Posts Tagged ‘editing’

It was the last lesson on my introductory editing course today. More reinforcement of my incompetence – we covered hanging sentences (also called dangling modifiers, at which we all giggled childishly). This is the idea that as a rule, sentences should increase in dramatic power and end on a high note, and only reined in by the full stop. So, for example, I might rewrite:

He said he loved her, then touched her cheek.

like this:

He touched her cheek, then said he loved her.

or even:

He touched her cheek, then said, ‘I love you.’

These obviously increase in power. But then you look at:

He said he loved her, then winked at his friends.

which doesn’t need any mucking about with.

Now, this all makes sense to me. But give me a piece of text (mine or someone else’s) and I just can’t pick this sort of thing out. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will…

Get to the point, Pip

Sorry, got a bit side-tracked.

We had a discussion in class about when to edit, so I started thinking about the different aspects of editing and when’s the best time to do each. These are my thoughts so far.

Before you start writing

You need to know the basic story. I think you need a reasonable handle on at least two of the four central elements of the Grand Unified Theory: theme, characters, situation, journey. If you’ve got it all straight, so much the better, but if not it will emerge as you write your first draft.

How does this relate to editing? Well, if you come up with the seeds for a story and you decide it isn’t worth starting to write it, or you want to think it over some more, you’re editing.

While you’re writing the first draft

At this point it’s most important to get the words out as quickly as possible so you can see what shape the piece is taking and firm up your central elements in your own mind. You’ll come to understand the story (i.e. the whole world of the piece), and the boundaries of the plot (the part of the story the piece tells) will become clear.

I know people differ in their ability to splurge words onto the page without ongoing editing, but the secret is to do as little editing as is possible for you. Get to the end of the first draft as soon as you can.

After completing the first draft

This is where you need to check back that your four elements of theme, characters, situation and journey are represented as effectively as possible.

Are the scenes and/or paragraphs in the right order? Are some of them extraneous, or could you do with adding some? A couple of well-known maxims are to cut the first paragraph (chapter) or two from a short story (novel); and to identify the most powerful sentence in the piece and move it to the beginning. You can also get quite radical in moving chunks of text around to see what works best.

Other things to look at are variety of pace, checking the voice(s) and tense(s) used are consistent and/or appropriate throughout, and verifying your narrative distance (which person are you writing in? are you writing from an omniscient point of view?). Browne and King (reviewed in yesterday’s post) cover this sort of thing very well.

Once the overall structure is right

Now you start the donkey work. You need to go through the whole piece in detail, sentence by sentence, word by word, and make sure every single part of it is as powerful and effective as you can make it. Again, Browne and King will help.

Make sure you’re showing rather than telling. Use concrete objects or actions rather than abstract concepts. Put in enough detail to allow the reader to feel connected to the story. Make sure dialogue is believable and essential to the plot or character development. Check for clumsy syntax, repetition, hanging sentences, repetition, ambiguity, repetition…

Once the overall syntax is right

This is when you run the spell checker and grammar checker (if you like such things – personally I loathe them), do a detailed proof-reading and get other people to do the same, make sure you’re happy with the layout, check punctuation… My good friend Steph calls this ‘Lynne Trussing’.

Now is a good time to get someone to read the piece aloud to you. Does it sound right? Did they stumble over any phrasing or words? What do they think of the piece?

Then put it away

Take the piece and put it in solitary confinement for at least a few days. It’s best if you do this at regular points during the process, but it’s vitally important to do it now. Coming back to it with a fresh mind will enable you to spot problems you were too close to see before. Then read it through and see what you think. Hopefully you’ll be astounded by your brilliance.


I had a really profound summation lurking in my head… but it seems to have emerged via my ridiculously snotty nose (hay fever, or something) and is now encased in a sodden tissue in my overflowing waste bin. Sorry about that! Maybe tomorrow… got to go to class now.

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No-one is entirely sure who first said that editing is all about ‘murdering your darlings’, but the phrase is still used frequently, probably because it is so apt.

Chekhov’s Gun

Particularly for short stories and poems (but this does also apply to novels and plays etc), every single word must be relevant to the story or image the piece is trying to capture. So, as Chekhov said (in the context of plays):

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.

Another way I’ve been told to look at it is as if each word costs a certain amount of money, and everyone knows authors have to be careful with cash…

There are many ways a word can earn its place:

  • Advancing the plot.
  • Setting the scene.
  • Demonstrating some aspect of character.
  • Creating a realistic image for the reader.
  • Foreshadowing an event yet to come.
  • …and doubtless many more…

and thus many grey areas. Who is to say whether the wart on Mrs Green’s nose is important? or the particular features of the bird chirping outside the window as Mr Carter is murdered?

Murdering your darlings

An author with their ‘writing head’ on (as opposed to their ‘editing head’) is probably not the best person to evaluate the worth of a word or phrase in the context of the whole piece. We’ve all written wonderfully evocative descriptions of irrelevant objects, and been unable to remove them from the text because they are so beautiful. But with an ‘editing head’ we would probably admit, if pushed, that the piece would be stronger without that particular sentence or paragraph.

Problem is, if you’re self-editing, it’s very hard to wield the blue pencil and excise the gorgeous gems, no matter how much their presence may get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of your work.

Being ruthless

A technique one of my teachers used to great effect on one of my stories last week may well be the answer. He took a 600 word story and chopped out every single word that wasn’t absolutely core to the story, cutting it down to less than 300 words. My job now is to look at each word with a line through it and evaluate whether it really needs to go back in.

So for example, this is the opening section before the cut:

I can see babies in transparent plastic boxes.
Where am I? And what the hell am I doing here?
God, my head hurts. Why is there so much noise? Can’t they keep it down a bit?
‘Hey, excuse me?’ My throat feels like I’ve been swallowing pine cones. ‘Do you think you could shove a dummy in its mouth or something?’
I guess not. Some people have no consideration. My head’s thumping and whatever I ate last night wants to make a reappearance. I hope it wasn’t really pine cones.
At least I’m lying down. I wish this bed was softer though.
Oh. I’m on the floor.
I start to retch. Someone thrusts a couple of upside down oatmeal hats at me. I fill both and hand them back to a blurry woman with dark skin and a blue dress.

and after the cut:

I see babies in boxes.
God, my head hurts. Can’t they keep it down?
‘Hey, excuse me? Do you think you could shove a dummy in its mouth?’
Some people have no consideration. Whatever I ate last night wants to make a reappearance. I hope it wasn’t pine cones.
At least I’m lying down.
Someone thrusts a couple of upside down oatmeal hats at me. I fill both and hand them back.

I would argue that too much has been cut out, for example it’s really not clear that the protagonist has puked… but that’s something I can think about. Could I say it more succinctly than my first effort? Is it relevant that I hand the cardboard containers back to ‘a blurry woman with a dark skin and a blue dress’? Or can I leave that out?

A matter of style

The teacher who carried out this butchery is a self-confessed fan of extremely terse writing. He maintains that it’s stronger and has more impact. I’m still developing my opinions on this aspect of writing style… for example I loved Chekhov’s A Nervous Breakdown, which is not terse by any means – but that was the style a century ago. Ironically, the self-same teacher introduced me to this story.

Anyway, it’s an idea to play with, and certainly an editing technique worth trying.

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