Polishing the Pebble: Editing

Call me masochistic, call me an oddball, but I love editing. Perhaps it’s my long-missed vocation as a substitute English teacher talking, but if I can’t look at a piece of raw writing and make it better then I might as well take up watercolours or piano.

This is where the art of writing really begins for me. Due to the aforementioned masochistic streak, I keep all of my drafts upstairs in a filing cabinet. Just occasionally I’ll dig out the first draft of a piece like ‘Tagged’ and, once I’ve finished shuddering at the raw product, I’ll marvel at just how much it has changed from its original form. For me, a first draft is a chunk of stone hewn from a rockface. When editing, it’s time to park the plant equipment and bring out the hand chisel. Here are a few tips that I’ve found useful when adapting my first draft…

  1. Work from hard copy

This is more of a personal preference for me, but I find that editing on paper is a lot more effective. As you’ll see from the copious number of red pens I keep in my bureau below, I am something of a traditionalist. My drafts are littered with angry red sentences, arrows, and cross-hatching if things have got really bad. I like the illusion of making a change to something, and this illusion is lost if I’m working on Microsoft Word. Also, editing is subjective. By the time I get around to typing out my changes, I may have decided that the original version is better. It helps me to have a paper copy on my desk and an electronic copy up on the laptop.

Desk Pic

  1. Read it out loud

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this piece of writing advice, but it bears repeating. What you are writing is a piece of performance art. It will be played out and acted inside the heads of your reader. As such, submitting before a verbal read through is like opening the first night of a play without any rehearsals. There will be grammar issues. There will be rhythmical problems. Your dialogue will sound clunky and forced in places. Some of these issues will only become apparent when you hear your own work spoken back to you, so no matter how ridiculous you think you sound, read your story to yourself, and read it to entertain yourself.

  1. Change your proof reader

My wife reads everything I write. She is my most valued sounding board, and even if she wasn’t, it’s what she signed up for when she wrote her name in that marriage register. That familiarity with my writing has advantages (she certainly doesn’t pull punches) but a regular proof reader runs the risk of knowing what you want to write without you writing it. Therein lies the value of changing your proof reader. Before publishing or submitting, a reader needs to be sure that their writing is accessible to everyone. Have this reader perform your work back to you. If they stumble over passages, either you’ve chosen your proof reader very poorly, or you need to edit a passage.

  1. Know when to stop

Every writer has that one piece that they just can’t get quite right. It’s tempting to continue to edit ad infinitum, but it is important to remember that we are editing to improve a piece as much as we can before submitting. By all means play, fix, disassemble, rework, let it breathe, but as a rule, if you are changing things and then changing them back again, you are pretty much there. Ping it off to a few magazines. Odds are that if it’s close but not quite right, they’ll let you know what it needs.

  1. If in doubt, cut it out

Vonnegut suggests, ‘If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.’ First drafts are flabby, paunchy, overweight beasts. As a rule, I always try and cut more than twenty percent when editing. Your goal should be to tell your story, in all its glory, in as few words as humanly possible. This is particularly relevant during the current glut of writing online, much of it excellent. If I’m flicking through WordPress before going to sleep of a night, I’ll likely skip past a 4,000-word behemoth and go to a piece of flash that will see me off nicely. Be brutal. If a piece of writing, even a beautiful piece, doesn’t progress your narrative, bin it. See what I did there?

***Thanks for reading. As always, comments are welcome. Previous instalments in my writing advice series are available below***

Igloos in the Tundra – Idea Formation

A Skeleton to Flesh Out – Pre-planning

Exploration and Sterilisation – Research

Storytelling on the Bus – Planning

Getting Toothpaste out of the Tube – Writing a First Draft

9 thoughts on “Polishing the Pebble: Editing

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