Shauna Bickley

The Joys of Editing

Posted on Wednesday 27th January 2016 by Shauna Bickley

When I first starting writing seriously, I often wondered if I had what it took to complete a novel. What I was really asking was could I complete the first draft of a novel? Anyone who has written and published knows that finishing the first draft, while a huge accomplishment, is far from being the end of the task.

Writing the first draft of a novel is an exhilarating experience. By the time I start writing, I’ve usually had the characters in the back of my mind for some time and so I know them well. Most times, I know where I’m headed and have the end worked out. The journey between is the magical part—waking up with an idea for a new scene, or vague ideas suddenly coming together to point you in another direction.

Editing is a very different process and uses a more analytical part of the brain. It often feels like a journey with a seemingly endless road around every corner. As I’ve written each novel, I’ve honed and tweaked my editing process, learning from each previous experience.

Once the first draft is complete, I read and edit for structure—the big picture type things. Does the story/plot hold together? Do the main characters grow and change through the novel? Are those changes realistic? Do things happen when they’re supposed to? Some first drafts are fairly well formed and don’t need heaps of scene changes and moves, but others feel like jigsaw puzzles where you move the pieces around lots of times until you find where the piece fits.

Then we come to the hard bits, or at least that’s how it often feels for me.

  • Checking out my over-used words and phrases and getting rid of them. Everyone in my first draft smiles a lot and raises their eyebrows—often at the same time!
  • Deleting weak words that might plump up the word count but do nothing to enhance the writing—just, really, almost, about, appear, seem, nearly, sometimes, occasionally, many—you get the idea.
  • Delete clichés or rework them to sound fresh and new.
  • Delete most adjectives and adverbs.
  • Look for the ‘to be’ verbs which are a red flag for passive writing. For example: is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, being, been and be. I’m not saying you have to get rid of all of these, but look carefully and see if you can rewrite in a less passive way.
  • Check filter words such as wondered, realised, decided, noticed, thought. As a reader it’s much better to be in the character’s head discovering things alongside them. When you use these filter words, it pushes the reader away and creates a barrier between them and the character. Some of these can also be a warning that you’re telling the reader stuff rather than showing. Again, it’s not a total no-no, but something to check and make sure you’re not doing all the time.
  • Setting and Description—is it enough to orient reader without slowing the pace?
  • Am I using all the senses?
  • Is there a relevant reaction to BIG news?
  • Get rid of large chunks of back story. It isn’t needed.
  • Does the character description show personality and character and not just their physical appearance?

Phew!

Obviously what you choose to do for your book will depend on the story you’re telling and the style you’re using.

On one of my editing passes through a manuscript, I work on chapters out of order so I can concentrate on the word and sentence elements without getting caught up in the flow of the novel as a whole. I find this works well for the majority of the items above.

Editing isn’t a walk in the park (delete all clichés), but done well it can turn a ho-hum first draft into a page-turning novel. And it isn’t all serious work—I came across this sentence while I was editing:

‘It was stupid of me to rush in like that rather than waiting for the next life.’

Wow, that certainly sounds profound. Perhaps a Freudian slip on my part!

By the way, the word should have been lift, not life. Much more prosaic.

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