Editing Prose

August 9, 2017

There’s a flow to writing fiction. When it’s going well, your imagination transfers smoothly from the right side of your brain through your fingers to the page. You’d be daft to interfere with that creative momentum by overthinking. But they’ll be mistakes and omissions. At some stage, you will have to engage the left side of your brain to put those right. That’s editing.


Editors can help but you won’t be getting one if your work is poorly presented. Why would they bother if you haven’t?  And anyway, a great deal of editing is about subjective choices only you, the author, can make. The first edits are down to you.


There’s more to it than deleting words and correcting spelling and punctuation. Editing is about adding as well as subtracting. Adding exposition for instance to make sense of the narrative and/or adding action if it seems flat. Modification too, to improve those subsequent drafts with a better word or phrase or metaphor, etc.


And then there’s detail. Detail draws readers into the world of your novel—or alienates them. To fill it to believability you should have done research, maybe on idioms, maybe on the technicalities of the professions of your characters, and certainly on setting. It’s unlikely all will emerge naturally in your creative burst. Add it at the edit.


For a story set in the past, period detail is particularly important, especially around certain dates. Double check at the edit stage that you’ve not missed something critical. Imagine, for instance, you’ve set a love story between a fireman and office worker in New York, in the Autumn of 2001. Romantic falling leaves and all that. But what about the Twin Towers attack, or at least its impact on your characters? If it doesn’t include that, you’ve lost believability and your reader. If you don’t want it in, editing could mean resetting the date to 2000 or changing to a different city.


Sometimes it’s not knowing the detail that’s important. Imagine your narrator/point of view is the fireman’s and he tells us what his girlfriend’s thinking (how???). As a writer, it’s an easy mistake to make because you know what the girlfriend’s thinking—but it’s impossible for the fireman. Here, editing might mean deleting the passage and adding dialogue (the girl telling the fireman her thoughts) or changing the narrator to some amorphous all-knowing other.


To make it easier, keep detailed notes about every aspect of the novel: its settings (time and place), all the information you’ve gathered from research, its themes, its characters and their characteristics, and so on. Then, if for instance your character gives birth, you can easily check back to when they had that love scene to make sure the date’s credible.


Show don’t tell is a writers’ mantra but, on early drafts, ‘tell’ tends to creep in (it’s easy and quick). Edit it out. Replace it with reactions and feelings. A ‘tut’, a raised eyebrow, a 'tightening in the stomach gripped…' is far better than ‘A was annoyed, frightening B’.


It’s common to overwrite, so there will be deleting, too. Figurative language, metaphor and adjectives can be overdone or overripe. Exposition can go too far, leaving the reader too sure what will happen next. If in doubt, delete, modify or amend.


Dialogue is another area for serious editing. It should not try to copy how we really speak (long-winded and disjointed, normally). Keep it sharp. Keep it active. Keep it short. Sol Stein, an expert on editing, suggests no more than three sentences before another speaker or the narrator intervenes. If you’ve written a long piece of dialogue and can’t shorten it, break it up by an interruption, or possibly by the narrator describing a change in the speakers expression.


You may also need to edit dialogue to keep it in character or to define characters more clearly. With good writing, you hardly need telling which character is saying what. The way they say it will be enough. Some will fucking swear, some won’t. Some will short’n their words and some will call people mate or luv, or daaarling. That has to be consistent, and it won’t be on the first drafts.


I can’t stress the importance of editing enough. There’s magic in good prose fiction that suspends disbelief in the reader and keeps them reading. Mistakes in punctuation, in spelling, in grammar and in the other areas we’ve discussed, put readers off. Clichés put readers off. They destroy the magic. Edit them out.


But don’t discard those amended drafts. Putting aside technical errors, editorial choices are, as I’ve said, subjective.  You might change your mind on certain passages, phrases, chapters and metaphors that you deleted or modified. Saving all your drafts gives you the option of putting them back in.


Now, if you're thinking this post would benefit from further editing, you could be right, but I've been looking after my grandkids all week and I’m already late with it - and I have other stuff to do. That’s another thing about editing, you have to say enough at some point. Enough!



Book review/recommendation: Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein.


You can write a whole book on editing. In fact, Sol Stein, a man who’s edited for many successful writers, has. If you’re serious about writing, I’d recommend it. And don’t worry, it’s not dry. He’s a good writer who knows how to engage a reader.




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