Whether you’re writing a family history, a journal essay, a cookbook, or the Great American Novel, editing looms as perhaps the most essential and difficult part of the process. I’m in the midst of editing two manuscripts. I don’t recommend it. On the other hand, it spurred some reflection regarding the task. I’ve edited grants and documents (in my previous life as an educator), personal family stories, genealogies for extended family, my blog, and two fiction novels. I’ve tackled each with varying degrees of intensity and understanding, and I’m getting better. Here are my thoughts so far, built on trial and a lot of error.
- Plan your work. Oh no, it’s the old debate about whether to write seat of your pants or from an outlined. Of course, some free spirited innovation, some inspiration from the ethers, is essential. But, while you might not want a hyper-detailed outline of your impending project, do block out the task just a Detours occur, but your work will appreciate the planning.
- Edit as you go. However you divide your writing task (by scene, section, generation, recipe), take time to read it through out loud. If you are lucky enough, like me, to have a small group of like-minded souls with whom you feel safe, read it to them. Take everything they say home with you, reflect on their input, and edit your work (or not, but get humble or you’ll toss out feedback when you shouldn’t.)
- When you finish the project, reread the whole thing for continuity, consistency, accuracy, rhythm and flow. For a longer piece, you might want to do this at the halfway mark or some other point along the way. You may opt to read it more than once and concentrate on one or two items at a time.
- Continuity–Does the piece move naturally from one point, scene, conclusion, plot point to the next? Does it make sense? Are descriptions or scenes with multiple people, places, or actions confusing? Are the pronouns clearly pointing to the right person, place or thing? Are there holes in the story or research?
- Consistency– Is the narration in each scene consistently present or past tense? Is each scene from a single point of view, with no head hopping? Is it the best point of view? Are all dates, people, places consistent? (For example: Is it Andy or Andrew or both? Is his hair always brown? Is the date 1 May 1850 or May 1, 1850? Do you turn right to the hospital one moment and left the next.)
- Accuracy–If it is a research paper, can you reference every claim? If writing a cookbook, then is it a teaspoon or a tablespoon? It makes a big difference in a recipe; trust me. In fiction, is the world you create accurate? (For example: Is the moon rising at the right time of night, or day, for its phase? Does the plant you reference bloom at that time of year?)
- Rhythm and flow–Does each sentence sound sweet to the ear. Could a change in word choice improve the flow, sweeten the alliteration, or emphasize the mood? Could combining or separating out sentences vary pace? Writing is like music. It should have a cadence appropriate to the task. And the most essential part, the point of your sentence, paragraph, or piece, should crescendo. Does your sentence culminate in the key phrase? Does your paragraph conclude with the key point? Does your last paragraph (or chapter) reiterate your main idea, your theme?
- Read it again, focusing on details, not content. Even during your first edit, you will find errors unrelated to your focus. Fix the problem and write it down. Chances are if you fixed it once, you missed it five times over. Every writer has their personal flaws, writing traps they fall into with regularity. Mine is the over use of “…ing” words. Add your own writing traps to this list.
- Punctuation consistency– Commas in a series, commas in dialogue, commas in general…ugh! Have a good reference in reach, and good luck.
- Word repetition or overuse– Fix some of it as you go, especially if you see “smile” three times in the same paragraph–a flow problem. But along the way, you might sense an overuse of “eat.” Write the word down. Now is the time to use the “find” feature on your writing program and go on a word hunt. (Hint: If the find feature is pulling up the word inside words, put a space before and after the search word. Problem eliminated.)
- Weak word choice Do you use wishy-washy words? These, among others: sort of, really, almost, might. Be direct without losing your voice. Look for them; send them packing. (Not: You might look for them and maybe send them packing.)
- Homophones–You would think it a no brainer, but when I go on a writing terror, just trying to get the words on the page, I slip–often. No one is immune too it. (That was a joke.) Same thing with “can not” or “cannot” and possessives.
- Now you are ready to hand your treasure to your Beta-readers. Choose two or three people to trust with your fragile ego. (Face it; it’s fragile.) Give up your work to them; ask them to give input, to expose your flaws. Be open, be humble, and be ready. When they’re done, wait a while, nurse your wounds, then return to step 3, and go at it again. This time make sure you read it out loud. (Hint: Use the “Bookmark” feature to keep track of where you are in your editing.)
- Know when to say when. If you feel like you rearranged the furniture, and then just put it back again, stop. You are done. Perfect isn’t realistic, is it? Hum…I might just take THAT advise to heart.
What are your “traps,” and how do you handle your editing? Let me know. I’m dying too here from you.