An Overview: Editing Your Fiction, by L

I pride myself on being a great editor. I am not ashamed to say that I am an absolute perfectionist when it comes to proofreading/copyediting, particularly my own work. Many pages have died by drowning in red ink or graphite, or the swift, final stroke of the ‘Backspace’ key.

Most of this happens simultaneously with the creating, to where I hardly notice I’m doing it. I edit as I go – we all do, to a certain extent. Given encouragement and ‘tips and tricks’, these skills can easily be refined to serve us well not just with fiction, but any piece of writing, from a quick email to a prospective employer to a note left for our spouse, to an evaluative report for that project at work or a personal journal entry.

I do it because I am a creature of pride. I think errors in my writing reflect badly on me as a person. I am afraid people will think I’m an idiot if they see a misspelling or consistenency error, or a slob if they can’t tell where my sentences end or find one space too many. But mostly, I do it because I am obsessed – as any love has a degree of obsession – with my writing being the best it can possibly be.

I’ll probably go into more detail later on specific aspects of self-editing, but I thought it’d be a good idea to pass on twelve things that help me, and that have helped others when they’ve asked me to look at something. They encompass common-sense areas to check in-text, out-of-text management hints, and areas I frequently pick up on in others’ writing, and I hope you find them to be a good starting place.

  1. Do yourself a favor and first check your spelling, grammar, punctuation (including paragraphing) and consistency. This will make it a lot easier to find the more subtle errors rather than the amateur errors, both for you and your writing group. Make it easy to read!
  2. Double- or half-point –space your work so you have room to edit, and PRINT IT OUT. You’d be surprised what you can miss on the screen, but catch on paper.
  3. Keep your old drafts. Make back-ups.
  4. Don’t be afraid to keep notes, particularly with prose and script. This is not a sign of a bad memory. Having a plot, character and world database helps you keep and check consistency.
  5. Read it aloud. This will help you recognize how a sentence could be structured more smoothly, and whether your pace (punctuation) is appropriate.
  6. Ask yourself: ‘has this been done before?’ of your plot/narrative choices, images, setting, characters, everything. Everything has in some way been written before, but you can still present it in a different way. Often, your first choice was not the best. Don’t be afraid to shake things up three quarters of the way through, just make sure you go back and edit!
  7. Dialogue: you should be able to tell pretty well by the dialogue who is speaking. This way, you can avoid a monotonous landslide of ‘he said’ ‘she said’.
  8. READ WIDELY. Consider it research. You need to find out what’s come before you and where you may fit in. Not to mention it could give you some inspiration and show you what does and doesn’t work.
  9. SHOW IT TO OTHER PEOPLE. You can start out small, with someone close to you who can just give you encouragement and get you used to sharing, but eventually, you’re going to need someone to give you honest criticism. Ideally someone who knows a little about what you’re writing (tempered with someone else who doesn’t!).
  10. If you feel like you’ve reached a road block, put the thing away and leave it alone for a while. When you’re ready and can come back to it with renewed vigor and a fresh perspective, carry on. This could be a couple of hours, it could be a couple of months, it could be a couple of years. The work takes as long as it needs to.
  11. Every sentence, every word, MUST contribute in some way. Take out anything that doesn’t. Sometimes, we feel the need to ‘write our way in’ to a scene, or round it up. Don’t be afraid to jump in or end the scene early.
  12. Don’t edit forever. Be willing, at some stage, to let it go and release it to the world. 🙂

I hope you’ve found these useful! What common stumbling blocks do you encounter with your own work, when you read it back?


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