of ammo.”).
c. Finally, lazy words include very, extremely, a lot, seem, many, most, several, really, usually, often, great, exceedingly, few, vast. These don’t describe the events on the page in any real detail and should be changed to something a little more concrete (e.g., “The greyhound ran very quickly” could be “The greyhound ran faster than our own car could go.”).
8) It shouldn’t have to be said, but considering how many times I’ve read them recently, clichés need to be searched for and destroyed (unless, again, they’re a part of your character’s speech for some ungodly reason).
9) Big blocks of text or large portions of white space should be examined for possible changes. Zooming-out to two or four pages at a time can give you some idea of where your writing might be too dense/slow or too wordy. All writing should be about balance, otherwise the reader might be forced to alter their reading style (or forced to re-read dense sections) too often.
10) Although having a trusted friend read your book is always a good idea, I would also suggest having the book read aloud. Even better would be to listen to a recording of you reading (this could be for certain troublesome sections only, if you so wish). This allows you to truly understand the flow of the writing and what sections need to be worked on.
There are entire books on the art of editing, though the above should help push your drafts into a near-final state ready for submission. I won’t lie — editing is hard work (taking up to 3/4 of your writing time) and is usually the point where most people give up. But, this work needs to be done if you want to have your work published. Take it slow if you need to, but keep working at it. Good luck!