Editing: Where to start

I was about to start editing a colleague’s work recently and it set me thinking about what I look for when I’m editing my own work. I made a list but I know there’s so much more and as a friend said ‘but rules are made to be broken’. That’s true but you need to know what the rules are before you break them.

So, if I was telling myself three years ago how to edit what would I say?

Firstly, read ‘Self-editing for fiction writers’ by Browne and King, ‘Revision and self-editing’ by Bell and ‘Solutions for writers’ by Stein. I think these give a good start to ideas about editing your own work. I’ve read them all three times each over a few years, each reading reinforces ideas, writing gets stronger.

Secondly, write, write, and write. Through writing, we start to incorporate the ‘rules’ and also develop an awareness of when to break some of the rules to create the effect we need.

Thirdly, consider some of these key ideas when editing fiction:

1. Repetition
Words that are used too many times in the same sentence or paragraphs or throughout a section. Think of other ways to show it unless there is no other way and the repetition is deliberate.
e.g. He carried…then she carried another bag…they carried the pots…

2. Cliché phrases
Similes and metaphors that we know are familiar, have heard before. Try to think of a unique way of describing something.
e.g. the sky was blue – try – It was sunny out, a blessed relief following the dull days but a cold night put a layer of ice over the car windows. Jack dashed at it with the scraper. He was going to be late.

3. Excessive words
Words, which if they are cut out of a sentence, don’t diminish its meaning.
e.g. clearly, just, very, now, then,
e.g. he was clearly excited – try – he was excited – or even better, show his excitement – he jumped out of his chair.

4. Linking words
These words, when used, mean that you may need to rearrange sentences to show preceding actions or information before this sentence i.e. if events are in sequence these words are not needed.
e.g. which, that, as,

5. Active versus Passive
Avoid use of ‘had’ unless going into the past of the past. If you get a ‘had had’, find out why and is it really necessary.

6. –ing
Consider use of the definite form e.g. ‘held’ versus ‘was holding’.
-ing is an action in continuous/indefinite form. –ed is the definite form.
Use –ing form sparingly, as needed.

7. Show not tell.
Avoid telling the reader how someone feels, try to show it.
e.g. he said, amazed – try – He said, taking a step back.
Use an action description that shows the emotion.

8. Dialogue tags
If the dialogue is working, then ‘he said/she said’ is all that is needed. The reader skims over these words, using anything else and the reader has to slow down. The reader wants to read the dialogue, not the dialogue tags.

Try to use volume descriptions of said, if needed, e.g. she shouted, screamed, whispered.
It is not necessary to use the dialogue tag to describe what is happening in the dialogue if the dialogue shows it (this is repetitive and superfluous)
e.g. ‘he rejoiced’ when his dialogue shows this already.
e.g. ‘You are right,’ he agreed. Repetition.

Also, don’t combine actions with dialogue tags i.e. you can’t laugh and speak full sentences at the same time. Separate action from speech.
e.g. He laughed. ‘All I can say…’ not He laughed, ‘All I can say…’
‘We’ll go there…’ He pointed to the pub.

Use speaker with tags consistently e.g. he said/she said versus said he/said she. The latter is old fashioned. Whichever way you decide, be consistent.

9. Naming characters
Avoid giving characters similar sounding names, names that start with the same letter or sound e.g. Jim, Jack, John, and Janice met in at the restaurant.

10. Eliminate all trace of the author’s voice, unless author is narrator.
Everything in the work is from the Point of View of the characters (single or multiple), what they say, how they behave, what they see and sense.

Dialogue should sound like your character (time, place, age) not the author.
Also, vary speech – most people don’t speak in really long sentences.
Note: Phonetic dialogue is not always necessary though, can be done subtly.

11. Sentence variety.
Vary sentence length and type. Short sentences speed up the action. Long sentences slow it down.

12. Paragraph length.
Big blocks of writing and the reader usually skims what is in the paragraph. Vary paragraph lengths with the pace you want for the reader. Use dialogue to break monotony of long paragraphs, if relevant.

13. Details
Use concrete and specific details (telling detail) instead of the general.
e.g. the garden was bountiful – try describing – rows of peas, beans and mounds of potato plants. An example of ‘show’ versus ‘tell’.

Weave in details through the scene, if possible. Avoid a massive paragraph of description at the start of every scene (one or two scenes may be unavoidable but not every single one, surely)

14. Plot.
How the story unfolds and keeps the reader interested. Does anything feels forced, out of place, take the reader out of the dream?

So this was my list. But I defer to the three books I named above as describing the things to look for when editing your own or another writer’s work; they give excellent examples, way better than mine.
When editing, you want to retain the writer’s voice in the material not re-write it completely the way you would have written it or described it.

To finish, a dip into Strunk and White’s ‘The elements of style’, or any book on grammar, occasionally, to keep the basics in check.

Rules are made to be broken and that applies to everything in this article but I think when you’re starting to edit your own work, or others, the ideas above would be worthwhile considering.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Editing: Where to start

  1. Some great tips. Funny enough, I love editing. I can feel the writing come alive as it becomes more polished and refined. I’ve just finished editing my final draft – an extremely fulfilling stage. And I agree, rules are made to be broken but there are some that should always be followed, like ‘avoiding cliches’. Thanks again

    • Thanks and yes, no cliches, totally. One rule to avoid breaking unless you have a character who speaks in cliches but again, be subtle. The best stage is the final draft stage, the final read through, real satisfaction when you find things are working well and you get caught up in your own story as a reader.

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