I recently finished a manuscript, which means I’m currently waist-deep in editing and wading in deeper. In that vein, let me share some things I learned from editing prose over the years.
#1 Don’t skimp on editing
When you finish a story, paper, or report, you’re probably ecstatic that you’re finally done. Savor that moment, let it fill you with joy, but don’t think you’re actually done.
Polishing is an important part of whatever project you’re engaged in. In the case of writing, the first step of editing is to do a second pass through your work. You can remove typos, add those words you forgot to write, and correct those sentences that sounded good but turn out to be gibberish now.
I’m currently working on that second pass of my new manuscript. After that, I’m taking a break to get some distance from my work, then I’m going for pass three, and then a fourth on an e-reader.
#2 Learn to enjoy cutting
When I was a beginning writer, I used to be afraid that my story would end up ‘too short’. I wanted to write an epic fantasy novel, and my idea of writing a novel was to write a whole lot of plot, a whole lot of description, and anything I could think of that the character might think. In writing, quantity is not quality, though, and I cringe when I read some of it back now.
Then I learned to edit. I started to remove things that were irrelevant to the plot and the character arc. Instead of long boring descriptions I started to strive for colorful snippets of detail. These days I try to cut out the bad parts to get a better story, and that’s quite liberating.
It’s like pruning a rose bush in your garden — which I do every year, incidentally. You shouldn’t be afraid to cut off parts, because when summer rolls around the bush will actually be better for it. The same applies to other things. The trick is to cut the bad parts so only the good core remains.
#3 Trust your feelings of unease
Editing your work can make it better, but that does require you to actually edit it in the right way. You need to know what to cut, what to keep, and what to improve. How to do that?
The first step is to read a lot of similar works to what you write. Some beginning writers think this will poison their originality, but that’s rubbish. You need to learn what’s good, so you know when something isn’t. This applies to novels, but also to scientific writing, or even those reports you have to write at work.
If you’ve absorbed enough, then you will start to recognize problems in your own work. If you re-read your own work and you think ‘this is boring’, or ‘this sounds wrong’, then you’re probably right.
I used to think that I might find something boring, but I’d been working on it for a long time and knew how it would end, so for another person it would be fresh and new, right? Wrong. If you re-read a good book, it’s still good. If you’re own work isn’t good when you re-read it, then it probably needs editing.
#4 Distrust your feelings of pride
Trusting your feelings of unease is all well and good, but you can also be too happy with parts of your writings. The advice you often hear is ‘kill your darlings’, but I feel that lacks nuance.
The problem is that if you’re too infatuated with a part of your writing, you might overlook its flaws. Instead of thoroughly editing it, you might just skim through it. The end result is that the parts you loved so much turn out to be the weakest in your work.
So, distrust yourself when you love part of your writing. Go that extra mile in editing it. And yes, you might need to ‘kill’ that darling, but on the other hand, you don’t want to kill the part of your work that you’re in love with. You should make it better, is all.
#5 Use a different medium
As I wrote above, I usually put my work in e-book form and read through it. Before the rise of the e-book, I used to print it. This might seem like a waste of time (and possibly paper), but it really isn’t.
By shifting the work out of your workspace to somewhere different, you’ll have a different vantage point. This will give you a fresh look on your work and I always find different problems when I read through my work this way.
Another trick is to read your work aloud, or even use text-to-speech software to convert the text to an audio file. Scrivener for Mac has this feature built in, actually.