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Editing Your Writing

Editing is, in a way, the less fun counterpart to writing a novel. However, in writing fiction, the devil often is in the details, and a good edit can make the difference between a reasonable book and a brilliant one.

Keyboard by Ray

Of course, a traditionally-published book will be edited by the publisher, and many self-published writers use professional editors, but being able to edit your own work is a good habit for a writer to get into, and it’s always best to have a manuscript in as good a state as you can get it before presenting it to anyone else.

It’s often said that you should leave a novel for a while before editing it, so you come to it fresh. I think that’s true: ideally, I’d suggest leaving it for a month or two. Re-reading your own work can be strange: it’s like getting a letter from your younger self. Also, be aware that if you’ve left it a long while between writing and editing, you may find that both you and the world of publishing have changed. Sometimes this can be beneficial. I’ve recently been editing a fantasy story that I wrote a while ago with a view to self-publishing it, and I’ve found that the market is now more suited to the dark, film-noir style I used than it was at the time of writing (more by luck than judgment, I must admit…).

It’s hard to strike a balance between doing too little editing and carving out too much. Often, it’s a matter of confidence in your writing – confidence both to leave things in when you like them, and to cut or rewrite what honestly doesn’t work. I find it helps to ask a few questions about scenes or elements that you’re not sure about: What function does this have? Does it advance the plot? Could it be expressed better or more succinctly?

Eraser by David GilsonIt might be that you put something in just because it seemed to build the world up, or as an in-joke to one particular reader, or just because it felt cool at the time – going back to it, you might discover that the story works just as well without it. I often find that I’m removing things that directly tell the reader stuff that they already know from the context and setting. It’s often more immersive for readers to discover the world whilst reading than to be primed for it with chunks of backstory and exposition.

When editing, it’s necessary both to approach your work critically but not to be put off by the amount of changes that you might have to make. The truth is, a lot of books only really come together in the editing stage. You might realise that quite major alterations are necessary. When I wrote my third novel, Wrath of the Lemming Men, I removed an entire character because he didn’t lend anything to the story, and split his role between two others. It was a lot of effort to make the changes, but I think the book works much better without him!

And then of course there’s the text itself. It’s amazing how easy it is to repeat expressions too often, to use the wrong word (there/their/they’re!) and so on. A lot of writers have particular bad habits and tendencies, and you soon learn which are yours. I think readers are quite sharp in noticing these kinds of errors: too many of them and you risk distracting the reader and spoiling their immersion. Some people find it helpful to read the story out loud or use software to read it.

On the other hand, editing can give you a new overall perspective on the story. You might find that it’s only in the editing process that you realise what ideas tie the story together, what its real theme and tone are. Suddenly you might realise that the novel is about forgiveness, or family, or some other greater concept. That realisation can inform the rest of the edit and help tie the novel together, enabling you to bring out the best of it.

Keyboard by Carlos Hernandez (detail)Different things work for different people, and I’m not saying that you should do it like this, but I will always do at least two thorough and complete read-throughs of a story, and often will do additional editing on bits that feel weak. I try to read the text carefully, often out loud, so I see what’s actually there and not what I wish was there. And I try to be honest about what’s good and what isn’t. It’s not enough for it to just get by – it has to work.

And then, at long last, there comes a point where you’ve done all the editing you can. No book will ever be perfect – for a writer, that’s sometimes quite a difficult fact to acknowledge. It’s often hard to recognise, and accept, the point where the edits you’re making are just cosmetic, and you might undo tomorrow the changes that you’ve made today. Then it’s time for the next step – whatever that may be!

Title image by Carlos Hernandez.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard Marpole says:

    Very helpful article. Thanks for this!

  2. I’m going to have to keep all this in mind when I start writing the 1st draft of my upcoming novel. Thank Toby for the informative article! 🙂

  3. TJ Marquis says:

    I’ve taken to compiling my drafts into epubs, then having Google Books read them aloud to me when I drive or ride or whatever. It’s not as pretty as having a human read it, but I’ve actually noticed spots where the lack of proper inflection or just flat reading helps the good parts to stand out. In other words, if the robot voice says something and it’s still appealing, I know that thing works.

    Great article, thanks!

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